For a while there, throughout the mid-to-late 2000s/early 2010s, the rise of "superteams" and "big threes" caused waves of frustration. Not that similar things hadn’t happened before, but it seemed to preview what could have been a new era of dramatic talent polarization in the NBA and a slew of player-structured coups to corner championships and manufacture dynasties.
While I’m sure that those reservations still exist to some degree, it all didn’t play out quite as expected. Sure, Boston grabbed their title, and LeBron cleared two rings with the Heat, but their anticipated longterm dominance never set in. We learned merging megastars sometimes leads to overlapping skill sets and awkward chemistry, and although it could obviously still be a create a viable multiple championship grabber, it also sent a team into win-now mode, as a clear window caused instant pressure, and gave very little room for further personnel adjustments. It’s a gamble as much as it is hitting the jackpot, although, in most circumstances (see Brooklyn as an exception) it’s a no-brainer roll of the dice.
And then there was/is the problem of dealing with the teams that refuse to stop being good (currently, and seemingly perpetually, the Spurs) and those that rise quickly (currently Golden State). And since the Cleveland Cavs are in the "superteam" hot seat, with expectations rising and falling through ups and downs, LeBron James and company currently continue to work toward am elusive title as they get healthy. As they’re once again playing together, here’s a quick offensive breakdown of the direction of Love and LeBron’s season so far, and what Kyrie has and should contribute to the mix.
The appropriate place to start seems to be with Kevin Love, since the most change inside the realm of the Cavs offense has been thrown his way. At the beginning of the season, LeBron said that Love would be "the focal point" of the offense. "I know I can go out and get mine when I need it,"James said after an October win versus Memphis, per Dave McMenamin from ESPN. "But I need Kev to be as aggressive as he was tonight, and when he rebounds at the level he did tonight, the shots will automatically fall for him."
The basic stats from this last season compared to this year for Love haven’t been all that different, as you can see below — he had a better November in 2015 and a betterDecember in 2014.
November 2014: 45 FG%, 38.2 3P%, averaging 17.2 points per game.
November 2015: 47 FG%, 41.2 3P%, averaging 19.9 points per game.
December 2014: 41.7 FG%, 31.6 3P%, averaging 16.3 points per game.
December 2015: 37.3 FG%, 27.1 3P%, averaging 12.7 points per game.
But, the most noticeable difference is the team’s commitment to finding clever ways to use Love, working the ball to him inside and out, trying to find spaces and plays and mismatches that can bring the most out of his versatile abilities with the ball. The Cavs have a little less to prove this year during the regular season, comparatively to what happened last year, with that rocky start that brought forward more questions than answers. But, they’re comfortable with this team, unlike December 2014, which means there’s room to experiment. And when there is consistency and chemistry and smart plays drawn up for Love, he can dramatically expand what you can do with the offense.
One of the best recent examples of this was during the Wednesday, December 23 game versus the Knicks, where Love scored 23 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. After winning the opening tip, as Kyrie walked the ball up, Love snuck down the baseline from a series of screens, and even though Arron Afflalo recognized it fairly well and closed out, the mismatch was set, and Love got an easy shot right out of the gate.
The next trip down, he hit a three. Later, in the second half, while running a pick and roll with JR Smith, he showed how he can use his agility and finesse while moving without the ball to separate himself when crashing away from a bigger defender. For a rookie, especially a young one that’s 7’3", Porzingis can move well. Here he closes quickly, but Love quickly pivots and gets himself a good look.
So far, Love is shooting 69.8 percent on hook shots this season, as of January 3, per nba.com. He likes the left side of the block, creating a bit of space by backing down, and rotating through with that jump hook over his left shoulder. Here it acts as a quick, good look late in the shot clock.
Later in the 4th, after drawing another mismatch versus Afflalo, the defense clamped down on Love, and he backed them off by kicking it out to Shumpert, who recognized Love was setting himself up for a re-post. A clever way to grab two free throws.
Of course, this is a small sample size that only focuses on the positives. And, sure, there have been shooting struggles for Love this season — you can see those in his basic December stat line. And his usage rate still isn’t as high as some would like to see. But, shooting streaks and slumps come and go. Chemistry and trust doesn't — at least not as quickly. They are built over time. Or lost in serious issues. If they can establish great positions and easy looks for him, the ball can hit his hands more and more, which will also hopefully open up his underrated passing ability as well. I’m not really concerned about his December shot chart, as long as his full potential within the context of the team is being worked toward.
As, the Cavs continue to open up ideas to incorporate Love heavier into the offense, that should help open up a two-man game between him and Kyrie. In theory, Love and Kyrie should be able to work well with LeBron on the bench, since Love’s scoring versatility gives Kyrie’s underdeveloped, but seemingly improving passing ability an easier avenue to shine — or at least create some sort of healthy ball movement — and less incentive to play iso ball. Love can act as an easy escape hatch by being in a glorified Channing Frye role, hovering at the arc, although this was an overused idea last year, and the Cavs have been slowly moving away from it since, but it still has basic value in small sample sizes and needy situations.
