Twice in this relatively young season, the crew at Fear the Sword has gathered to hold a roundtable discussion of various issues surrounding the Cavaliers. Both occurred at low points; after the first edition, Cleveland snapped a four game losing streak, rattling off 8 straight wins and 12 of 15 overall.
Naturally, we took credit for inspiring the boys to get their act together with our insightful, honest roundtable. So when the Pistons strolled into the Q on December 28th and clobbered the Cavs by 23 points, we thought we'd try to spark the squad a second time. Since then, David Blatt's bunch has lost eight of nine, so either we used up all our magic the first time around, or what we write has no predictive value for how the team will play.
At any rate, although the first two roundtables of the season were technically published by me, I never answered any of the questions I asked my Fear the Sword colleagues. By the time they responded to my inquiries, I felt the pieces were long enough and they'd covered everything I wanted to say anyway. Today, however, that deference ends. I'm not even opening this up to the rest of the crew - I'm going solo in order to explore, and try to explain, just what in the world is going on with Kevin Love.
Q: You covered Kevin Love in Minnesota last season as a media member, and before that, you followed the team closely as a fan. Would you call yourself a Kevin Love expert?
A: Wow, I mean, that's very flattering, I don't know if that's what I'd say...
Q: Oh, get over yourself. So, you're a Kevin Love expert who has watched him closely for years. What the hell is going on with him?
A: Okay, fine, I'm a Kevin Love expert who has watched him closely for years. Guilty as charged. As for "what the hell is going on with him?" That's a very open-ended question.
Q: Alright, smart guy, I'll get more specific. Let's begin with the fact that he's shooting 43.6 percent from the field and is on pace to post his lowest True Shooting percentage since his second season in the league. He's supposed to be an elite, efficient scorer. Why hasn't he been that for the Cavaliers?
A: A variety of factors, some of them structural and some of them flukey. On the flukey side of things, he's shooting just 34.1 percent on "wide-open threes" (as defined by SportVu) this season, compared to 43.6 percent last season. Overall, his catch and shoot three point percentage is down from 39.8 pecent last year to 35.6 percent this year. Both of those statistics feel flukey - this is a guy who's won a three-point shootout, after all. He's got a great jump shot, but for whatever reason, it's not falling quite like it used to. While he might not ascend to last year's rate, we should see a progression to the mean in the near future.
Structurally speaking, his elbow touches are down from 11.6 per game (with Minnesota in 2013-14) to just 3.2 per game this season, a colossal change in usage, especially considering how effective he was at both scoring and distributing from that area. Overall, his front court touches are down nearly 20 percent (49.7 per game to 40.3), which was expected given the presence of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and explains the decline in raw scoring numbers (26.4 points per game last season, 17.8 this season). The ripple effect of fewer touches has impacted his free throw rate (lowest of his career) and the fact that he's spending more time standing on the perimeter has hurt his rebounding as well (lowest offensive and total rebounding rates of his career).
He's being used as a floor spacer rather than an initiator, and he's had a really tough time adjusting. As I wrote a month and a half ago, the majority of his three point shots have shifted from the left wing to the corner - and while the corner three is the most idealized, high percentage shot in basketball, that doesn't mean Kevin Love is automatically comfortable shooting them.
Q: Ah, yes, I'm glad you brought up that article you wrote a month and a half ago. What was the title of that article again?
A: I'd rather not say.
Q: Come on, be a sport, would you?
A: Fine. The title of the article was "Kevin Love is getting comfortable in Cleveland, and Cavaliers opponents should be very afraid."
Q: Uh huh. And has Kevin Love gotten comfortable?
A: (Sighing) No. He has not.
Q: (Mumbling) Some expert you are...
A: Excuse me?
Q: Moving along, you brought up elbow distribution earlier. Love is a skilled passer - especially on outlets - why haven't we seen many of those this season?
A: Part of it has to do with a lack of familiarity with the personnel, but the primary reason we haven't seen all those Love-to-LeBron or Love-to-Kyrie outlet passes we spent the summer dreaming about is because in order to get runouts, you have to get stops, and the Cavaliers have the fifth lowest Defensive Rating in the NBA at the moment.
Q: I'm glad you brought up defense...
A: Oh, boy, here we go...
Q: Why is Kevin Love so bad at it? Is he the main problem with Cleveland's defense, or is there something else to point to? Was he always this terrible? Did Wolves fans, who spent last season in a breathless tizzy assuring everyone that he really wasn't "that bad a defender," sell the Cavs damaged goods?
