Remember Kevin Love? LeBron and the Cavs need him more than ever

Love still valuable to Cavs (1:21)

Kevin Love's outstanding performance during last year's Eastern Conference Finals provides a benchmark as the Cavs move on without Kyrie Irving. (1:21)

It appeared in some form in almost every analysis of the landmark Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas swap: Irving would thrive in Boston and evolve from his hoggy dribbling in his new pick-and-roll partnership with Al Horford -- a shifty screener who can shoot, roll, and keep the ball whizzing with expert passing.

So, umm, didn't Irving just get out of a partnership with Kevin Love -- a shifty screener who can shoot, roll, and pass, and was considered in many corners a top-10 overall player when Cleveland flipped Andrew Wiggins (and Anthony Bennett!) for him three years ago? If Thomas is out for an extended period, shouldn't Cleveland be able to maintain an elite offense -- and avoid overtaxing LeBron -- by leaning on its other All-Star?

But Love's name barely appeared in any evaluation of the trade, or of how Cleveland might proceed without Thomas. If anything, he was trade bait again. Jae Crowder could siphon some of his minutes as a small-ball power forward, and the Cavs finally had a tasty trade asset -- the Nets pick -- to attach to Love in trade talks for another star. The degree to which Love had become an afterthought was astounding.

Playing alongside two pick-and-roll maestros transformed Love into a third wheel, just as Chris Bosh warned. He was a glorified Ryan Anderson at times, chilling along the 3-point arc while LeBron and Irving ran the show. He became a different player. The Cavs bristle at the idea that he became a worse player. They are confident Minnesota Love still exists, and they are redesigning their offense -- and potentially their rotation, featuring more of Love at center -- to unleash him again.

Whether an older Love weathered by injuries can still be that player in a LeBron-centric offense, against opponents who have gotten smarter about defending him, is one of the looming season's thorniest questions. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has talked before about giving Love the ball more, but it has never stuck for more than a few games at a time.

"Kevin is going to have the best year that he's had here," Lue told ESPN.com this week. "I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We're going to play through him more. He's going to get those elbow touches again."

The Cavs outscored opponents by almost 15 points per 100 possessions in the 227 minutes when Love and LeBron played without Irving, raising hope they can rampage the East even while waiting for Thomas. That depends on Love tapping into at least some of his old alpha dog vigor, just as Bosh did after James left Miami.

Bosh was more than a glorified Ryan Anderson during Miami's Big Three era because he reinvented himself on defense as a swarming, lunging disruptor. Miami would not have won two titles without Bosh reimagining his game.

Love was never going to be able to compensate for a reduced offensive role by ramping up his defense. He was just a plain third option. Love was both a starter and finisher of possessions in Rick Adelman's flowing corner offense in Minnesota. Third options who play alongside LeBron are mostly catch-and-shoot bystanders.

"We can't run all the stuff that Minnesota used to run," Lue said. "We have different personnel. We have LeBron, and we had Kyrie. We don't have a lot of great cutters."

Having the league's best third option is nice, but it's an expensive use of finite resources. For what Cleveland pays Love, they could find two or three effective bystanders who play better defense.

"LeBron needs to have the ball so much for you to be as good as you can be," David Griffin, then the Cavs GM, told me during the 2015 Finals, when James carried the Cavs within two wins of the title as both Love and Irving nursed injuries. "You need to be very selective about the guys who get to have it when he doesn't."

The Cavs have contemplated trading Love off and on almost since that series, though they have no plans to do so right now, sources say. (Love does not have much standalone trade value.) They nearly flipped him for Paul George in a three-team trade in late June. It sometimes seems remarkable Love has survived this long in Cleveland, and that he outlasted Irving. Love sulked during much of the 2015-16 season. He absorbed LeBron's passive-aggressive tweets, the dirty looks after botched rotations on defense. It would not have been surprising had the Cavs lost him sometime in the winter of 2016.

They reeled him back in. When Lue took over for David Blatt in January of that season, his very first meeting was with Love, Lue said. That March, during a dispiriting road trip when it appeared the Cavaliers were on the verge of coming apart, Lue profanely commanded Love reassert himself. Channing Frye lightened the mood after the Cavs rescued him from Orlando that February by pointing out how absurd it was for a championship contender to be so angsty. Frye and Richard Jefferson famously smothered Love, barging into his house for dinner, discovering Lil' Kev, re-engaging him with the team.

Love stood to fight in those Finals, and with Thomas' status uncertain, the Cavaliers need an approximation of Minnesota Love now. To maximize Love, LeBron must democratize the offense. Manage that, and Love still has to contend with a league that has shifted strategically under his feet.

There is some low-hanging fruit. Love was one of the league's three or four best facilitators from the elbows during his Minnesota prime; he averaged almost 12 elbow touches per game in 2013-14, trailing only Marc Gasol, per SportVU data. He touched the ball there just 2.8 times per game last season.

