How Much Does the Kevin Love Injury Affect the Cleveland Cavaliers' Title Chances?

The Cavaliers are headed to the second round, but they'll be missing a major piece in Kevin Love. Can they still contend?

During Game 4 of the Eastern Conference first-round series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Love locked arms and the result was a pretty nasty injury for Love. After having an MRI on Monday, it was revealed that Love suffered "an acute anterior inferior glenohumeral dislocation with the corresponding ligament/labrum tearing and humeral head bone bruising." In layman's terms, he basically dislocated his shoulder and a bunch of other bad stuff happened at the same time.

The bad news continued to roll out today, when Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico reported:

Whether or not you think what Olynyk did was dirty or intentional is essentially irrelevant at this point (although the NBA deemed it was at least dirty enough to give him a one-game suspension at the beginning of the 2015-16 regular season). Regardless of the intention, the truth of the matter is that now the Cavaliers will have to pick up the pieces and continue their title run without one of the members of their big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.

Over the next few days and beyond, many people will debate how much the loss of Kevin Love will impact the Cavaliers' title hopes. On one side, some will downplay the impact that Kevin Love has had on the Cavaliers this season, opting to talk about how little his absence is likely to affect their championship run.

People from that camp will focus on his raw numbers and how the transition from being the man in Minnesota to a third wheel in Cleveland put a major dent in the gaudiness of his stat line. Just look at his last season on the Timberwolves compared to his first with the Cavaliers, and you'll be able to see the reasoning behind that line of thinking pretty easily.


Love's averages were down considerably across the board, despite only playing 2.5 fewer minutes per game. The biggest and most noticeable dips were in his Usage Rate (USG%, down a whopping 7.1%), his Player Efficiency Rating (PER, down 8.1 from being third in the NBA the year before), and his Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48, down .080 from being fourth in the league the year before). Anyone remember this kind of thing happening to Chris Bosh when he joined up with the Miami Heat to make a "Big Three" with LeBron and Dwyane Wade in 2010? If you do, you probably saw this decline (if you want to call it that) coming.

But if we've learned one thing from this new era of "Big Threes", it's that sacrifices need to be made somewhere, and that a dip in raw numbers doesn't tell the whole story of a player's true value or impact. For that, just take a look at Love's on/off splits from this season and -- most jarringly -- from the first round sweep of the Boston Celtics.

MINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
Season On2,532109.5103.06.651.3%52.4%
Season Off1,424104.5106-1.550.7%51.1%
Playoffs On107120.5103.117.454.0%55.9%
Playoffs Off8597.

The Cavaliers were more efficient on both offense and (surprisingly) on defense this season when Love was on the floor, they rebounded the ball better, and they shot more efficiently. These differences were even further pronounced in the four-game sweep of the Celtics, when the smaller sample size inflated the numbers.

Sure, the Cavs' Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was much better when Love was off the floor than when he was on it against Boston, but how much better they were on offense with him playing (a full 23.3 points per 100 possessions better) more than made up for the difference. The evidence of that is in both the 10.4 point jump in Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) and the 14.5% increase in Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted twos and threes) that the Cavaliers enjoyed in Love's 107 minutes of action.

So yes, the Cavaliers will miss Kevin Love going forward.

This season, Kevin Love earned a nERD of 7.3, the 24th-best mark in the Association. For those of you that don't know, our nERD metric estimates how many games above or below .500 a league-average squad would finish an 82-game regular season with the player in question as one of its starters. Sure, Love's probable replacement in the starting lineup, Tristan Thompson, was no slouch in terms of nERD either (finishing the season with a mark of 4.9), but that means the Cavs' bench loses a solid backup big man and will likely have to rely more on Kendrick Perkins (who had a nERD of -4.2 and is well past the point of being comfortably associated with the words "rely" and "more").

And besides, the Cavaliers had a world-beating starting lineup this season after their trades for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. The starting five of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Mozgov was easily one of the best in the league over a fairly large sample. The same lineup with Thompson in place of Love? Not so much.

LineupMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%

The sample sizes are clearly very different, but the gap in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, Net Rating, and Rebound Percentage are all chasm-sized when you substitute Thompson for Love, and that's worth noting. Even on the defensive end, where Love is not considered to be all that effective, Thompson's rim protection (52.2% allowed at the rim on 6.5 shots faced per game) is just as bad as Love's (52.6% on 7.1).

But the true gap between the two, of course, is on the offensive end. Thompson simply isn't the floor spacer that Love is, and even if the Cavaliers relegated Love to drifting on the perimeter a little too much this season, his ability to stretch the defense opened up lanes for LeBron and Kyrie all over the place. Love will be missed by the Cavaliers in a lot of ways going forward, but perhaps most notable will be how his absence will make things so much more difficult on his "Big Three" brethren.

Cleveland will have to cobble together whatever they can for the next round (especially considering J.R. Smith will serve a two-game suspension to start the series), but it's hard to see them going forward without at least trying LeBron at the four. He's done a lot less of it in Cleveland this season, but Miami always had great success going small and coach David Blatt's hands might be tied with his newly-depleted roster. Then again, the size of Cleveland's likely second-round opponent, the Chicago Bulls, could make it challenging to play small ball.

Regardless of how the lineups end up playing out, our algorithms see the Love loss affecting Cleveland's odds in each of the following rounds like this:

With LoveWithout LoveDifference
Chances to beat to the Bulls in the next round53.59%51.60%-1.99%
Chances to win the East27.98%25.19%-2.79%
Chances to win the title7.98%6.50%-1.48%

If Chicago makes it to the next round -- and let's face it; Milwaukee's two wins are cute and all, but they're not making history by being the only team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series -- Cleveland is favored to beat the Bulls by a narrow 51.60% (down from 53.59%). That potential series projects to be close to a coin-flip, with the most likely scenario being a Cleveland win in seven games, so that 1.99% drop-off without Love could end up being fairly significant.

As for Cleveland's chances of winning the Eastern Conference Finals or the Finals -- they remain the second most likely Eastern team to do both (our algorithms still like the Hawks). The drop in their likelihood in both cases is noticeable, but they're far from the point where you'd want to count them out completely.

Love or no Love, Cleveland plays in a weak Eastern Conference and LeBron and Kyrie will always have the chance to be the best two players in any given series. Because of those two things, the Cavs still have a very good shot at making the Finals this year. The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls have shown considerable weakness against the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, in the first round, while the Washington Wizards fall into the "we're not sure if they're actually good now or if they just beat up on a bad team in the first round" category of contention.

And if LeBron gets his sixth crack at the Finals and a shot at his third ring (and first as a Cavalier), who knows what can happen? It'll be harder to get there now, certainly, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are still very much contending for a title. As for Kevin Love, there's little doubt that he would help their cause, but maybe -- just maybe -- Love isn't all you need.