On June 16, 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the 2015 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors. The following day, the Cavs had already been selected by the oddsmakers in Vegas as the favourite to win the 2016 NBA Crown – and for good reason. The Cavs are one of, if not the most, talented team in the league. Given the state of the Eastern Conference, they should have a much easier road to the Finals than any other true contender.
In that context, it’s hard to criticize the Cavs off-season strategy of trying to keep their core intact. Lebron took the Warriors to six games with the worst supporting cast to make the Finals since AI’s 2001 Sixers. Surely the addition of Uncle Drew and Mike Love’s Nephew Kevin back into the mix would be enough to make Lebron an even .500 on the League’s biggest stage.
Still, the Cavs handed K-Love a massive deal to keep him in the fold this off-season. Any team that does that has to question whether the guy is truly worth it. Maybe more importantly, they have to ask whether there might be a better way to spend that money.
The case for Love is not a weak one. His numbers dipped this year, but he has still been one of the most statistically productive players in the NBA over the past five years. Over the second half of the season, the Cavs were virtually unstoppable when Lebron, Kyrie and Love were in the lineup together. Consistency at the elite end of a roster also has value, as does the comfort and trust built over the course of an NBA season. It is difficult to argue that bringing Love back does not assure the Cavs a spot among the NBA’s 2016 title favourites.
For those reasons, there is no question that Love is worth the money the Cavs gave him. It is also certain he he would have received a max deal somewhere if the Cavs had not made the offer. The more interesting question is whether Cleveland could have better spent that money elsewhere. The answer to that question is… absolutely.
Kevin Love is an elite level player. However, because of their personnel and their style of play, the Cavaliers do not make full use of his talents. We see this partly in Love’s numbers. If we take 2012-2013 out of consideration given that Love played only 18 games that year, he averaged 26 or more points per game in his last two seasons in Minnesota and only 16 points per game this year in Cleveland. Love’s rebounding numbers, always among the best in the league, were similarly down this year, to the lowest they’ve been since his rookie year. There is value in having a 25 and 15 type of talent on a team, even if he is not putting up those numbers, but to some degree value has to be tied to actual production.
The bigger problem for Love and the Cavs is his ability to play effectively with Lebron and Uncle Drew. In Minnesota, Love got his points in two ways, shooting spot-up threes and posting up. Love does not get to use his post-up game in Cleveland. Lebron and Kyrie are options 1 and 2 in the Cavs offence. To be effective, they both need to have the ball a lot, and they cannot have two bigs in the paint taking up space they need to get to the hoop. When Love is playing with a centre like Mozgov or Varejao (which is always), he has to step out to give Lebron and Kyrie room to work. This creates an irreconcilable Catch-22 in the Cavs’ offence. Love needs to post-up to score effectively, but the Cavs’ offence needs him out of the way to be at its best. As a result, Love is too often relegated to the role of spot-up shooter and exiled to the three-point line, which also hurts his ability to contribute as a rebounder. Factor in that Love is often a defensive liability and, at the very least, the Cavs are not getting full-value for their money.
Tristan Thompson’s performance following Love’s injury also gives us reason to question whether bringing him back was the right move. While Thompson is a much less gifted player offensively, he is a much better fit for Cleveland, giving the Cavs what they need in terms of defence and rebounding, without needing the ball to be productive. Thompson has yet to re-sign, and there are reports that the Cavs are contemplating a future without him, but whatever he would have cost to bring back, it would have been dramatically less than what they paid Love.
This comparison brings us to the real issue to be considered. It’s not a question of whether Love is a good player, whether he’s worth the money he’s being paid, or whether the Cavs are better with him than without him – the answer to all of those questions is obviously yes. The real question is, could the Cavs have found a way to get better value for the $20-$25 million they’re going to pay him in each of the next five years. When we consider who the Cavs could have signed for that money, it becomes clearer and clearer that Love was the wrong choice.
First, it appears that the Love contract may have cost the Cavs Thompson. Thompson is a better fit for the Cavs, and would likely have cost a whole hell of a lot less than Love (the biggest contract Thompson could have signed would have been $17,500,000.00 per year). In any business, when you can get equal or greater value for less money, it’s a good decision.
