Without Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are vulnerable. How will they make up for his absence?
The NBA postseason is shaped by absence. Every minute matters, and thus every minute missed by an injured rotation player leads to potential decline. Teams vary in their capacity to compensate and adjust for injury and the like, though by and large such absences come to alter the very dynamics of a series. Matchups shift, lineups change, and after a season of playing within certain, expected patterns, the victor is sometimes decided by adjustment to an entirely new set of circumstances.
This is where we find the Cavaliers, who on Monday learned they would be without Kevin Love for the foreseeable future due to a dislocated shoulder. Officially, Love has already been ruled out for Cleveland's upcoming second-round series after a dangerous tangle with Boston's Kelly Olynyk, but Cavs GM David Griffin clarified on Tuesday that Love is "highly unlikely" to return at any point in this postseason. To make matters worse, starting guard J.R. Smith will be suspended for the first two games of the Cavs' upcoming series for his own doing, pushing the Eastern Conference favorite even further out of its comfort zone.
Either Chicago or Milwaukee will encounter Cleveland at a particularly vulnerable time. Love's value as a player is rooted in the fact that he isn't easily replaced; no other player in the league matched Love's rate of three-point shooting and rebounding this season, the combination of which makes him a standout among the stretch four set. Add the criteria of Love's post game and strength in facilitation and he separates even further from the field.
In the big picture, Love's individual limitations matter far less than the good he does for the Cavs on a team level. Cleveland's offense needs him in order to breathe free—a regular-season trend that crystallized over the course of the first round. It's in the playoffs that opposing coaches finally have the opportunity to pore over their opponent's personnel and strategies in search of accessible weakness. Love brings some of his own—the move from lottery team to contender hasn't done much for his defense—but his offense also undercuts opponents in their ability to exploit others.
When so much of the NBA game is tied to access to the paint (and by extension, its denial), players like Love prove transformative. Driving lanes dilate in reflection of his shooting ability. Help comes late or not at all as a result of the threat he poses. A simple pick-and-roll has the potential to rip a defense apart, all because Love's array of skills demand that his presence be respected.
In his absence, the Cavaliers will need to rework the mechanics of their top lineups. A variety of players could come to start in place of Love, though the most straightforward positional candidate would be Tristan Thompson. This is bad news. Energy helps to disguise the limits of Thompson's offensive game, though either the Bulls or Bucks would undoubtedly defend him for the player he is. There's no reason to stick with Thompson more than a few feet from the basket, which compounds the spatial constriction of starting center Timofey Mozgov. Together, those two give playoff opponents an opportunity to crunch the paint at their leisure. There isn't much damage to be sustained in letting either Thompson or Mozgov wander around outside. Even if they clear the paint, they still manage to get in the way.
Both are strong rebounders, though they give opposing bigs so little reason to vacate the paint when working as a tandem that they fail to make progress on the offensive glass. The glut of bodies in the middle deters driving and collapses Cleveland's free throw rate. Spacing issues force LeBron James out of the post and swallow up Kyrie Irving's driving lanes. Turnovers (and opponents' fast break points) tend to jump as the increasingly frustrated Cavs throw well-meaning passes into or through coverage. That pairing of bigs has all the makings of a postseason burden, particularly against a second-round opponent as effective in neutralizing non-threats as both Chicago and Milwaukee.
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Take away Smith and defenders have even less reason to edge all the way out to the perimeter in their coverage. Give James and Irving their due with the best dedicated on-ball defenders available. Otherwise, any Cavs lineup with such crooked floor balance should be defended with one foot in the paint. Cleveland already plays in a way that covers for its lack of offensive flow with pure ability. Its new baseline is an extension of that same strain—an even clearer division between the two superstars and their teammates now that opponents will sit in the paint and in passing lanes.
There are technically alternatives in play, though none particularly enticing. James Jones could play out of position to give Cleveland another three-point threat, though his broad inability to defend NBA players and the prospect of running so undersize against Chicago are concerning. Shawn Marion or Mike Miller could be dusted off for other small-ball options, though there was good reason both were put in storage in the first place. Running James at power forward will be a possibility down the line, though until Smith returns, the Cavs don't exactly have the wing personnel to make the most of that alignment.
There are no good answers—not when a uniquely talented star is ruled out from a relatively shallow roster. Fortunately for Cleveland, it may not need any real solution until the NBA Finals. Chicago and Milwaukee could both put up a fight, but both are quite beatable. Atlanta has sputtered against Brooklyn. Washington ran Toronto out of the playoffs, yet still isn't consistent enough to be all that trustworthy.
The Cavs will still enter any series in the East with the two best shot creators—and possibly the two best players—on the floor. Whatever transpires from there, however, will need to be achieved by working against the grain in a way they rarely have this season.