Kevin Love’s first season in Cleveland was quite underwhelming.
LeBron James and he often appeared to be addressing each other through the media, the offense didn’t take full advantage of his skill-set and he was speculated to be dealing with a back injury for most of the year before Kelly Olynyk screwed up his shoulder in the first round of the postseason.
Based on how frustrated he looked at times, there was skepticism Love would return but he quickly signed on July 1 a five-year, $110 million contract to stay in Cleveland. James and he appear to have worked out whatever issues they had with each other on a meeting by a pool just before free agency opened and James has followed up in preseason by saying all the right things about just how important Love is going to be from now on.
Integrating Love to an offense shouldn’t be as challenging as the Cavaliers made it seem last season. He was a remarkable offensive player in Minnesota, a star that could create shots whichever way his team needed. Other than bringing the ball up the floor and running a pick-and-roll 25 feet away from the basket, everything was on the table with him.
A diverse post player, Love was able to score on hook shots, short drives or turnaround fadeaway jump-shots and also produce three-point shots for shooters spot-up on the weak-side. He helped facilitate offense from the elbows. He spot-up beyond the arc around Ricky Rubio-Nikola Pekovic pick-and-rolls. He was a deadly option out of the pick-and-pop. He could fake a hand-off, turn around and jack a quick one-dribble pull-up from the top of the key. He extended possessions.
All of this in an efficient manner too. According to basketball-reference, Love averaged 1.41 points per shot on 28.8% usage, converted 37.6% of his three-point shots, averaged three offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, shot 11 free throws per 100 possessions and assisted on a fifth of Minnesota’s scores when he was on the floor in his final year with the Timberwolves.
Of course James strongly suggested to the Cavs’ front office that he would prefer playing with a guy like that rather than a 19-year-old rookie.
Very few of those things carried over to Cleveland, though. David Blatt tried installing a Princeton offense that would probably take more advantage of Love’s skill-set but eventually gave up on it, transitioning to a spread pick-and-roll attack that bottled Love into a pure stretch-four role, spacing the floor around James- and Kyrie Irving-led pick-and-rolls on the middle of the floor. Over 40% of his shots were taken from the beyond the arc (a third of them from the corners) and over half of them were taken from beyond 16 feet.
Love eventually finished the season hitting his three-point shots at an above average clip, but last season could actually be considered an off year for him shooting the ball. According to NBA.com/stats, he converted 38.5% of his 345 three-point shots with no defender within four feet of him and 37.3% of his 362 overall catch-and-shoot three-point shots. Those are above average and damn good marks, but he was once even better, a 40% three-point shooter in both scenarios in his final season with the Timberwolves.
Love posted up more than most people realize, but not enough when you consider how efficient he was with his back to the basket. According to Synergy Sports, he finished (with a shot, free throw or turnover) 295 possessions out of post-ups, as these instances accounted for a quarter of his looks. Love averaged 0.98 points per possession on those, the second best mark for a player with a minimum of 250 post-ups and drew a shooting foul 15% of the time.
Love has significantly transformed his body since entering the NBA but has retained his core strength to establish deep position in the block. He doesn’t use that strength for power moves but downsizing against him is still a very risky proposition for most opponents. Relying on his footwork and crafty up-and-under moves, Love can get his shot off comfortably – blocked on just two of his 97 hook shot attempts last season.
Love didn’t put the ball on the floor as much, though, and did poorly when he attacked the basket off the bounce. There also weren’t many opportunities for him to run offense from the elbows or for him to crash the offensive glass due to his positioning far from the basket, assisting on just 10% of Cleveland’s scores when he was on the floor and collecting just 6.5% of Cleveland’s misses.
While it is clear that the Cavaliers didn’t maximize Love’s production, the question then becomes if this matters at all. Cleveland’s spread pick-and-roll offense was a bit anti-climactic when you consider this team had two of the best tall passers in the league but it was nonetheless mighty productive, averaging 118 points per 100 possessions after February 1. It is not ideal to have Love as a glorified Ryan Anderson but it’s hard to argue with the results, especially when one can assume he’ll make a higher percentage of his open looks if fully healthy.
Blatt has wiggle room to get Love more involved within this setting, though. Cleveland did well in the postseason with small-small pick-and-rolls; Irving, Matthew Dellavedova and JR Smith screening for James way high in the perimeter, then shooting a three-pointer off the catch or attacking off a live dribble with Tristan Thompson or Mozgov as an escape valve at the dunker spot. When 100%, Love is a more capable player off the dribble than we saw him be last season and should be an option for this play, as well as passing out of the short roll on tighter pick-and-rolls. Just having Love screen for the ball-handler is something that generally should be done more often.
His shooting and floor game could be more even impactful if he played some center but that’s off the table, at least for regular-season purposes, based on the presences of Mozgov, Anderson Varejão, Sasha Kaun and Thompson (who is expected to join the team eventually). And that’s probably for the best, as most of his impact on offense could be offset by his poor defense as a rim protector. Love can’t play above the rim as a shot blocker and generally doesn’t contest shots around the basket the way a big man is expected to, often giving up on contesting a shot in order to get a head-start on a potential rebounding opportunity. According to NBA.com’s SportVU, opponents shot 52.5% at the rim with Love within five feet of it.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara