In a cruel twist of fate, this Valentine’s Day brings us the news that Love is going away.
After announcing Sunday that Kevin Love had “complained of soreness” during their 125-109 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced Tuesday that the All-Star power forward “underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee this morning at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.”
After two years spent getting acclimated to sharing the floor with dominant ball-handlers LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Love has flourished in his third season in Cleveland. The 28-year-old big man is averaging 20 points and 11.1 rebounds per game — his first double-double average since coming over in trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the summer of 2014 — while shooting a sterling 38.4 percent from 3-point range.
His production for the East-leading Cavs earned him his first All-Star selection since leaving Minnesota, and the fourth of his career. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will now need to name an injury replacement for Love to the Eastern Conference roster.
One popular potential pick, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, has been shelved with knee issues of his own. Prospective choices for the commissioner could include Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who’s averaging a career-best 22.3 points per game for the red-hot Wiz; Carmelo Anthony, the highest-scoring East player not already on the squad, who has managed to weather the roiling absurdity of Madison Square Garden to average 25 points, 6.1 rebounds and three assists per game in 2017 for the abysmal New York Knicks; and Dwight Howard, who’s quietly turning in his most productive season since he left Orlando for an Atlanta Hawks squad that’s sitting fourth in the conference.
The Cavs say Love’s “return to play is estimated at approximately six weeks,” dealing a significant blow to a team that’s already been bitten hard by the injury bug as they try to defend their NBA championship.
Cleveland has been without starting shooting guard J.R. Smith since late December, after he went under the knife to repair a fractured thumb on his shooting hand; he might not be back until mid-March. His replacement in the starting lineup, Iman Shumpert, has missed the last three games after spraining his left ankle in last week’s overtime classic against the Washington Wizards.
The Cavs just shipped out injured veteran big man Chris “Birdman” Andersen, whom they hoped would provide energy, defense and rebounding off the bench, but who suited up for just 12 games before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in mid-December. With all due respect to second-round rookie Kay Felder, the Cavs have basically been operating without a backup point guard all season, after veteran backup Mo Williams eschewed retirement in favor of having surgery and continuing to collect on his contract before being packaged with Mike Dunleavy Jr. and sent to the Hawks in exchange for Kyle Korver, then flipped to Denver, waived, then picked up and waived by both the Philadelphia 76ers and Nuggets in moves more about trade exceptions and bookkeeping than on-court impact.
All of which is to say: the Cavs have been, to use LeBron’s turn of phrase, “top-heavy as s***,” heavily reliant on the scoring and playmaking talents of James, Irving and Love to muster enough firepower to knock off the opposition on a nightly basis. In the micro sense, it’s been a pretty successful formula; the Cavs enter Tuesday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at 37-16, the league’s fourth-best record and the top mark in the Eastern Conference. In the big picture, though, how Cleveland has arrived at that top spot has to be at least somewhat concerning to the team and its fans.
LeBron was not supposed to be tied for the league lead in minutes per game two-thirds of the way through his 14th season, after six straight trips to the NBA Finals and an unprecedented workload to this point in his Hall of Fame career. Irving, too, was supposed to have his minutes closely monitored and curbed, with general manager David Griffin and head coach Tyronn Lue keeping their sights set not on winning the top spot in the East for the second straight year, but on having their top guns in full working order come April, May and June; instead, he’s averaging 35.2 minutes per night, nearly four more per game than he did last year when he was coming off knee surgery.
Those numbers have risen of late, with James averaging 39.1 minutes per game over Cleveland’s last 15 outings and Irving up to 35.6 as the Cavs have tried to shake a 2017 malaise that’s seen the champs go 12-9 since the calendar flipped. While LeBron’s public posture on the state of affairs in Cleveland has changed from “We need a f****** playmaker” to “We’ve got who we’ve got. Our GM will do a great job of figuring out if we need something else, but right now, we’re in a good place,” the issue has remained clear: veterans like Shumpert, Korver, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson, and younger players like Felder, DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae can all contribute in their way, but you can only ask so much of complementary players. The burden for activating them, and for staying afloat in an increasingly competitive top of the East, falls on Cleveland’s stars.
And now, with Love sidelined for what could be about 20 games, the burden on James and Irving will only grow. So, too, might the heat from the teams chasing Cleveland in the standings.
The Boston Celtics, winners of nine of their last 10, sit just two games behind the Cavs in the race for the East’s No. 1 seed. The Washington Wizards, who took the Cavs to the limit last week and who have won nine of their last 10, are 2 1/2 games behind the C’s in third.
The Hawks, thought to be triggering a rebuild when they sent the sharpshooting Korver to Cleveland, just keep plugging away and staying in position for a top-four seed, and seem intent on keeping All-Star power forward Paul Millsap for another playoff push. And the Toronto Raptors, last year’s Eastern Conference Finals combatants, on Tuesday responded to their recent struggles by swinging a deal to import a top-notch floor-stretching interior defender, Serge Ibaka, to fortify their frontcourt rotation and lineup for another postseason shot at the throne.
With the barbarians at the gate and his forces dwindling, James unsurprisingly sees this as his time to rally the troops and lead from the front:
LeBron James, when asked if he needs to step up in light of Kevin Love's injury: "I've never stepped down"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 14, 2017
LeBron asked about rest in wake of Love injury: "I’ll rest when I retire. As long as I’m in the lineup, we’ve got a chance."
— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) February 14, 2017
Nobody disputes that. But everything we know about the way players respond to heavy workloads and limited rest suggests that the Cavs should be pumping the brakes on LeBron, doing whatever they can to get him (and Irving) as much rest as possible, even if it means dropping off the top of the regular-season mountain. Losing Love, though, makes that less likely … which might mean the Cavs are playing a really dangerous game with incredibly high stakes.
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