Can the Cavaliers Win Without Love?

Kevin Love didn’t fit perfectly in Cleveland this season, but he was still an important part of a possible championship run. Now that he’s been ruled out for the season, is the Cleveland dream over? 

Tucked away in our DNA there must be some sequence of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts, passed down from generation to generation, compelling us to ask, over and over again, “What if . . . ?” What if we walked on two legs instead of four? What if the Earth isn’t the center of the universe? What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four? The question is the source of our greatest discoveries, inventions, and fictions. But not every “what if” is so productive. Some do nothing but torment us, turn us away from the present to replay the past over and over again. For example, what if Chicago didn’t lose Derrick Rose in 2012? What if Oklahoma City didn’t lose Russell Westbrook in 2013? What if San Antonio didn’t lose the air conditioning in 2014?

Soon, we may have yet another “what if” to torture us for the foreseeable future: what if Cleveland didn’t lose Kevin Love in 2015? Well before Love’s season officially ended following Cleveland’s first-round series victory over the Celtics, the speculation about his future had already begun, and it only escalated during Cleveland’s week off. The Cavs’ season was over. The Cavs’ season wasn’t over. Kevin Love was heading to Los Angeles. Kevin Love was staying in Cleveland. Of course, none of this was new for the Cavaliers. They went under the microscope the moment James announced his homecoming, and they stayed under it as concerns regarding Kevin Love’s fit echoed throughout the regular season.

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The Cavs seemed determined to put these questions to rest in Game 3 against the Celtics, in which they finally found the rhythm they’d been searching for all season. And though they were facing a much weaker Celtics team, for the first quarter of Game 4, right up until Love ran off the court clutching his shoulder, we had our best glimpse yet of what a Cleveland team firing on all cylinders might look like. Now, as the Cavs prepare for tonight’s Game 1 against the Bulls (who are coming off a big victory and can’t be pleased about being the underdog against an undermanned rival), we have no idea what kind of Cavs team we’ll see.

Love played more minutes this season than any other Cavalier except Kyrie Irving, and though his numbers were down from last year, not many players can be counted on for 16 points and 10 rebounds every game, even without two stars ahead of them. Add to this J.R. Smith’s suspension and the Cavs will be heading into the second round without two of their top four scorers. This will require the top-heavy Cavs to dip into their bench and rely on aging players like Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, and Kendrick Perkins, who combined for only seven minutes against the Celtics, as well as the streaky Iman Shumpert, to make shots and provide space for James and Irving to do what they do.

At the other end of the court, James will likely be forced to take over some of Love’s defensive duties. This could actually be an improvement in some ways, but it also limits James’s ability to step up and guard a player like Derrick Rose, who, despite inconsistency in Round 1, is always capable of getting hot. In addition, the effort required to guard bigger players, a task James takes on begrudgingly, could affect his performance on the offensive end throughout the series and potentially beyond, especially if the upcoming series begin stretching all the way to seven games.

This isn’t totally unfamiliar territory for James, whose Heat lost Chris Bosh, another floor-spacing big, to an abdominal strain in Game 1 of the semifinals in 2012. But Bosh would eventually return to help his team win the Finals. Love will not. Whether or not James and Irving can do what James and Wade did in 2012, don their capes and take their team to the Finals largely by themselves, remains to be seen. The Bulls took their time dispatching the Bucks, but after being eliminated three times by James in recent years, they certainly won’t be looking to do him any favors. And if the Cavs lose, and Love leaves, a loose ball and a dislocated shoulder could lead to a perennial “what if” for Cleveland and its fans.

Even if the Cavs are able to pull it off, the potential for a Cleveland dynasty is greatly diminished without Love, who will be free to opt out of his second year this summer. Though the Cavs can exceed the salary cap to keep him (with a potential $2 million raise), they cannot spend that money to sign new players. And with Andrew Wiggins claiming Rookie of the Year honors, Cleveland will no doubt be motivated to see a return on its investment next year. But would Love, who has already seemed frustrated at times, be happy as a third wheel on a team that didn’t need him to win a championship — when he could leave for Los Angeles, where, with Kobe Bryant on his way out, Love would return to the spotlight and take James’s place as the centerpiece of a rebuilding team?

The Lakers won’t be the championship contenders that the Cavs will be next season, but Love has ties to Los Angeles. He was born in Santa Monica, returned to play for UCLA, and is the nephew of one of the Beach Boys, so if he has aspirations of a James-ian homecoming of his own, LA could be a good place to do it. Portland, where Love’s family lives, could also be an option if LaMarcus Aldridge decides to leave town. But writers aren’t the only people who like to ask “What if . . . ?” Players do too, and where Love lands next season may come down to how curious Love is himself. Win or lose, Cleveland’s experiment will remain untested at the end of this season. And perhaps more than a parade or a loss, the question of just how great the Cavs could become might be their best hope for keeping Love.

Photos by Benny Sieu/Getty Images