February's been a good month for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team is 6-2, with nice wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, and Washington Wizards, and they've gotten back to within half a game of the three-seed in the Eastern Conference. The defense has finally climbed out of the bottom ten in the league in efficiency, and the offense is as glorious as ever.
There have been many factors contributing to the Cavs' sustained success. They've been consistently healthy this month, minus Shawn Marion's hip issues. They've played a relatively easy schedule, with the Clippers, Heat, and Wizards all struggling, and the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers also on their docket. They're shooting 37.5 percent from three as a team for the month. And probably most importantly, Kevin Love's been playing really well.
Love's had his struggles this year, for certain. He's still posting his lowest per-36 numbers for scoring and rebounding since his rookie season. Love has been a target for criticism the entire season, from fans, media, and his teammates. Heck, it was just barely over a month ago that Love's play forced William Bohl to start talking to himself in a roundtable. It feels like we're a long ways away from Love averaging 26/13/4 last season.
And if you look at Love's base stats for February, there's not much that's been impressive. Through seven February contests (he missed the Bulls game after getting poked in the eye by Mario Chalmers against the Heat), Love is averaging a season-low 14.6 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game, and 2.6 assists per game. His usage rate has been 20.4 percent, which seems ridiculous given his talents, and besides going off against the Lakers for 32 points and 10 rebounds, he's had some poor scoring performances, including two five-point efforts in the 76ers and Pacers games that sandwiched the Lakers performance. So why did I claim Love's play has been helping drive the Cavs this month? Because a deeper look shows that Love's play is currently at its most efficient.
Love's posted his best shooting numbers of the season in February. Here are his shooting numbers by month, showing February's been his strongest overall showing:*
For purposes of sample size, I'm combining October and November in this article, creating a 15-game sample instead of a random two-game sample and a 13-game sample.
|Oct & Nov (15G)||17.3||43.9||37.3||84.0||57.6|
Love's posting his best field goal percentage and three-point percentage over a sustained stretch in February, and while his attempts have dropped slightly (11 FGAs per game in February compared to 13 FGAs per game for the season), he's hitting much more efficiently, especially from three-point range. Given where his numbers were in December and January, the rise in efficiency is welcome, even if it has come with Love being less involved in the offense.
Love is also rebounding at a better rate than he has all season. While his per-game numbers are again down, he's posting his best total rebound rate of the season, at 18.1 percent. This has come because Love's been better on the defensive glass, grabbing 8.9 defensive rebounds per game, again his season-best for a month. The Cavs have been a league-average defensive rebounding team this season, despite the rebounding talent on the roster, but Love's been getting better over the past two months after an absent November (6.8 DREBs/game), and that's helped the Cavs both on the glass and overall on defense.
Defensively, Love's February has been quite good. Love's three most commonly used lineups this month have defensive ratings under 90 points allowed/100 possessions, and in an admittedly small sample-size, the Cavs have been 19.2 points/100 possessions worse defensively with Love on the bench in February. A good amount of this is influenced by time spent with Timofey Mozgov; the Cavs' DRtg is 87.9 with both Love and Mozgov on the floor and 106.1 with Love but no Mozgov in February, per nbawowy.com. However, we shouldn't just discount the effectiveness of this pairing as being all Mozgov's doing. Love and Mozgov look like they've developed solid defensive chemistry. Love's been a good post-up defender this season per Synergy data (81st percentile), and he's gotten particularly good at funneling his man into Mozgov help defense in the post. Watch the first clip of Mozgov's highlights against the Heat for an example:
Love sets himself in front of this Bosh face-up, and when Bosh drives left, Love forces Bosh away from the middle of the lane and into Mozgov, lurking on the weak side. As a result of this chemistry, lineups with this two-man unit have allowed just 50.9 percent shooting in the restricted area, per NBA.com's media stats page. It's something to monitor as we continue on towards the end of the season.
But seriously, it's not just playing with Mozgov when it comes to Love's defense. Player-tracking data has backed up that Love's been better defensively in February too. Love's opponents are shooting five percent worse than average when he's defending them, per SportVU data, and he's been forcing a worse shooting percentage on all types of shots that are tracked. Interestingly, Love's been defending more away from the basket, where he's been pretty good, allowing opponents to shoot 7.5 percent worse from 15 feet, which has accounted for 45.6 percent of his total defensive possessions. For the season, Love's defended beyond 15 feet on 34 percent of his possessions, allowing opponents to shoot 1.2 percent worse than their average. Love's been a better individual defender in February, and it appears that being asked to defend more away from the basket, where he can be more aggressive and doesn't have as much of his neurotic fouling apathy that comes when defending at the rim. Sticking Love on a big with better shooting touch and letting Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, and Kendrick Perkins handle the rim seems like it could be the answer for the Cavs' interior defense.
Love may not be putting up the gaudy numbers that we were used to when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But despite his early struggles and controversy about his relationship with LeBron James, Love has been incredibly effective over the past month. His offense has become more about quality over quantity, and defensively, he's contributed to the recent God-status of the Cavs' D thanks to his individual defense and budding relationship with Mozgov. If he keeps playing like this, it won't matter that his scoring is down. The Cavs will be getting an incredibly efficient Love, and that's a Love that this team can absolutely succeed with.