Looking outside of the Cavs 2014-2015 roster, there are a number of other intriguing options. Given their status as top contenders, they may have had a shot at big ticket free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan. Jordan in particular might have been a good fit for the Cavs given that he, like Thompson, is highly effective without any thought being given to getting him touches. A Jordan/Thompson front line would have been the most dominant rebounding 4-5 duo in the league, and would have been a much better fit with Lebron and Kyrie than a Mozgov/Love pairing. That said, the prospect of the Cavs bringing in another superstar is highly speculative, and even if possible, would come with the downside of the other 2/3rd of their big three learning how to play with the new kid. While the DJ hypothetical is an interesting one, the addition of someone like Aldridge or another superstar is unlikely to make the Cavs better in the short-term than would bringing back Love, just because the Cavs would have to start the process of learning to play together all over again.
The more intriguing option would be to split the money between two or three strong role players. The Cavs don’t need another volume scorer, they need guys that can defend, rebound, hit open shots and, maybe most importantly, given last years’ playoff experience, step in in case of injury. The following are five examples of packages the Cavs could have put together with Love’s money – they include only guys that changed teams this year (to prevent the unrealistic inclusion of guys like Danny Green, who wasn’t leaving the Spurs), and do not include David West, who took way too little to go to San Antonio.
Package #1: Wes Matthews (Dallas, $16 million) and Brandon Bass (LAL, $3 million)
We learned this off-season how valuable Wes Matthews is, even coming off a torn achilles. He would be an excellent fit with the Cavs, as a strong three-point shooter and an excellent perimeter defender who could take a lot of defensive pressure off of Lebron. Bass would be a solid backup for Thompson as a good defender and rebounder. He also has the ability to contribute offensively as a mid-range jump-shooter who does not need to dominate the ball to score.
Package #2: Robin Lopez (New York, $12 million) and Arron Afflalo (New York, $8 million)
Lopez is exactly the kind of big the Cavs need. A great defender and rebounder, and someone who does not need the ball to contribute. Arguably, Lopez may not be a great fit beside Mozgov, but having two strong rim-protectors on the same roster presents some interesting options. During his time in Orlando, Afflalo showed that he can be a legitimate scoring threat and if he can regain even some semblance of that form he could fill the role J.R. Smith was supposed to play on last year’s squad without the emotional volatility.
Package #3: Tyson Chandler (Phoenix, $13 million) and Lou Williams (LAL, $6.5 million)
The Chandler/Williams combo fits with the Cavaliers in the same way as Lopez and Afflalo. Chandler is an elite defensive centre (or at least has been to this point in his career). Reigning sixth man of the year Sweet Lou Williams showed in his one year stint with the Raps that he can still fill it up off the bench – without all that J.R. Smith crazy.
Package #4: Greg Monroe (Milwaukee, $16 million) and Jeremy Lin (Charlotte, $2 million)
Monroe is an elite level centre, good enough to push Mozgov to the bench and probably a better option than Kevin Love outright. The fact that he comes in nearly $4 million cheaper than Love is just gravy. This discount would let the Cavs upgrade at the back-up point guard spot. For all his hustle, Matthew Dellavedova is not the guy you want running your offence in the Finals if Uncle Drew goes down again. Jeremy Lin probably isn’t either, but he’s shown himself to be a serviceable starter and could be a top notch backup with the right team.
Package #5: Demarre Carroll (Toronto, $13.5 million) and Marco Bellinelli (Sacramento, $6 million)
Demarre Carrol is an extremely athletic, versatile, hard-working player that is exactly what the Cavs need. Like Matthews, he is a great defender and has developed into a proficient three-point shooter. He contributed over 5 boards per game for the Hawks last year, primarily from the small forward position. While there aren’t a lot of extra minutes at the 3 spot for the Cavs, both Lebron and Carroll are versatile enough that they could play together. Bellinelli is a deadly three-point shooter with championship experience who could provide some much needed bench scoring.
There were a number of other players on the free agent market that would have fit for the Cavs and provided better value for money than Kevin Love. Guys like Cory Joseph, Al-Farouq Aminu, Monta Ellis and Derrick Williams all pose intriguing options. There is no guarantee that any of these players would have signed with Cleveland had they been pursued. However, Cleveland is a sufficiently attractive destination, that surely they could have put something together that would have made more sense than the $20 million they’ll be paying to Love next year.
In today’s NBA, there are too many teams with deep pockets to build a championship by blindly stockpiling talent. If the Cavs are going to succeed in their second chance with the best player in the world, they need to think about fit and getting the most value for their free-agent dollars.