One of the constant criticisms the Cavs and David Blatt faced during their brief partnership was the perceived misuse of Kevin Love. Every few weeks it seemed like the focus of NBA analysts and fans shifted to Love, and how he wasn’t getting touches in the Cavs’ offense, how Love’s numbers were down from his years with the Timberwolves, and whether or not Love needed to be more aggressive in looking for his offense, or if Blatt needed to find more ways to get him involved.
Fitting three high-usage offensive players into one offensive system was bound to stir up opinions and controversies, and the parallels to LeBron James’ time in Miami with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are almost too obvious.
Much like Bosh, Love seems like the odd man out who has had to sacrifice the most touches for the good of the team. Every national TV broadcast will have “getting Kevin Love involved” listed as one of the keys for the Cavaliers. In the eyes of many fans, Love has taken the ungrateful role of the much-maligned third wheel, with Vines pointing out bad defensive plays as his most viewed highlights – much in the way people criticized Bosh for being “soft” and not rebounding.
This season, Love is scoring just 16.1 points per game, down from 26.1 in his final year with the Timberwolves. Love’s field goal attempts are down from 18.5 to 12.9, and his free throw attempts have more than halved from 8.2 to 3.8. With Kyrie Irving back in the lineup, Love’s usage rate has dropped to just 22.1 percent – a number comparable to players such as Shabazz Muhammad, CJ Miles and JJ Hickson.
Love was at the center of everything the Timberwolves did, and Rick Adelman’s corner offense was a perfect fit with Love, allowing him to work as the primary playmaker (Love’s assists are down from 4.4 to 2.4 per game), scorer, and remain as the primary threat for the defense even if Love only functioned as a decoy.
Under Blatt, the Cavs ran under an offensive system that heavily featured spread pick-and-rolls, or actions that flowed into pick-and-rolls with the middle of the floor open. In Blatt’s system, Love functioned primarily as a threat to spread the floor, and they ran virtually no high-post action where Love got to use his strengths as a playmaker.
However, the Cavs have used the threat of Love’s shooting in some creative ways. For example, in this play (a creative twist on a horns set) Love works as a screener for a cutter curling to the lane, and his defender Kevin Garnett doesn’t want to leave Love to pop to the three-point line for an easy jumper, meaning he doesn’t stunt middle to take away the pass leading to an easy layup at the rim.
The Cavs have also mixed in cross-screens and other quick action to get LeBron and Love touches in the post, and you’d be surprised to know that Love actually gets a ton of scoring opportunities in the low post, ranking 14th in total post-up possessions per Synergy Sports. Love has been among the top scorers in the post this season, scoring 1.03 points per possession while getting fouled at an elite 20.4 percent rate, numbers which put him in the 90th percentile in efficiency.
This is to say, despite what many may think, Blatt is and was a very smart coach and implemented genuinely insightful offensive schemes, and despite Love not functioning as a high-volume scorer, the Cavs have been able to take advantage of some of his strengths in creative, yet sometimes non-obvious, ways. Cleveland has committed to running an offense where the bigs don’t facilitate much, but that also creates space for Irving and James to get into the middle of the floor and the paint. With four shooting threats on the court, it’s tough to rotate over without being completely destroyed by a barrage of three-pointers, and LeBron has always been the master at picking apart defenses with his passing.
Overall, though, Love has failed to be efficient in his new role and is shooting a poor 42.4 percent from the field. Love isn’t a great shooter efficiency-wise, but he’s shooting a pretty good 37.1 percent on 5.6 attempts per game. Volume is just as important as efficiency in forcing the defense to react to you.
The Cavs are among only three teams that rank in the Top 5 in offensive and defensive efficiency (the Spurs and Warriors being the other two), and with Love on the court the team has outscored opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions, compared to being outscored by 0.9 points with him off the court. More notably, Love currently ranks 13th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, ranking as a clear plus-contributor on both ends of the floor.
Love is still an elite defensive rebounder, even if his offensive rebounding numbers have more than halved from the beginning of his career, which allows Cleveland to finish offensive possessions and get into transition. Defensively, Love has shown improved effort and activity, and it’s obvious his effort has been more consistent than in previous years. Love’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus of +2.0 ranks him 16th among 95 qualified power forwards.
Love defensive recovery
Opponents are shooting 50.8 percent at the rim with Love defending the play, which isn’t great but isn’t terrible either. In 2014-15, that number was 52.7 percent, and the previous year when Love was with the Timberwolves, opponents made a hilarious 57.5 percent.
Love doesn’t have the foot speed to switch or chase shooters in opposing small-ball lineups around the perimeter, he has a tough time closing out and isn’t the longest rim protector out there, but in the team concept Love has clearly worked his way to above average – a massive improvement from years past.
Mainly, the problem with Love’s fit has less to do with him not being aggressive, or calling for more touches – or any other easy basketball cliche that can thought of thrown around. It’s a resource allocation issue.
