The Cleveland Cavaliers continue to shock the NBA. Stuck in their second post-LeBron James rebuild, Cleveland was supposed to struggle again this season, looking to get some good lottery bounces for another young asset. As for the last holdover from the 2016 NBA championship squad? Kevin Love was as good as gone. He was a candidate for a trade, a buyout, a flight to Tahiti, anything to get him out of the locker room. One writer referred to him as a “$60.2 million problem.”
A funny thing happened for Kevin Love on the way to oblivion. He wanted to stay with the young Cavaliers and accepted a bench role behind young bigs Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Cleveland is 1.5 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference past the season’s midpoint. Meanwhile, Love anchors a top-five second unit in terms of net rating.
The Beatles were right all those years ago, at least as far as the Cavs are concerned. All they needed was Love.
Kevin Love was awful in 2020–21
Last season, Kevin Love was the worst he’s ever been. Limited to 25 games by injuries, he averaged career lows in nearly every major category, shot only 40.9%, and had one notoriously embarrassing moment of seeming indifference.
Last summer, Love left the Team USA training camp before the Tokyo Olympics. He cited his recovery from the calf injury that slowed him throughout the season.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers were terrible — again. Since James left via free agency in 2018, Cleveland went 60–159 the next three seasons, burning through three coaches before settling on J.B. Bickerstaff.
Love was a rebounding machine and an elite stretch big at his peak. Last season, he was neither. His 7.4 rebounds per game were almost two less than his previous career-low, and he shot 36.5% from deep, a respectable number but off his career mark of 37.0%.
But last summer, Love said he wanted to stay in Cleveland. His trade value was negligible. But according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, neither was the fifth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft interested in the Cavaliers buying out the remaining two seasons and $60 million of his contract.
Both Love and Cleveland are happy he stayed.
A new season, a new role, and a revitalized Kevin Love
The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Mobley with the third pick in the draft. He’s flirting with All-Defensive honors as a rookie (almost unheard of) and, in conjunction with Allen, gives Cleveland two elite rim protectors.
When the Cavaliers acquired Lauri Markkanen from the Chicago Bulls in a sign-and-trade, it seemed as though general manager Koby Altman was phasing out Kevin Love.
Instead, the 2010–11 NBA Most Improved Player was on the verge of an extreme makeover.
The last time Love came off the bench regularly was under coach Kurt Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves in his first two seasons. But this year, Love anchors a second unit that is fifth in net rating at plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions.
Despite playing more than three fewer minutes per game, Love has upped his scoring to 14.0 points a game. He’s shot 43.2% overall and 40.5% on 6.1 deep attempts per game, the third-best mark of his career.
More importantly, the veteran is having fun. Bickerstaff asked him to take on a bench role, and Love has responded well. He told Field Level Media, via Yahoo, that it came down to trusting the organization.
“I’ve had a great relationship with J.B. since I came into this league, and he was the first coach to really believe in me in this league,” Love said. “I listen to J.B. I see eye to eye with him. And for me, it was easy to buy in when I saw how hard these guys work, how they show up to work every single day and just chase the game. I love it. It’s infectious to be around.”
Through injuries and a bout with the health and safety protocols, the Cavaliers keep moving forward. They’ve also moved up in the standings in the process.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the thick of the Eastern Conference race
With a 27–18 record after beating the Brooklyn Nets on MLK Day, the Cleveland Cavaliers are on pace for their best record since James’ final season with the club in 2017–18. They’ve already surpassed last season’s total of 22 victories and are part of a six-team scrum within 2.5 games of the top of the East.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Cleveland hasn’t seen success like this without James in a generation. The last time the Cavaliers made the playoffs without James on the roster was in 1998. How long ago was that? Shawn Kemp led the team in scoring. The Indiana Pacers eliminated Cleveland on April 30, 1998.
Mobley’s birth was more than three years away. Kevin Love? He was a little more than four months shy of his 10th birthday.
Yeah, it was that long ago.
The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are in a virtual tie for the lead in the East. Brooklyn is a half-game back. Next are the Cavaliers, 1.5 games off the pace. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are fifth, two games out of the lead, and the Philadelphia 76ers are 2.5 games back.
Cleveland’s defense leads the way. The Cavs are third in the NBA with a defensive rating of 105.0. But even without Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio —out for the year with knee injuries — the offense is a respectable 13th at 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
Their net rating of plus-5.3 is the best in the East and trails only the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz.
The Cleveland Cavaliers might be the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. But the revival of Kevin Love as an extraordinary sixth man might be the best story in the league.