Letting Love survey things, teammates whirring around him, unlocks his elite passing. He should fit well with Crowder, a sort of sneaky cutter the Cavs haven't really had in LeBron's second stint there; Crowder shot 79 percent on shots taken immediately after cuts, fourth best among 137 players who attempted at least 50 such shots, per Synergy Sports.

Love even ran funky inverted pick-and-rolls around the elbows in Minnesota, with guards springing him with surprise pindown screens:

He has barely done that in Cleveland.

Love was an active off-ball screener in Adelman's pet sets, and when a dangerous 3-point shooter sets picks, defenders think about how they should help -- or whether they should help at all. It sows confusion. Love leveraged that confusion into easy baskets.

Love's game was so much more diverse, and less predictable, in Minnesota. He scored more off of cuts, per Synergy. He sliced to the rim more often on pick-and-rolls instead of popping out to the 3-point arc, waiting for LeBron or Irving to pass him the ball.

The Wolves in 2013-14 averaged 307 passes per game, according to SportVU data. The Cavs averaged 281 last season, 26th in the league. Love is a feel player. He likes to improvise. The more the ball moves, the more he moves. Minnesota's system invigorated him. He was an active give-and-go player, flying through the back door to snag bounce passes from Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng:

The Cavs have tried to coax that player out. They even swiped a bunch of Minnesota set pieces, including an intricate post play Lue often uses to open games.

But those plays have a stilted, token feel to them. They certainly have not uncovered Minnesota Love. Part of that is a commitment issue: Love is still effective by the numbers whenever he gets the ball, and if he gets it more, he should thrive.

Still: Commitment alone doesn't explain the disappearance of peak Love. Look again at some of those Minnesota plays on which Love flitted through the lane: He was so often guarded by slow big men who lunged out wildly at Ricky Rubio, telegraphing a chance for Love to jaunt toward the rim.

(The gap in playmaking between Rubio and Irving has also hurt Love's production.)

That doesn't happen now. The players guarding Love are faster and smaller than they were three years ago; some of them are wings playing up a position. The league has dialed back the old frenzied pick-and-roll schemes on defense; behemoths don't leap out like Bosh wannabes. They drop back, or switch, removing those convenient corridors.

"Teams just don't hedge out anymore," Lue said.

Love is talented enough to counter those counters, of course. Boston dropped away from him on every pick-and-roll in the conference finals, and Love popped out to rain fire from deep. Fast recoveries from Horford barely bothered him; Love has quickened the release on his 3-pointer, opposing coaches and scouts say, and grown comfortable shooting over outstretched arms.

Even so: The overall evolution of the league has made Love's life harder. The LeBron-Love pick-and-roll never emerged as a consistent go-to weapon, since teams so often switch it; the Cavs ran almost twice as many Irving-Love pick-and-rolls, per SportVU data provided by Stats LLC.

The Cavs don't mind the LeBron-Love switcheroo, since it leaves a wing on Love. "We love it," Lue said. "There isn't a wing who can guard him in the post."

Love has developed tricks for the occasion. When he sees the switch coming, he pivots into inside position before his new defender can disrupt an entry pass:

He finagles a ton of fouls. Love's post game doesn't look good, but it works in its own brutish way. Of 105 players to finish at least 50 possessions via post-ups last season, only 11 earned free throws more often than Love, per Synergy.

But those post-ups grind the Cavs' offense to a halt. They also make for tough sledding when Tristan Thompson is clogging the paint, his defender ready to pounce on Love. Thompson also just can't throw the kinds of big-to-big passes that led Love to buckets in Minnesota.

The Cavs are intrigued by shifting more of Love's minutes to center -- without Thompson. The quartet of LeBron, JR Smith, Crowder and Love provides a nice mix of skills, and could function just fine even without a traditional point guard while Thomas recovers. It gives Cleveland the best chance of roping the biggest opposing player into guarding Love, and exploiting that; Love slips to the rim way more often when he plays center in wide-open space. Switching the LeBron-Love pick-and-roll becomes a no-go if a lug has to guard LeBron on the other end of it.

Some opponents may downsize right along with Cleveland, but that is a painful tradeoff for any team with a center type among its best players. Hiding that player elsewhere -- on Crowder, or some other fifth wheel -- won't be safe against the most potent Cleveland lineups.

Those lineups won't hold up defensively against the Warriors. News flash: No lineups will. The Warriors are probably the greatest offensive team ever assembled. They might be the greatest team, period, ever assembled.

Even when Thompson is the main screen-setter, the Cavaliers can still make Love an active part of their offense with quick ball reversals -- actions that play on the threat of his shooting:

Minnesota Love might be dead. But there is a player between that version and the one we've seen so far in Cleveland. In a pivotal season, with LeBron's potential exit hovering over the franchise, the Cavs have to find him.