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Has Kyrie Irving's return hurt Kevin Love? Why worrying about Love's shooting misses the point

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The short answer: no. The long answer reveals a few other things about how the Cavs' power forward is used in the offense, however, so it's worth a look.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at Kevin Love's numbers from before and after December 20th (the day Kyrie Irving made his season debut), they seem to indicate that Love struggles with the Cavs' All-Star point guard back in the lineup:

Kevin Love, pre- and post-Kyrie’s return

G

FG%

3P%

PTS

REB

AST

10/27-12/19

24

43.4%

37.0%

17.6

10.8

2.7

12/20- present

14

37.4%

35.3%

13.1

10.9

2.1

It's not just that his raw scoring average and usage rates have dropped; that's to be expected when an All-Star guard rejoins the rotation. There's just a little less production to go around. What's a bit concerning is the drop in field goal percentage. Is it possible the change in offense has negatively affected Love over the past month?

The answer is no. Don't let the stat line fool you. Diving into Love's numbers won't lead to an indictment of Irving, but they will reveal a few ways the offense has changed since he returned, both for the power forward specifically, and as a whole.

First things first, to put the idea that Love's slump and Kyrie's return are related: Love's current swoon actually began at the beginning of December. In the 7 games prior to Irving's debut, Love shot 35% from the floor and connected on just 6-of-28 threes. This came on the heels of a crazy 8 game stretch where he averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 assists on 54/52/84 shooting splits. In other words, he's been hot and cold, and that trend preceded Kyrie coming back to the lineup.

Secondly, thanks to NBAwowy, we can cut right to the heart of it - it tells how players perform with certain teammates on or off the floor. According to their figures, Love's effective field goal percentage is actually highest when he's paired with Kyrie at point guard, a little lower with Delly, and lowest with Mo Williams:

Love eFG% with different point guards

MIN

eFG%

USG%

w/ Kyrie

242

50.0%

20.6%

w/ Dellavedova

500

48.0%

24.9%

w/ Williams

337

45.7%

23.8%

With that more or less settled, let's try to get to the bottom of why he's struggled lately by examining where Love is taking his shots. Last season, Cleveland's new power forward had to adjust to a whole new role within a very talented offense, and it took awhile to get acclimated. In 2015-16, regardless whether Kyrie has been in or out, Love is shooting the ball from the same spots on the floor:

Love’s distribution of field goal attempts by area

At Rim

Short Midrange

Long Two

Corner 3

Above Break 3

10/27- 12/19

35.2%

11.4%

9.3%

10.5%

33.4%

12/20 - present

38.6%

11.7%

7.9%

10.4%

31.2%

But that's where the similarities stop. It's odd, and somewhat inexplicable, but Love's shooting percentages at those spots around the floor are roughly the same with or without Kyrie ... except for around the rim, where he's much, much worse since Irving came back:

Love’s field goal percentage by area

At Rim

Short Midrange

Long Two

Corner 3

Above Break 3

10/27- 12/19

56.4%

34.2%

35.4%

37.1%

36.9%

12/20 - present

39.7%

36.8%

38.4%

35.2%

35.2%

Strange, right? And hardly Kyrie's fault - that's almost certainly a coincidence. Either Love is simply slumping near the basket over the past month, or he's playing through some minor ailment that's keeping him from converting at the rim, or some combination of the two. During his time in Minnesota, Love hit between 54% and 58% of his close shots; last season he was at 50.9%, a career low, and so far this season, it's 50.6%. Unfriendly rims at the Q, maybe?

Another striking similarity between Love's first and second seasons in Cleveland is the rate at which he touches the ball at the elbow, in the post, and in the paint, specifically when all of the big three are healthy. Since Kyrie returned, Love gets 9.8 combined touches per game at those spots; when Kyrie was out, he averaged 14.3 total touches per game in those three locations. In short, Irving's return has regulated Love to the way he was used a year ago:

Breakdown of Kevin Love’s touches per game

G

Touches

Front court

Elbow

Post

Paint

Total (elbow, post, paint)

10/27- 12/19

24

66.8

39.3

4.3

5.8

4.2

14.3

12/20 – present

14

60.7

34.6

3.3

4.1

2.4

9.8

2014-15 season

75

64.9

37.1

2.9

4.0

2.6

9.5

But Love's "slump," as well as his dip in touches, haven't hurt the offense one bit. On the contrary: since December 20th, the Cavs' offensive rating is 106.5, up from 104.8 prior. Over that same stretch, when Love is on the floor, Cleveland scores 110.0 points per 100 possessions.

Perhaps it's time to stop fretting about highs and lows with Love's field goal percentages because his main asset is to be a threat. Whether he "deserves" more elbow and post touches (for what it's worth, I think he does) is almost a separate conversation. Even if he shot 40% from the field and 35% from three for the rest of the season, he'd be doing his job, because he'd be pulling his man a step further from the basket to aid drives from LeBron and Kyrie. His presence alone is valuable to an offense. Perhaps that's true of every good three-point shooter, but because Love's role is so meticulously scrutinized, it bears repeating. Simply pointing to his field goal percentages and raw scoring numbers doesn't accurately portray his impact.

Consider the bump in teammates' effective field goal percentages when Love is on the floor versus off of it:

Teammates’ eFG%, with and without Love

eFG% with Love

eFG% w/o Love

Difference

Mo Williams

59.3%

39.4%

19.9%

Richard Jefferson

63.8%

44.9%

18.9%

LeBron James

55.7%

44.9%

10.8%

Iman Shumpert

51.1%

46.9%

4.2%

Earl Smith, III

52.4%

49.4%

3.0%

Matthew Dellavedova

50.7%

52.3%

-1.6%

Kyrie Irving

43.9%

50.0%

-6.1%

LeBron's eFG% jumps ten points when Love is on the court with him. Mo Williams' is up twenty. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson - they're all better when their shaggy-haired stretch-four is in the game, and worse when he sits. The benefits of space are real, and are indicative of a player's effectiveness, but you have to know where to look to find numbers that support that reality. Simply glancing at a box score won't help you much.

That isn't to say Love is without fault. His defense, as everyone knows, is an issue, especially late in games. But he's also fighting an uphill battle with fans on the offensive end of the floor. Love is hitting just 35% of his fourth quarter field goals this season, and just 20% of them since Kyrie returned. Even if you understand, intellectually speaking, that Love provides offensive value in subtle ways, it's still terribly frustrating when the team needs a bucket late in a close game and he can't deliver. Those misses stick out. Love isn't shouldering as much of the load as he did in Minnesota (and is part of a Finals contender), which must be somewhat of a relief, but there's a price to pay. The pressure is turned up on the shots he does take.

He's a deadly decoy, and a great early game scorer, but when the Cavs need him to come to life late in big games, will he deliver? That's the question that's left to be answered.

We'll find out in April, May, and June.