Love suffered a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal on his left hand during Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons, and the timing could not have been much worse for the Cavaliers. Not only was Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue trying out a return to starting Love and Tristan Thompson together in the frontcourt, a change made last Friday, but the injury also comes just nine days before next Thursday’s trade deadline.
The Cavaliers figured to be one of the most active teams leading up to the deadline, but Love’s absence for several weeks could complicate those efforts to upgrade the roster. How might the Cleveland front office react?
Love trade off the table
The most obvious impact of Love’s injury is that any trade involving him is now unrealistic before the deadline. Any team acquiring Love would surely want him to help this season, so acquiring an injured player is probably a nonstarter.
A Love trade was probably a long shot anyway. The Pistons, who looked like the most logical suitors for Love, instead dealt Monday for another All-Star power forward, Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers. Still, moving Love had to at least be a consideration for the Cavaliers if the right deal came along. We can probably scratch that possibility.
Love’s absence means more small ball
Although Love and Thompson starting together is hardly new — Lue went to the lineup not long after taking over as head coach midway through the 2015-16 season, and that was the combination as Cleveland won the championship that season — the duo hadn’t seen much action in 2017-18 until Lue made a lineup change on Friday. Early results were positive, with the Cavaliers bouncing back from losing six of seven games to win the first two with the bigger frontcourt.
Now, Lue will have little choice but to go small with Thompson in the middle instead of Love. That’s a better defensive combination but not as potent offensively, and it brings many of the same issues in terms of defensive rebounding that Cleveland has had any time Love and Thompson play alone.
Perhaps more importantly, losing Love makes Channing Frye the only experienced center on the roster besides Thompson. Frye, who’s in the final season of his contract, was apparently headed to the Sacramento Kings when the two teams discussed a trade sending George Hill to the Cavaliers. Will Cleveland feel comfortable dealing Frye now? If not, the only other expiring contract for more than the veteran’s minimum that the Cavaliers have to offer teams in trade belongs to starting point guard Isaiah Thomas.
It’s possible that Cleveland could still deal Frye. Rookie Ante Zizic is an option at center, albeit a little-used one to date. (Zizic has played just 41 minutes this season.) A two-for-one deal like the Hill proposal would also give the Cavaliers a roster spot with which to sign a backup center. Andrew Bogut, who signed with Cleveland after last year’s trade deadline, only to fracture his left tibia during his debut for the team, is among the available options.
The value of having Frye as a backup center is now one extra variable the Cavaliers will have to weigh before the deadline.
Urgency to solidify playoff seeding?
The other big question Cleveland’s front office must answer is whether losing the team’s second All-Star increases the need to upgrade elsewhere so as to ensure that the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions enter this year’s postseason in reasonable position.
Despite recent struggles, the Cavaliers still sit third in the Eastern Conference, but their plus-0.5 point differential ranks a paltry sixth in the East. Cleveland is just two games ahead of the Washington Wizards — winners on Tuesday without point guard John Wall, who will also miss an extended period after knee surgery — for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. As little emphasis as the Cavaliers have put on seeding after going 8-1 in the two Eastern Conference finals in which they did not have home-court advantage, going on the road for all four playoff series would be a difficult task.
LeBron James‘ possible free agency this summer, and the potential close to Cleveland’s championship window, probably already offered sufficient reason for the Cavaliers to be aggressive in the trade market. If not, the need to win games with Love on the sidelines adds some more.
One possible benefit to Love’s absence
If Cleveland is looking for a silver lining to losing Love, it might help Thomas acclimate to a new team amidst his recovery from hip surgery. Playing without Love’s 18.2 points per game, the Cavaliers have even more need for Thomas’ ability to create shots.
Thus far, those shots haven’t gone in very often, creating tension that Thomas addressed with the media last week. Thomas’ return had certainly cut into Love’s opportunities as a scorer. His usage rate had dropped from 27.0 percent of Cleveland’s plays with Thomas sidelined to 20.4 percent — barely more than the average play — in the month of January, per NBA Advanced Stats. Now, the Cavaliers’ starting lineup will feature three role players around James and Thomas, which means more free rein for him offensively.
In the short term, relying more on Thomas could exacerbate Cleveland’s slump. Down the road, getting Thomas back to the All-Star level at which he played last season for the Boston Celtics is one of the most important things the Cavaliers can do the rest of the regular season. As bad as the timing of Love’s absence might look now, if he returns to team up with a productive Thomas, it’s possible things could work out for Cleveland.