Since the once-in-a-lifetime reign of his Cavaliers ended with the confetti falling on the visitors’ heads at Oracle Arena, team owner Dan Gilbert has taken a few steps to keep it that way.
First he showed the door to general manager David Griffin, a man who did all that was expected and more in ending the 52-year championship drought of the City of Cleveland while also earning the respect of LeBron James. No small feat, either one.
James is said to be a bit annoyed by the upheaval in the front office even as the team waits for former rival and Finals MVP Chauncey Billups to accept an offer to be the new GM.
Now the talk starts whispering through the weeds that James is already thinking ahead to the summer of 2018 when he can once again opt out of his contract and perhaps head west to Los Angeles to become the veteran anchor on the budding young contender that Magic Johnson is assembling with the Lakers. Or to frolic with his banana boat buddies Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony as Clippers.
That’s a big, big problem for another year that will again have Cleveland fans twisting themselves into knots over questions that have to do with loyalty, betrayal and self-image. Would it turn James back into an Ohio pariah and turn Quicken Loans Arena back into a toxic Superfund cleanup site?
In the meantime, there was the matter of the Cavaliers dangling power forward Kevin Love on the market on draft night in a bid to land Jimmy Butler or Paul George. Butler wound up going to Minnesota in a deal that still has most in the NBA shaking their heads. George is still there in Indiana for the taking, waiting for a deal the backed-against-the-wall Pacers find acceptable.
While the reaction to do something after the 4-1 Finals loss to the Warriors is understandable, even downright human, making Love the scapegoat for all that went wrong in the series is just plain foolish.
His critics point to Love’s 10-point performance on 2-for-8 shooting in the Game 5 eliminator as though he were the only member of the roster left wanting. Love got into foul trouble early, never found a comfort zone in the game, but in 30 minutes still pulled down 10 rebounds, which means he wasn’t standing around watching.
As James has continued to keep his game at an almost otherworldly level -- averaging a triple-double in The Finals -- and Kyrie Irving has ridden across the sky and the highlight videos like a comet, Love has spent his time in Cleveland giving up his stats and keeping a lid on his ego in order to help get the Cavs to The Finals three years in a row.
Love is underrated because he does many of the underrated things that can make a difference in a game -- keeping the ball alive off the glass, making a timely defensive stop or creating the space in the offensive that allows James and Irving to shine.
Just like Chris Bosh during James’ four seasons in Miami, there has to be somebody to do the dirty work, squeeze the tube that spreads the glue around the lineup and holds up under the slings and arrows of criticism. When the Heat were making four straight trips to The Finals and winning two championships, coach Erik Spoelstra used to say none of it would have been possible without the sacrifices made by Bosh, with his play on the court and handling the barbs off it.
When the Heat lost 4-1 to the 2014 Finals to the Spurs, which led to James’ return home to Cleveland, Bosh averaged 14 points and 5.2 rebounds in 36.3 minutes. In the Cavaliers’ loss to the Warriors in the 2017 Finals, Love’s numbers were: 14.7 points and 11.2 rebounds in 32.2 minutes.
The other rap on Love is that he tends to be a non-factor in big games. So is there a bigger spotlight than Game 7 of The Finals? While it was noted that he was outscored by his Golden State counterpart Draymond Green 32-9 on the big stage in 2016, Love also grabbed 14 rebounds. Love did not give up a single one of Green’s points when he was guarding his opposite number. The Cavs had a 19-point advantage over the Warriors when Love was in on the court and, oh yes, won the game.
J.R. Smith was as fleeting as summer lightning against Golden State. Tristan Thompson shrunk. Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert barely showed up. Channing Frye couldn’t even get into four of the five games.
The Cavaliers have to find plenty of answers to close the gap on the Warriors, but dumping Love may not be the easiest or the right one.
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