Kevin Love will miss six-to-eight weeks with a broken left hand, reports ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, which means the up-and-down Cavs will be without one of their most productive players during an important stretch of the season—and Team LeBron will have to find its third replacement player for the All-Star game. How will Cleveland fare without its All-Star power forward? The situation is complicated at best.
Let’s start with the good news: Cleveland has been better with Love off the court this season. The Cavs’ defense improves dramatically when Love sits, and his personal net rating of minus-6.8 is far from inspiring. There are, of course, caveats. Most of Cleveland’s starters have bad net ratings, because the bench has been better for large stretches of the season. Hell, LeBron James has been a minus-3.1 for Cleveland this season, and it would be insane to think the team would be better with him on the bench.
Love has been a productive player for the Cavs, and he’s appeared in four of the team’s five most-used lineups, as well as seven of their top nine. The new starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas-J.R. Smith-James-Love-Tristan Thompson has actually been a relatively bright spot for the team, posting a 7.1 net rating in three games entering Tuesday.
Love has been miscast at center often this year, and his shortcomings as a rim defender are even more glaring when perimeter defenders like I.T., Derrick Rose and J.R. Smith are allowing a parade of offensive players into the paint. On the other side of the ball, Love was having arguably his best season for the Cavs. His 61.3% true-shooting percentage is a career high, aided largely by his lights-out 40.4% shooting from three.
So what do the Cavs do? Cleveland theoretically has the bodies to replace Love. Jae Crowder can slide back into the starting lineup, though his shooting and one-on-one defense have left a lot to be desired this season. Channing Frye can see more playing time, but even with Frye having success with the second unit, stretching his minutes or playing him against more starting units could have diminishing returns. LeBron can also spend more time playing the four spot, but his nonchalance on defense doesn’t inspire much confidence, and increasing the burden on James as the playoffs approach is a risky proposition.
The consequences extend off the court. Love was arguably the Cavs' most enticing trade chip, and though he hasn’t been directly involved in any rumors, his injury could put a chill on any deadline plans for Cleveland. If the Cavs can’t move Love, will they be able to make any impactful trades for the home stretch? With every action and inaction being carefully charted by a soon-to-be-free-agent LeBron, Love’s injury couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
And at some point, the Cavs will have to pay attention to the East standings. Cleveland entered Tuesday in third place, but the Heat are hot on their heels, and the Bucks are surging after the firing of Jason Kidd. If Milwaukee and Miami stay hot, the Cavaliers could be in some danger of sliding out of home court if they struggle for an extended period without Love.
It’s obviously an unfortunate injury for Love, by the way. Often unfairly painted as the scapegoat in Cleveland, Love will miss out on a chance to redeem himself with the new starting lineup over the next few weeks. He’ll probably never be properly credited for his contributions as one of LeBron’s sidekicks, but he hasn’t been the biggest problem in the way the team often portrays him.
Ultimately, Love’s injury creates more questions for a Cleveland team whose season has been filled with an absurd amount of drama. As the Cavs search for answers yet again, one thing is for certain—this team is the furthest it's been from a lock to make the Finals since LeBron’s return four years ago.