CLEVELAND -- It's true that Kevin Love could be the key to the NBA Finals. But it's wrong to think it has anything to do with his play in this series for the Cleveland Cavaliers, or his possible return from a concussion for Game 3 on Wednesday.
The real impact of Love is the fact the Cleveland Cavaliers made the mistake of adding him to their team two years ago -- and that the Golden State Warriors, in an act of prophesy and basketball brilliance, did not.
Let's start with Love: He's not the missing piece Cleveland expected when it added him after LeBron James' return. Indeed, the assumption that, with Kyrie Irving, Cleveland would boast another version of the Big Three with which to attack the league has proved to be false.
Let's move on to Andrew Wiggins: The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, he was moved to Minnesota despite the short-sightedness that such a move required.
And let's get to Klay Thompson: He could have been moved for Love, sending Love to Golden State -- a move that would have ended, before it began, the Warriors' rise to all-time great status.
Love, to say the least, does not fit into this Cavaliers offense (or, perhaps as important, into the chemistry of his team) even remotely the way various Warriors players do. This is beyond dispute. Offensively alone, Love averaged fewer points per game this regular season (16) than Wiggins did with Minnesota (20.7).
The argument goes that players on bad teams get more shots, and inflated stats. But Love was supposed to be more than merely some player, and Wiggins shares space on the roster with a tantalizingly talented core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and more.
And that's all before we factor in Love's lackluster defense in an era where defense is paramount, and finding a way to mitigate the Warriors' scoring proficiency is a must.
Love is not exactly a defensive net-positive. And given the Cavaliers' self-defeating need to match the Warriors' up-tempo pace of play, he's even more of a drag. Wiggins, on the other hand, would have been a key piece -- as a perimeter defender, an athletic scorer, and in how the dominoes have fallen so differently for Cleveland.
With Wiggins, Kyrie's brutal pick-and-roll defense could have been somewhat covered up the way, well, Klay Thompson has offset Steph Curry's defensive deficiencies. Without Wiggins, and with Love, the Warriors have predictably feasted on the Cavs' weak perimeter defense -- a factor that has helped Golden State exploit open 3-pointers to the tune that even Draymond Green is being half-jokingly described as a Splash Brother, and the Warriors continue to enjoy seamless backdoor baskets because of the team's superior spacing.
But there's more, and it revolves around Thompson and the guts to avoid the temptation of landing a big-name player, despite the voices of a majority that did not agree. Two years ago, when the Cavs gave away Wiggins -- and their cap space and flexibility -- the Warriors faced a similar internal debate about acquiring Love. All while the zeitgeist was that landing Love would be a coup.
In a move that would have required moving Thompson -- one that had healthy support among some quarters of the Warriors' higher-ups -- one of the greatest basketball evaluators in league history put his foot down.
Jerry West saw things as they were, when, according to a Sports Illustrated report, he threatened to quit as Golden State's head consultant if the Warriors moved Klay Thompson as part of a package for Kevin Love.
Think about that: When Thompson was just a guy, and Love was a scoring and rebounding machine, the man who saw Kobe Bryant for what he was and recalibrated Memphis into a winner bet on his instincts over the sexy, easy-to-please move.
He knew what all of us know now: That Love's defense is a giant liability. That Thompson, who's already a smart and rock-solid defender, would continue to develop into an offensive weapon who surpassed what Love can do on that side of the ball. That the very nucleus and makeup of this Warriors team would be enhanced by having Thompson instead of Love.
That's obvious now, but two years ago, it was far from certain.
In some alternate universe, Klay Thompson is part of the growing threat the Timberwolves will soon present in the West, the Cavaliers are in the Finals with Channing Frye as that stretch four and Wiggins (perhaps much more developed under the tutelage of LeBron and the more limited scope of his duties on a championship-contending team) is a critically important component, and the Warriors are sitting at home wondering if Durant will get the better of LeBron this time.
In this alternate NBA universe, the Cavaliers could also go big and long and more athletic in a similar way Oklahoma City vexed Golden State early in the Western Conference finals by going big. Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Wiggins could be the complementary balance to LeBron and Kyrie you don't find with Love in the mix.
But it wouldn't matter. Because, in a timeline where Love is a Warrior, Thompson a Timberwolf and Wiggins a Cavalier, the Warriors aren't even in this series. Going big against them is as important as going big against, say, Portland. It's a nonstarter.
This is far from hyperbole. Thompson, throughout Golden State's 73-win regular season and its subsequent playoff push to the Finals, has stepped up when needed and been the best player on the floor in key moments. A flurry of 3s, a level of surprising defense (including, at times, against LeBron), a decoy who opens the Warriors' whole flow and spacing -- he has been utterly critical.
But more than that, the Warriors simply wouldn't be the Warriors without him. Green's role, for starters, would have shifted, and with it the very brilliance of this team. Team sports, like life and relationships, are alchemy, and the brew that brought this Warriors team to greatness -- while still maintaining a sense of the individuals who really, truly like each other and playing together -- probably would not have happened at all.
Just as, perhaps through no fault of his own, Kevin Love was a very smart idea on paper that doesn't add up in the harsh light of actual life.
So, yes, Kevin Love is the most important player on the floor this series. But not in a way many would have thought two years ago.
His power and effect comes in the fact Cleveland made the mistake to add him at the cost of Wiggins, and the Warriors, behind the wisdom of Jerry West, had the courage to see the future for what it actually was.