A: He's certainly not good. There were times last season that he looked perfectly fine - keep in mind that the Wolves finished 15th in the league in defensive rating with Love leading the team in minutes - but it's hard not to be frustrated watching him on that end of the floor. His butt-whupping at the hands of Markeiff Morris and subsequent fourth quarter benching are fresh in everyone's mind, but what's most aggravating about Love's defense is deeper than any individual game or matchup. He just doesn't get his hands up quickly or often enough, a point the great Zach Lowe has been harping on:
"Love talked a big game about washing away his warts on that end, but he hasn’t walked it yet. He still admires his 3-point shots while his defender happily leaks out in transition. Love will never be a rim protector, but just trying can help. Raise your arms, jump in the air, and cause at least some sort of distraction.
There are just too many possessions on which Love does nothing as a help defender. He watches the game happen to him."
He's always been this way. Will he change? Can he change? No idea. He's said that he'd be willing to "sweep the floors" to win an NBA championship. The past few years, all he talked about in Minnesota was wanting to win. He's got the chance to do so, now, but so far he doesn't seem willing to shore up the one glaring weakness in his game, which is odd, because if you know the stories about his workout regimens and offseason training habits, you know he's devoted to basketball.
Is he the only problem with the team's defense? Far from it. While the arrival of Timofey Mozgov ought to help the team protect the paint, the pick and roll defense is still an issue. Shawn Marion, LeBron James and Iman Shumpert profile as great wing defenders, but each has dealt with injuries this season. Kyrie Irving has gotten better on the ball, but effective pick and roll defense requires team chemistry and communication between all five players on the floor, and those simply aren't present yet.
I can't speak for Wolves as a monolithic group; the only things I've ever personally written about Love's defense were tough, but fair (in my extremely biased opinion). One thing I will say about Love - team defense is sometimes hard to evaluate. We don't always know who is responsible for breakdowns. If the Cavs were a top-10 team and Love's on/off splits were egregious, that'd be one thing - but the team is two points better per 100 when he's on the court and Kyrie Irving's defensive rating is actually worse than Love's.
Q: Let's close with this - recently, Kevin Love stated that he intends to decline his early termination option at the end of the season, which would keep him on the books with the Cavaliers for $16.74 million in 2015-16, and that he'd be a free agent afterwards. He appears to be committed to Cleveland long-term. Can he be the third-best player on a title team? Or are the concerns about his game enough to make you believe the team might be wise to at least consider alternatives?
A: Look - I might not be a Kevin Love "expert," but let me put all my cards on the table: when he's going right and is being used properly, he is my favorite basketball player to watch. Period. He's unique, crafty, tough, and possesses a devastating combination of finesse and power on both post moves and perimeter shots. I still watch this clip every once in awhile, and it makes me happy.
So, yes, I'm a fan of Kevin Love. Please consider that as you read the following...
I don't understand why David Blatt is using him the way he is. Keeping Love at the elbow has its issues - for one thing, wings have to be in the corner to provide spacing and cutters, which hurts transition defense on missed shots - but to use Love as a floor spacing big roving around the perimeter on the weak side sort of feels like using a yacht to troll around to fishing spots on a tiny lake. You have a friggin' yacht, David Blatt - take that thing to the ocean (er, Lake Erie, I guess). Maybe if his offensive confidence improves, his defensive effort will as well.
In a perfect world, players would give maximum effort and focus on one end of the floor no matter what's happening on the other end, but that's just not how it works in the NBA. Some guys feed off getting stops or blocking shots, others off of getting buckets. Love definitely falls into the latter category. I'm not saying the Cavs ought to copy the Wolves' playbook from last season, but if they bumped Love's elbow touches up to seven or eight per game, it'd do wonders for both their offensive efficiency and Love's individual confidence.
I said all that so I can say this: if this is how Blatt plans to use Love, then the franchise is at a crossroads and has a bit of a decision to make. If Love isn't an ideal fit for Blatt's offensive scheme, and is unwilling to be content molding his offensive game to fit what he's being asked to do, maybe they'd be better served to look for someone else who would share the coach's vision (and plays better defense).
Do I think this is a plausible scenario? Not really. Coaches have been proven to be eminently more replaceable than players, and Blatt's got way more problems than just his relationship with / usage of Kevin Love. Provided Love is used correctly and has a rim protecting center alongside him, I have no doubt in my mind he could be the third banana on a team that contends for a title.
So, who budges? Love or Blatt?
It sucks Cleveland finds themselves in this position, but while Wolves fans spent a lot of time and energy defending Kevin Love's defense, no one ever said that he makes things easy or that he isn't a little high maintenance. This is what the Cavs acquired when they traded for him; this was part of the package deal. Do they have the organizational strength to make the most of it? Time will tell.
Q: Sheesh, long-winded, much?
A: Shut up.