Kevin Love is one of the best power forwards in the game of basketball. Love averaged over 26 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists last season, becoming the first player to reach those marks in a season since Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in the 1975-76 season. Combining those gaudy averages with Love’s 3-point shooting abilities and you have a great match for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A great match, but is Love the best one the Cavs could get by dealing away number one overall pick, Andrew Wiggins?
Last season, the Cavaliers were 22nd in the league in offenisve rating and 19th in defensive rating. Cleveland will easily improve both of those rankings by adding James, Wiggins, and new head coach David Blatt. Assuming the Cavs decide to swap Wiggins for Love, the team’s offensive rating will go through the roof led by a trio of James, Love, and Kyrie Irving.
But is that team good enough on defense to win in the NBA Finals? The old adage is that “defense wins championships”, and there is very strong support for that statement. In the last 10 NBA Finals, all 20 participants ranked in the top 11 in defensive rating. Of the ten champions, only three (2006 Heat, 2011 Mavs, and 2013 Heat) ranked lower than sixth in defensive rating, with the the 2013 Miami squad being the lowest of those ten by cashing out with a defensive rank of ninth. The average defensive rank of teams in the Finals over the last 10 seasons? Fifth.
Assuming a trade that mostly involves Wiggins for Kevin Love, the Cavaliers will be relying heavily on James and Anderson Varejao to anchor their defense. Both are good to great on the defensive end, but teamed with Love, Irving, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, and Mike Miller, will that team improve enough to become a top ten defensive unit, seemingly a requirement to breakthrough to the NBA Finals?
The answer for Cleveland: if you are going to trade Wiggins, go for Al Horford instead of Kevin Love.
Overall, Al Horford is not as talented of a basketball player as Kevin Love; that cannot be stressed enough. Love is a better scorer, rebounder, and likely the better passer of the two. Love is also three years younger and does not come with the injury scare like there is with Horford and his pectoral muscles.
However, the impact Horford can make on defense at multiple positions is what potentially makes him a better fit for the Cavaliers than Love. Horford is like James’ former teammate, Chris Bosh, on the defensive end: he is both an effective stopper against opponents that get to the rim and a great weapon in guarding pick-and-roll action. Horford has the lateral quickness to step out onto opposing point guards, while also possessing the instinct and quickness to recover back into the paint.
What makes Horford possibly better than Bosh is a slightly more versatile offensive game to match with James. While Horford is only just beginning to shoot 3-pointers, his biggest asset in a LeBron James-led attack might be his ability to run the floor both with and without the ball. Horford plays almost like a guard in this manner, where his speed and ball-handling abilities give him an enormous advantage over opposing bigs.
Horford does lack the star power of Love and Bosh, but Cleveland can still use that to their advantage. Horford is under contract for two more years for $24 million, which gives the Cavaliers more cap space to make maneuvers than with the maximum salary that Love would — and should — command. Horford’s injury history is scary, but a third torn pectoral muscle seems absurd at this point. However, that injury scare should drive Horford’s price down when he becomes a free agent, thus giving the Cavs even more flexibility.
Kevin Love is a top ten, possibly top seven player in the NBA. Al Horford is not that, but he is still a very talented player and one of the 25 best talents in the league. That said, basketball is not played in a vacuum; it’s a complex puzzle that not only needs good pieces, but pieces that can fit together and form the best product. Wiggins, Love, and Horford are all great pieces; but if Cleveland decides it is going to part with the young Wiggins in a trade, it makes more sense for the Cavaliers to look for love in other places, bypassing Minnesota and directing their attention to the Atlanta Hawks’ starting center.