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Why this will be the year Kevin Love finds his groove in Cleveland

More minutes at the five is the key for him to thrive.

NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at Cleveland Cavaliers Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Love is a great player. While playing in Minnesota he was widely regarded as a superstar, and he had the numbers to match. His final season there he scored 26.1 points per game on 59.1 percent true shooting. For reference, last year LeBron James scored 25.3 points per game on 58.8 percent true shooting.

Since being traded to Cleveland, however, Love’s numbers have dropped precipitously. He has just 16.2 points per game over the last two years. Admittedly, a drop in scoring volume wasn’t unexpected. After all, instead of playing with Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic he’s now playing with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. The more concerning drop occurred in his true shooting percentage: from 57.5 over his last four seasons in Minnesota to 55.7 his first two seasons in Cleveland. If anything, his efficiency was expected to increase playing next to two other superstars. How did this happen?

It’s not because he’s shooting poorly. If you compare his shooting percentages to his career marks there really isn’t any drop off. His FG% in the paint and from 3-point range is about the same, and he’s actually been much better on mid-range shots. So why the drop off in true shooting?

The root of the problem lies in shot distribution. The last four years he was in Minnesota, Love had a 5-2-3 shot distribution.* That’s (roughly) 50 percent of his shots in the paint, 20 percent from mid-range and 30 percent from beyond the arc. His two years in Cleveland that’s morphed into a 4-2-4 shot distribution; less shots in the paint, more from beyond the arc.

Why does this matter? Aren’t 3-point shots the most efficient in the game? Not exactly. The most efficient shots in the game are the free throws. The vast majority of free throws are drawn in the paint, because it’s the most crowded part of the court. Kevin Love’s free throw rate has dropped by about 25 percent from his time in Minnesota, which is roughly the same amount his shot attempts in the paint have dropped. So Kevin Love hasn’t become less skilled; the Cavaliers are simply using him in a less efficient way than the Timberwolves did.

Why has this happened? It has to do with the lineups used by each team. In 2013-14 Love was able to play about 25 percent of his minutes at center, but in 2014-15 that dropped to just 5 percent. Most of those minutes were with either Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov, both of whom had a 9-1-0 shot distribution. The next year wasn’t much better, with only 9 percent of his minutes at center. There just hasn’t been enough room for Love to work in the paint as often as he did in Minnesota.

Why will this season be different? Timofey Mozgov (9-1-0 shot distribution) and Anderson Varejao (7-3-0 shot distribution) are gone. Channing Frye (2-1-7 shot distribution) will be around all year, along with new acquisition Mike Dunleavy Jr. (3-2-5 shot distribution). While Kevin Love will still share the floor with Tristan Thompson and occasionally Chris Anderson, it’s very possible that he logs around 1,000 minutes at center in 2016-17. That would be more time than he ever spent at the five in Minnesota, which means he might post a career high free throw rate. As he gets to the line more, his overall efficiency will increase. Combine that with his first unimpeded offseason since arriving in Cleveland, and you can expect to see him back in the All-Star game come February.

* Yes, I did just make up that stat. But I think it’s an efficient way to communicate shot distribution.