Plus, Love can be dangerous in the pick and roll, the pick and pop or just being fed on the elbow or in the post. And maybe Love’s most underrated ability is how he moves without the ball, coming off screens or just finding advantageous space on the floor. Getting more touches in different places for Love also obviously makes sense for Kyrie, as well, as drawing doubles teams and fracturing defenses and quality ball movement will probably present an increase of solid looks for Irving, which is more than likely a key to keeping Kyrie from being in suit on the sideline as well as keeping massive minutes off of LeBron. If they both stay healthy, there should definitely be an increased amount of chemistry between Kyrie and Love. And sticking to the top of the East should allow them not only to do sensible things like resting LeBron and continuing to bring Kyrie along with extreme caution, but it should allow them to experiment with lineups and concepts, since, there is, unlike last year, a higher margin for regular season error
The thing that’s obviously missed the most when Kyrie is injured is his prolific ability to score, in almost any scenario. He makes layups at seemingly impossible angles in the lane, he can create his own shot off the dribble, he causes all kinds of problems when a big has to switch on him, among numerous other weapons. Plus, when he’s out, it puts an enormous amount of ball handling pressure on LeBron, especially in close games. Although it wasn’t the prettiest play in the world, the game-deciding three that Kyrie hit against the Suns on Monday, December 28 late in the shot clock — as he gambled that JR Smith’s defender wasn’t paying attention to the ball, throwing a risky pass, collapsing the defense and being prepared for a quick-release three when the ball swung back to him, turning a potential disaster into something that put the game out of reach — was an indication how deadly a healthy Cavs team can be even in desperate situations. (Everyone in this lineup is capable of hitting a three. They also put Kyrie or LeBron in a position to run an ISO.)
Of course, so far this season, in an extremely small and cautious sample size, Kyrie is struggling with his shot, as he works back into the flow of the game, shooting just 33.9 FG% and 20.0 3P%, before last night’s game against Toronto, where he scored 25 points to go along with 8 assists and 6 rebounds. But, as with Love, it doesn't really matter, as the team continues sit atop the conference. There’s a long road ahead. And it’s more important to develop as a team than it is to fill a stat line.
The counterpoint is that it would be wise to start allowing LeBron more time on the bench, which will almost certainly be a priority after All-Star Weekend. And, something that could help to quickly transition to that — after he is fully healthy, of course — would be if Kyrie can improve as a facilitator. Improved passing from him would both help the flow of the Cavs offense and would somewhat minimize the awkward collisions and falls that he takes. It’s really the last piece to his offensive puzzle. My guess is, that after a few years of sustaining injuries, he will start to look to increase his court vision, especially since he speed can breakdown defenses and create easy assist opportunities, like this play against the Suns, where he just essentially spun Alex Len until the third-year center was completely lost from his position.
He also takes defenders off the dribble quickly, forcing help to collapse in the lane, opening up new avenues, and, although Mozgov’s hands have looked problematic this year, here he shows his underrated offensive awareness, as he recognizes the situation and gets himself into a position to get an easy bucket.
It’s not that Kyrie lacks the ability to be a good facilitator, he might need to consider looking to create more.
As David wrote a few days ago, LeBron’s usage rate is slightly up this year. He’s averaging 25.8 points per game, to go along with 7.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 49.2 FG%, but a sub-par 26.9 3P%. LeBron’s shooting 66.1 percent from less than five feet away from the basket, where he’s attempted 286 shots this year and, by comparison, he’s shooting 24.1 percent from 20-24 feet on 83 attempts and 32.4 percent from 25-29 feet on 68 attempts. 55.4 percent of his points have come from within the paint, which, so far, is up from the 43.3 percent of his points that were scored in the paint last season.
His mixture of speed, power, intelligence, timing and footwork have allowed to attack the rim pretty much at will once again this season, but his jumper hasn’t been falling as frequently, as you can see from this shot chart tracking every jump shot he’s taken so far this season.
His struggles from deep are, in part, probably just a natural shooting slump, where he’s simply cold, but part of it is also shot selection, especially getting trapped late in the shot clock. In the video below, LeBron and Kyrie try to play a two-man game, but things get stagnant quickly, and LeBron’s essentially trapped on the wing, with Tyson Chandler cutting off his lane, and no one else on the Cavs providing any off-the-ball movement. Result: LeBron is forced to settle on a low-percentage shot.
Later, in that same game, LeBron held the ball at the top of the key for several seconds, before trying to establish an iso drive, got cut off, took the ball back out to the perimeter, had no options and was again forced to take a bad shot. Part of it was his fault, for draining the clock on himself. Part of it was either a bad play call or confused teammates, as there was no real opportunity for meaningful ball movement during either play.
But, when he has gotten cleaner looks, there has been generally better results. In the video below, the defense crashes down on a Dellavedova / Tristan Thompson pick and roll, before Delly whips the ball past TT into LeBron’s hands for an open three.
Another good example were the simple looks he was getting in Denver last week, as the Cavs were running quick plays to get him in an advantageous position.
As Kyrie gets closer to 100 percent, I’m guessing LeBron’s jump shot is also going to see a recovery. They’ll have another player to run the offense through, and more weapons to space the floor. Less of the burden will be on LeBron, the ball will change hands quickly and there should be more balance and efficiency in general, working toward the well-oiled machine the Cavs were before getting broken down by injuries in the playoffs.