With Kevin Love out, will Cavs drop top seed, play LeBron too much?

ByKEVIN PELTON via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
February 14, 2017, 2:31 PM

&#151; -- The struggling defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers took another hit to their talented lineup Tuesday, when ESPN's Dave McMenamin reported that All-Star forward Kevin Love will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

The initial timetable has Love missing the next six weeks, which would keep him out most of the remainder of the regular season. While the Cavaliers should be at full strength by the playoffs, with starting shooting guard J.R. Smith due back in mid-March, how much will they miss the two starters before they return? Does it open the door for the Boston Celtics or another team to pass them for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs?

Projecting Love-less Cleveland

Using a projected rotation with 10-day pickup Derrick Williams and veteran Richard Jefferson filling most of Love's minutes, the multi-year, predictive version of ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) suggests the Cavaliers will play at the level of a 47-win team without him in the lineup. That's about a nine-game decline from their 56-win projection with Love but without J.R. Smith.

Since Love can be expected to miss about 32 games if he returns on schedule, that's a three- or four-win swing if the RPM projections are accurate -- significant with the Boston Celtics just two games back in the standings. Simulations using ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) show the Celtics finishing three games back of Cleveland, so Love's injury opens the door to Boston claiming the top seed in the East.

The Toronto Raptors, six games back in the standings but having just added Serge Ibaka in a trade that was conveniently timed, could also be a threat. The Washington Wizards, currently just 4.5 games back, are less likely to catch the Cavaliers because of a road-heavy schedule and a relatively poor point differential for their record. BPI has them winning nine games fewer than Cleveland on average.

One thing BPI doesn't know is the Cavaliers will probably get Smith back from his fractured thumb before Love returns. McMenamin and Chris Haynes reported on Monday that Smith is on target for a mid-March return, which would boost Cleveland's depth.

Between now and then, the Cavaliers will count on Williams to supply some needed offensive punch. His athleticism has worked well in transition, with Williams getting easy baskets by running the court. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2011 Draft has made five of his six shot attempts in scoring 19 points in 42 minutes during his first two appearances for Cleveland. However, he's also grabbed just one rebound in that span.

More minutes for LeBron?

Even if Williams proves effective, the Cavaliers figure to have a tough time competing without LeBron James on the court in Love's absence. Per NBAwowy.com, Cleveland has been outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with James on the bench. Yet the Cavaliers are actually plus-5.4 per 100 possessions when Love plays without James, which hints at how bad they've been with neither All-Star forward.

In the 119 minutes Kyrie Irving has been the lone Cleveland star on the court, the team has been outscored by 20.5 points per 100 possessions.

Already, James has been logging entirely too many minutes, as documented by Tom Haberstroh -- more than 38 per game since the start of December and 37.6 per game overall, tied with Kyle Lowry of the Raptors for most in the league. Love's injury makes it less likely the Cavaliers will cut James' minutes or rest him more in the second half of the season. And that could have greater long-term implications in the playoffs than whether Cleveland is the top seed in the East.

After all, we've seen the Cavaliers win the East from the second seed before. In 2015, James' first season back in Cleveland, they swept the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals without Love.

Still, the Cavaliers have been relying so heavily on James during the regular season because they value finishing first in the East, and Love's absence will make it more difficult to earn. Cleveland doesn't have the luxury of shifting styles and playing bigger, slower, more defensive-minded lineups as in the 2015 playoffs.

Tristan Thompson can't replace Love at power forward because he's needed at center, where the Cavaliers have only Channing Frye as an alternative. And if Williams sticks around beyond the maximum two possible 10-day contracts, as James hopes, Cleveland will have to choose between adding a "playmaker" (as LeBron has asked for) and adding more size with the final roster spot cleared by Monday's Chris Andersen trade.

The Cavaliers' path to repeating as champions has already been bumpy because of injuries and roster limitations, and Love's injury only adds to that. While Cleveland hopes a rough regular season will be a distant memory by the time the NBA Finals roll around, James' heavy minutes and the possibility of going on the road for the Eastern Conference finals makes getting there somewhat less likely.

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