Sports

Blame the Warriors for Being a “Superteam,” but Also Blame Kevin Love for the Cavaliers Not Being One

JaVale McGee of the Warriors dunks while Kevin Love watches.
Kevin Love in the all-too-common Kevin Love position of watching someone on the other team score on Kevin Love.
Kyle Terada/Pool/Getty Images

On Twitter, in emails and text chains with your pals and buds, and around the water cooler, the word is inescapable whenever the Golden State Warriors come up: superteam. While there are certainly many NBA fans nationally who love the Dubs, there are fewer of them now than there were in 2015, when the team was a feel-good sensation; a vocal section of the league’s viewing audience now in fact roots for their downfall. The reason most often given for this perceived heel turn is that the Warriors and erstwhile Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant have ruined the NBA’s competitive balance by joining forces to become super.

With the Warriors having just swept the Cavaliers for their second straight title since Durant came to Oakland, it’s of course hard to make an argument that they’re not dominant. The superteam haters, though, misallocate the blame for the lack of competition in the NBA. Kevin Durant is getting too much, and Kevin Love isn’t getting enough.

Recall, if you will, the circumstances under which LeBron James returned to his hometown team, the Cavaliers, in 2014. Star point guard Kyrie Irving was already there, and the organization had just taken Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 pick in the draft. A trade that sent Wiggins to Minnesota for Love was completed soon after. Love was coming off a season in which he’d averaged 26 points and 12.5 rebounds per game while burnishing his reputation as a smart, creative passer and teammate. With James, Irving, and Love, the Cavs had three perennial All-Stars—an ultrasquad, if you will. To be technical, the three best players on those Cavs were coming off a season in which their combined Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was 18.6—more than the best four players on the Warriors would combine for the next year. The idea of LeBron working with a post playmaker like Love drove fans to visions that were borderline not safe for work. The Cavs, going into the 2014-2015 season, were the odds-on Vegas favorites to win the title.

We know what happened next: The Warriors, under new coach Steve Kerr, got a lot better. But what has gone relatively under the radar is how much worse Kevin Love got. Going again by VORP, the value he’s added to his team in four seasons combined as a Cavalier has barely surpassed the value he provided in his last season in Minnesota. His 3-point shooting was actually worse in his two seasons with Irving and James than it had been in Minnesota, where he played with much less distinguished and offensively threatening teammates. He was never a great defensive player, but he’s now devolved into one of the worst in the NBA at his position. He hasn’t averaged more than 19 points or 2.4 assists per game.

The 2018 playoffs may have been Love’s nadir, statistically. The Cavs’ supposed second-best player had a negative playoff VORP, which means that in theory the team could have gotten the same production in his minutes by replacing him with, say, Brooklyn Nets journeyman Quincy Acy.* At one point during Friday night’s Game 4, basketball writer Matt Moore (aka Twitter’s Hardwood Paroxysm) noted that Love was an astoundingly bad 17-for-58 off passes from LeBron in the Finals. From LeBron! Love ended the game scoring 13 points on 4-13 shooting.

This is not to suggest that Love is a half-assed player or human being. He suffered a dislocated shoulder in 2015, had knee surgery in 2017, broke his hand earlier this season before hurting his thumb in a separate incident, got concussed in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, and has had back problems off and on for years. At this point, to paraphrase writer Jeff Johnson, he runs with a gait so labored it looks like the Navy had a role in constructing him. He’s not the same player physically that he was when he was 25 and threatening to lead the league in scoring in Minneapolis.

Less tangibly, playing with LeBron hasn’t seemed to make the game easier for Love—and the same could be said of Irving, who forced a trade to Boston last offseason after never having figured out how to play off LeBron in a complementary way. (Why Love and Irving couldn’t sync with LeBron’s game in the way that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami is the million-dollar question that NBA executives and LeBron himself will likely be asking during his upcoming free agency.) Off the court, LeBron seemed to target both Irving and Love with passive-aggressive comments and social-media posts. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has engendered a level of organizational dysfunction that has resulted in Love (and, obviously, LeBron) being surrounded by players who can’t shoot 3-pointers or play defense.

At Sports Illustrated, Andrew Sharp has written a reasonable, sympathetic case that Kevin Durant leaving Golden State (he could opt out of his contract) would be ideal not only for the NBA’s competitive balance but for Durant himself. At this point, that looks like fan fiction: Durant has said he’s staying with the Warriors. Perhaps it’s more realistic for the other Kevin to get a new start with new teammates. The Cavs accomplished a lot in the last four years—one of those accomplishments, of course, being the unlikely title they won in 2016 thanks in part to Love’s late-game defense on Steph Curry. But the beautiful LeBron-Love collaboration that fans daydreamed about in the summer of 2014 never really came to pass, and the NBA would probably be best served if the pair were now to split up—if only to give other, new “super” combinations of players the chance, God willing, at making next year’s Finals something other than another Warriors blowout.

Correction, June 9: This post initially implied erroneously that Quincy Acy’s 2017-2018 VORP was higher than Kevin Love’s playoff VORP. They were the same: -0.1.