Kevin Love's out for 6 weeks, and LeBron and the Cavs need to be careful

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.

Kevin Love’s first All-Star season in Cleveland just hit a major speed bump. (AP)


WITH KEVIN LOVE INJURY, TOUGH TIMES COULD BE AHEAD FOR REST OF CAVS BIG 3

Kevin Love will have to put his third and best season for the Cleveland Cavaliers on hold.  

On Tuesday, just days before Love was set to appear in his first All-Star Game as a member of the Cavs, the team announced that he will miss the next six weeks following knee surgery:

Cavaliers forward and 2017 NBA All-Star Kevin Love underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee this morning at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. ... Love will now undergo a period of rest and rehabilitation and his return to play is estimated at approximately six weeks.

Love is averaging 20 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 31.9 minutes per game this season. He's shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from three. On Nov. 23, Love set an NBA record by scoring 34 points in the first quarter of a 137-125 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

In short, he's having a good year.

Although the Cavs lead the Eastern Conference by two games over the Boston Celtics, their bid for the No. 1 seed is hardly guaranteed. The Washington Wizards have won nine of their past 10 games to surge to third place, while the fifth-seeded Toronto Raptors just pulled off a trade for power forward Serge Ibaka, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

As the rest of the once-dormant East begins to rise, Cleveland's grasp atop the conference is in serious jeopardy. The Cavs are already without starting shooting guard JR Smith for at least the next three weeks.

Love's six-week diagnosis would put him on track to return during the final week of March. At that time, Cleveland would have roughly nine regular-season games remaining.

There's no single player who can step in and fill every role Love plays. The 28-year-old leads the Cavs with a 9.2 net rating (per B/R Insights) and carries an on/off rating of plus-12.0 this season. That nearly matches LeBron James' impact (plus-13.0) and the combination of Kyrie Irving (plus-6.1) and Tristan Thompson (plus-6.3).

Veteran Channing Frye will most likely become the team's starting power forward, as he brings the same floor-spacing and three-point shooting ability as his injured teammate.

While he can match Love's outside shooting, Frye is a poor rebounder who doesn't spend much time in the paint. Starting center Tristan Thompson is Cleveland's second-leading rebounder at 9.6 boards a game compared to Love's 11.1. Frye averages 3.5 a night and 7.1 per 36 minutes of play.

Behind Frye, 36-year-old Richard Jefferson, who filled in for Love during the 2016 NBA Finals while he recovered from a concussion, will pick up minutes. James Jones, also 36, can space the floor as needed.

The signing of Derrick Williams to a 10-day contract last week now appears crucial. He is able to play either forward position, and his minutes off the bench will increase as the Cavs look to replace Love's heavy scoring load. In two games, Williams is averaging 9.5 points on 83.3 percent shooting.

With the Feb. 23 trade deadline just over a week away, Love's injury places additional pressure on general manager David Griffin and Cleveland's front office to push for a bigger piece than they may have intended.

But the worst part of Love's absence is the shockwaves LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will feel. James is already tied with Kyle Lowry for the league lead in minutes per game (37.6). Irving is 16th at 35.2 ticks a night. James' 112.6 total miles ran ranks first on the Cavs (44th in NBA), while Irving's 105.7 is good for third, per B/R Insights.

Cleveland's strategy has been a heavy dose of Love in the first quarter, Irving in the third and James filling in the gaps and taking over as needed. As far as opening periods go, the Cavs are now without a player who ranks top 10 in the league in total points, field-goal attempts (12th in makes), three-pointers attempted (11th in makes), rebounds, plus/minus and usage percentage.

Now, head coach Tyronn Lue has to be even more careful with his lineups, as units without a Big Three member have struggled the past three years.

"We're still going to go about our plan [to reduce James' minutes]," Lue said, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "We can't run LeBron into the ground because Kevin is out. Guys got to step up and be ready to play."

Of course, sticking to that plan may be difficult.

According to NBAwowy.com, Cleveland scores 100.6 points per 100 possessions without James, Love and Irving on the court. That's good for just 29th in the NBA. When all three take the floor, the Cavs score a league-leading 120.1 points per 100 possessions.

James has already pleaded for a playmaker so he and Irving can play more off the ball and get more rest, per ESPN.com's McMenamin. Without Love, it seems Lue will have no choice but to increase his remaining stars' workloads even more in the lead-up to another potential Finals run.


Where do the Cavs go from here? Kevin Love out six weeks with knee injury

The injury bug is no respecter of person or team.

With the Cavaliers already trailing in an arms race with the Warriors — their biggest rival whether they want to label them as such or not — after Golden State added former MVP and four-time scoring champ Kevin Durant to a star-studded roster, Cleveland will now be without one of their biggest weapons in Kevin Love for the foreseeable future.

The team announced Tuesday that the All-Star power forward will be out six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Initially, it was reported that the 6-10, 251-pounder would receive a second opinion Tuesday. He wound up having an arthroscopic procedure at a facility in New York to have what the Cavs described as a "loose body" taken from his left knee.

The eight-year veteran was enjoying his finest season as a Cavalier. In 46 games, the UCLA product was averaging 20 points and a team-high 11.1 rebounds per game. Love had already been ruled out of Tuesday night's matchup against the Timberwolves, his former team.

How Love's injury affects Cavaliers' lineup
Love's absence will deplete the frontline of a Cavaliers squad tied for ninth in the league in rebounding. Along with his presence on the glass, the Cavs will also be missing one of the league's top stretch power forwards.

Prior to his injury, Love was shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range, good enough for the fifth-best mark on the team behind newly acquired sharpshooter Kyle Korver, rated second in the NBA at 44.1 percent from deep, reserve Channing Frye (42.2 percent), No. 8 in the league, Iman Shumpert (40.2) and fellow all-star Kyrie Irving (39.5).

While Cleveland has shooters for days, the Cavs likely won't be able to replace Love's intangibles such as his ability to throw pinpoint outlet passes to jumpstart the Cavaliers' fastbreak offense, another category in which they rank among the league's best.

Consider the floor-length dime Love dropped to LeBron James to hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation in the Cavs' marquee matchup against the Wizards last week.

Love being sidelined could force coach Tyronn Lue to insert Frye into the starting lineup. He's averaging 9.1 points and 3.5 rebounds while playing 18 minutes per game, but has started just three contests. Who knows what it might mean for 31-year-old James' workload? Last year's Finals MVP is tied with Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry for the NBA lead in minutes played per game at 37.6.

The Cavs, who recently added former No. 2 overall pick small forward Derrick Williams to the fold on a 10-day contract, had been in the market for a backup point guard.

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