Why Kevin Love’s future in Cleveland may be on the line

OAKLAND, Calif. – In the bowels of Oracle Arena, tucked in a corner of the Cavaliers’ locker room, Kevin Love’s locker stood vacant. No clothes, no uniform, no Love, excused from postgame media availability thanks to his presence in the NBA’s concussion protocol, a status earned by an errant, inadvertent elbow from Harrison Barnes in the second quarter that ended his night early in the third. The questions for Love would come; they just wouldn’t come this night.

Down 2-0 in the NBA Finals after Sunday’s 110-77 thumping, and everyone in Cleveland – including Love – is searching for answers. The team that ran roughshod over a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field has been reduced to a sparring partner, Finals games evolving into little more than exhibitions of Golden State's greatness. “It's hard for me to kind of pinpoint what's not working and what could work right now,” LeBron James said. “Obviously not much is working, especially offensively.”

No player entered this series with more to prove than Love, a bystander last June, a lightning rod for criticism today. Critics of Love’s defense declared that he would be a liability on that end of the floor, and Golden State has sought to exploit Love routinely, forcing him to defend on switches, pressuring him to be crisp with his rotations. The Warriors’ offensive outbursts this series aren’t all on Love, but here, his weaknesses are glaring.

Offense, scoring, that’s Love’s strength, where he earns his $20 million salary, but where has that Kevin Love gone? Five points on 2-of-7 shooting in 21 minutes and Love could not have been more invisible. Defenders don’t get much better than Draymond Green, but Love has looked uneasy against Golden State’s switching defense. The aggressive, assertive player seen routinely in the Eastern Conference playoffs has disappeared.

“I think he rushed some things; I think he pressed a little bit,” James Jones told The Vertical. “He’s a multifaceted player. He has so many counters, they can’t take them away. I think as they tried to force him baseline, I think he conceded a couple of times. He’ll bounce back. He’ll make the adjustment and do what we need him to do, and that’s make shots.”

So much has to happen for Cleveland to compete with these Warriors. Kyrie Irving has to match Stephen Curry, J.R. Smith has to make shots and, yes, Love needs to be a bigger factor. He can’t be Green, can’t contribute 28 points on one end and terrorize opponents on the other. But he can space the floor like he did in the last two games of the conference finals, when his seven total 3-pointers helped send Toronto packing, and he can punish the Warriors in the post for daring to send Shaun Livingston or Klay Thompson in his direction.

Two wins to go for Golden State, and perhaps two more games for Love in Cleveland. A humiliating defeat needs a scapegoat, and Love walks around these days with a wide target on his back. If changes are demanded this offseason, Love will be the asset pushed in trades needed to make them. As one league executive told The Vertical, “If they go out like this, I’m betting on a Kevin Love auction.”

Back to Cleveland, back home now, and – hopefully – another opportunity for Love to make a stand. The immediate treatment of Love’s head injury was badly bungled. A hit to the head, a minute-plus on the ground and a drive-by evaluation deemed Love fit to go right back in the game. “In my opinion, it warranted being checked out,” Dr. T.O. Souryal, the former team physician for the Dallas Mavericks, told The Vertical. “Unfortunately, the medical staff does not have access to replay while courtside. Although the universal sign is a player grabbing his head.” Love is day-to-day, with no one knowing when doctors will clear him.

Love will fight to be cleared, to play, because no one wants to be in this series more. “This is what he has dreamed about,” Jones said. And this may be Love’s last stand. If Love can’t win in Cleveland, where can he? If he can’t succeed as a third option, why would anyone think he could elevate a team into title contention as a second, or a first? It’s titles in Cleveland or statistics elsewhere, a Hall of Fame career or one spent posting Hall of Fame-caliber numbers.

On to Cleveland, where the Warriors can still smell the champagne-soaked carpets from last year and are two wins away from drenching them again. The Cavs need better ball movement, need a better Smith, need Irving to outplay Livingston, much less Curry. And they need Love. The ability to be part of the Cavaliers’ revival is in him. Not to be a defensive stopper, but a dangerous perimeter shooter, not to stretch out pick-and-rolls like Green, but to obliterate the smaller, inferior defenders Golden State sends to him. Cleveland is in a fight for survival now, and Love begins a fight to survive in Cleveland.