Preseason prognostications, including ours at Fear the Sword, predicted big things for the Cleveland offense this season. Though they've had some issues gelling on that end of the floor, appearing at times to be a bit disjointed, hurried or overly concerned with "taking turns," the Cavs currently rank sixth in offensive efficiency (107.1 points per 100 possessions) and seventh in True Shooting percentage, not bad for a team that's still learning how to play with one another.
Kyrie Irving has been terrific on offense and LeBron James has been his usual stellar self, but until recently, the third member of Cleveland's superstar triumvirate was a little off. In his first 12 games of the season, Kevin Love averaged 16.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists while 40 percent shooting from the field - somewhat subpar numbers for a three-time All Star and two-time Second Team All-NBA player. Naturally, the think pieces started to roll in, some good, some not so good, and some laughably bad. Everyone was eager to point out that something was wrong, but what Love really needed was exactly what the rest of the team needed - just a little bit more time to get better.
During Cleveland's four game winning streak, Love is averaging 22 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 62/50/76 shooting splits. During that span, the Cavs are 12 points better per-100 possessions when Love is on the court, and his +30.5 Net Rating per-100 is tops on the team. In other words, Love has started to look more comfortable and is figuring things out in his new surrounding. Everyone on Cleveland's schedule should be very, very afraid.
A quick look at Love's shot chart from the beginning of the season through November 19th, compared side by side with his shot chart since, reveals a couple of reasons for Love's sudden improvement:
Two things stand out: first, he's improved drastically around the rim, jumping from 39 percent to 62 percent shooting inside. Secondly, he's beginning to get a little more comfortable shooting from the left corner, where Cleveland's offensive sets often land him. Are these improvements trends or mirages? Is there reason to believe that Love's hot shooting from both locations, even though the sample sizes above are small, can continue? The answer to both questions is a firm "yes."
Love's interior scoring is progressing to the mean.
Last season, Kevin Love converted 240 of the 359 shots (67 percent) he took inside of 8 feet (the innermost circle above). His career average from that location is 60.2 percent, beginning at 55 percent during his rookie campaign of 2008-09 and steadily improving every year since. Possessing a terrific post-up game and adept at grabbing offensive rebounds for putbacks and tip-ins, Love is one of the toughest covers in the sport when he's inside the paint.
Love started his Cleveland career a tad slowly in this department. Sure, his offensive rebounding rate has slowed considerably, but even when he had the ball in the paint, whether it was on post-ups or cleaning up the glass, he couldn't convert. Through 10 games he was shooting under 40 percent close to the basket; but in the past six, Love has taken nearly six interior shots per game and made 62 percent of them.
He's begun to turn it around because the Cavs are posting him up a bit more. Love is also taking advantage of the team's fantastic spacing and driving to the hoop when there's a lane available. And, of course, the pick-and-roll chemistry between Love and Kyrie and LeBron is improving, as is the two-man game between Love and Anderson Varejao:
Love's recent surge inside the paint is actually not a surge at all - it's merely a progression to his career average. If the Cavaliers continue to use Love in the manner they have the past four games, expect him to continue having success - he's proven to be more than adequate in the post as a scorer, as well as the occasional dribble driver, provided the spacing is right.
Life in the corner: the differences between Love's old 3-point shooting habits and his new ones
Of Kevin Love's 205 field goal attempts and 75 three-point attempts this season, 33 of them have come from the corner three area. In other words, 44 percent of Love's threes and 16 percent of his total shots have come from the corners. In his Timberwolves career, those percentages were nine and two percent, respectively. Not only are Love's shots skewed more drastically towards the three than ever before, the place he is taking three pointers has also changed. Despite the new way he is being used in David Blatt's system, he's still shot the ball pretty consistently from beyond the arc, hitting 39% of his outside shots.
While it's true that corner threes are higher percentage shots, and therefore Love shooting more of those than he ever has before ought to be an immediate boost to his success rate, it's not quite that simple. The footwork for shooting a three-pointer in transition, on a pick and roll or off of a pinch post is much different than out of the corner. Take a look at what he was used to:
A lot of straight catch-and-shoots, either off pick and roll or because his defender sagged off of him too far. There were also a bunch of transition threes:
As well as pinch pick and rolls, which look a lot like moving screens, but ignore that for the time being:
When he was shooting primarily from the wing, Love was either moving toward the hoop (following in transition), somewhat laterally on a catch and shoot (pick and roll especially) or taking a single step back on a pinch post.
Nowadays, a majority of Love's threes are still coming from either of the wings or straight away, but only a slight majority (56 percent to 44 percent) instead of an overwhelming one (91 percent to nine percent) he began the season by making just 4-of-13 corner threes, in part because of how different the pre-shot footwork is. He still gets to move laterally for a catch-and-shoot on occasion, but primarily Love has had to adjust to backpedaling to the corner away from the post in order to provide spacing as Kyrie or LeBron drives the lane. It's a common thing for three-point shooters to do, but since Love had done it so little (113 corner attempts in 364 career games entering this season), it's taken him time to adjust.
In the past six games, Kevin Love has hit 5-of-11 corner threes, including 4-of-7 from the left corner. A small sample size? Sure, but it appears he's becoming much more comfortable with his new responsibilities:
Is there reason to believe that Love can continue to build on his recent hot streak? Absolutely. Improved finishing around the rim, given his more-than-half-decade-long track record of shooting just north of 60 percent inside eight feet, feels like a near certainty. Whether his from outside the arc, particularly in the left corner, can continue is a bit more hazy. It takes some players several years to develop the footwork necessary to become a skilled wing and corner catch-and-shoot artist. But again, given Love's solid mechanics and the creating abilities of both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, it's easy to see how Love could be the ultimate corner threat, provided he's comfortable backpedaling to his spot.