The Cavs are paying Love big money over the next five years, but when he functions as just a stretch big in the offense, probably around 85 percent of what Love does could be replaced much cheaper. And even though Love is among the best stretch bigs in the game, teams have become increasingly adept at guarding lineups where one of the bigs can shoot. Almost every team is forced to defend and employ small-ball lineups, and an elite shooter at the power forward position doesn’t automatically break defenses anymore. If you’re not using Love as the hub of the offense and a playmaker, a stretch big is what you have reduced Love into.
Getting Love to be a bigger threat is also surprisingly difficult. He’s already getting enough post-ups and sure, the Cavs could implement sets to take advantage of Love more, but it could also take the Cavs out of their system and what the team wants to run. Blatt could have run more actions on the high-post and use Irving and James more as cutters than ballhandlers in high-pick and rolls, but that would be a pretty big shift from what the team had been doing, and the way they played under Blatt took the Cavs all the way to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
The Cavs have at least three bigs that are expected to play minutes in Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Love. Love has a tough time defending the rim as a center, and more than likely some of the most dangerous lineups in the playoffs will include James as the de-facto power forward in faster and smaller lineups. James’ best position in shorter stints is power forward in the modern NBA.
Unlike Bosh, who could transition off-the-ball into a nightmarish stretch five that created problems for even the smartest and best defenses and who always stayed as one of the best and most versatile pick-and-roll defenders in the league – something Bosh never got credit for – Love’s abilities don’t scale particularly well to being just a third option… even if he’s worked to become a better defender and his ability to score inside and out creates problems for the defense.
For Cleveland, and considering the difference between them and the next-tier of teams in the Eastern Conference, it isn’t too early to start thinking about potential Finals matchups. Playing Love close to 40 minutes per game against the Spurs shouldn’t be such a huge issue, though the Spurs would be favored in that potential series by just as much as the Golden State. Against the Warriors, having Love out there for long stretches seems untenable defensively.
As shown by the Warriors in the 34-point romping in their last game against the Cavaliers, Love is just too slow to be on the court defensively. The Warriors will hunt Love down and put him in endless pick-and-rolls until the Cavs are forced to pull him, and if they don’t, there seems to be no satisfactory way of Love guarding those actions. Tyronn Lue can try and hide Love on Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes all he wants, but it won’t matter… The Warriors will always find him and it’ll be his man setting the pick for Curry every single time.
What the Cavs should do next is a conundrum. As of now, it looks like they will be huge underdogs no matter who comes out of the Western Conference. But Love is still one of the best power forwards in the NBA, and many teams would be thrilled to trade for him for a sizable ransom. A trade however, would introduce unknowns for a team that is almost a lock to make it into the Finals barring multiple injuries or complete collapse. Though after the Blatt firing, who knows what the Cavs (*cough* LeBron) are thinking. Give Pat Riley credit for sticking with Erik Spoelstra after the Heat faltered in their first season.
A coaching change doesn’t necessarily improve any of the problems with the lineups, or X’s and O’s. It’s too late to implement a completely different offensive philosophy, and if you’ll remember, Blatt tried to institute a Princeton-style offense when he started his tenure, which would have fit Love well, but that offense was quickly ruled over and scrapped by James wanting to run high pick-and-rolls and work in a “Magic Johnson” role. This is the offense the Cavs are going to run. Lue may be well liked and respected by the players, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to being a better coach. Blatt was a legend in Europe, and had he been empowered by the organization to lead, perhaps the results would have been better.
Though I’m still slightly skeptical Lue is going to be make any really useful changes, the Cavs have shown flashes of running a bit more – in spots. The Cavaliers’ pace is slightly up, but their 94.9 rating ranks 28th in the NBA. As a bright spot, the Cavs have clearly tried to get Love involved more, and during the starts of second quarters when Irving and James sit, the majority of the sets have gone to Love, and Lue has implemented some nice high-post action reminiscent of what Rick Adelman ran for Love with the Timberwolves. Four of the first five sets the Cavs ran against the Pistons on Thursday featured Love as the first option or the primary decision-maker in the play.
The first signs of the Cavs seriously putting effort into playing at a higher pace came in their matchup against the Spurs. Love, particularly in the first half, became the beneficiary of the Spurs’ defense having to scramble out to shooters by getting open and miss matches in the post. Love got to show his entire repertoire, and if the Cavs are able to keep up the same effort and intensity in future games and in the playoffs, they’ll be a serious threat to anyone.
Changing coaches in the middle of the season goes against all the ideals about how title contenders should build continuity. The amount of changes the Cavs can make are limited, and they’ll be largely running the same offensive system as before. However, by getting their pace up and optimizing certain things – perhaps implementing a few clever things for Love – it’s possible the Cavaliers will be able close the gap with the very best teams.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.