Some months ago, Kevin Love was the liable disappointment on a Cavs team that muddled around .500. Every loss was an ordeal and every post-game media session was an opportunity to shuffle blame. Love, whose box-score marks underwhelmed relative to both his star teammates and his own track record, made for an easy target on most nights.
One crucial thing has changed since: Cleveland, sometimes with Love's help and sometimes without, has pulled it together. The East's fast-rising superpower is 28-6 since Jan. 15, outscoring opponents by a Warriors-like 11.3 points per 100 possessions in that span (via NBA.com). A harsh spotlight still turns to Love at times. The reality, though, is that the Cavs have been so dominant as to deny the criticism of Love. Clearly he could be better and clearly he could be used more effectively. Yet even in the form he's taken, Love has played a part in the rise of a terrifying contender.
Framing is everything. When the Cavaliers spent their nights searching, Love's five-year lows in points and rebounds per game were cast as a burden on a should-be superteam. Now that Cleveland has found both style and balance—largely through LeBron James' personal renaissance and a few midseason trades—Love's play becomes a pivot point to transcendence. It's through his contextual underperformance that one of the best teams in the league now finds itself with headroom.
On Wednesday, the Grizzlies experienced that devastating potential first-hand. Love played 32 minutes of seamless, proficient basketball—perhaps his most comfortable game of the season. His offense was encouraging in its variety. Love got the best of Memphis' defenders on cuts, deep post-ups, and pops off screens, avoiding those extended stretches of parked irrelevance on the weak side of the floor:
That level of involvement proved overwhelming. Cleveland scored a combined 69 points in the second and third quarters to dismantle one of the NBA's top-three defenses. In a single five-minute stretch in the third, the Cavs erupted for 19 points by scoring on all but one possession.
They did so by reaching equilibrium. Cleveland isn't yet at a point where it does so by default; if it were, Love's typical stat line would read closer to the 22 points (on 10-of-13 shooting), 10 rebounds, and four assists he managed on Wednesday. There are still nights when the Cavs' All-Star-caliber forward is more accessory than hub, which Cleveland shorts its incredible potential.
On some level, the difference seems as simple as participation. After his marginal performances this season—games in which he largely stays camped beyond the three-point line—Love has made clear that he was only doing as asked. The implied directive is obvious: Cavs coach David Blatt understands the value of spacing as well as anyone, and through Love's shooting he creates clear lanes for James and Kyrie Irving to operate. That capacity, while more reactive than what Love is used to, does not require that he stand idle for full, 24-second possessions simply because the ball is in the hands of another player.
Yet Love, whether by misunderstanding or deliberate sulking, has at times interpreted his responsibility as such. Cleveland can still overrun its opponents through Love's drifts, but only through his more direct involvement do they flash world-beating potential. Love is neither Chris Bosh nor Serge Ibaka, content solely to catch and shoot as a release for two other stars. He's both more capable on offense and more closely driven by his success. When Love isn't committed to the work he's doing on that end, his contributions narrow to those of a generic standstill shooter.
Even in that, Love serves a function that borders on irreplaceable. Short of James playing big minutes at power forward (something he is loathe to do), Cleveland has neither floor-spacing bigs nor particularly solvent small-ball options. Love, then, is the most effective complement to the creation of James and Irving, to the point that the Cavs suffer a losing margin (-0.7 points per 100 possessions, 7.5 points worse than otherwise) without him. Even if accepting that Love hasn't lived up to his billing, there's still no question that Cleveland is a better team for having him and learning more and more how to best utilize his skills.
Love's service as an outlet has been fruitful enough for the Cavs. The further evolution of his role, however, gives Love the freedom to do far more than shoot. Cleveland sometimes sits on the fact that its stretch forward is one of the game's best passing bigs—a reduction that undercuts its capacity for fluid offense. Make Love an afterthought and he's more likely to redeem his limited touches for his own scoring opportunities. Play through him more consistently and Love will turn good looks into great ones:
There's little broad appeal in preaching patience, and surely less in preaching continued patience after months of trial and error. Yet the undeniable truth is that Cleveland hasn't perfected Love's usage. He could well follow Wednesday's showcase with a quieter outing, as has been the case throughout a season of alternating peaks and lulls. Over time, the significance of those lulls has been redefined. The Cavs have made a definitive claim as one of the NBA's best, set to outclass most every in-conference competitor. Through Love's work in progress they merely reserve the right to clarify and improve.