It seems appropriate that after his historic night, we take a look at just how good Kevin Love has been this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs forward certainly is giving fans something to be thankful for this season, as his stats are up across the board. But if you dive deeper, you’ll see that Love is currently playing the best basketball of his entire career.
The start of last season was thought to be the time where Love was going to be able to shine. With Kyrie Irving recovering from surgery, Love was going to have a chance to be a second option and get the touches to help maximize his enormous offensive talents.
It of course did not materialize that way. After a strong November of 19.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, Love’s numbers nose dived in December; recording just 12.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.While it’s possible that Love may have his numbers drop off in the future, the team is organically getting him touches within the flow of the offense, even with Irving having a career year offensively.
After his 40 point outing against the Blazers, Love is averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. But when you look at his per 100 possession numbers, he’s right in line with his best years with Minnesota:
One of Love’s biggest strengths in Minnesota was his ability to get to the free throw line. Over his six seasons in the Twin Cities he had a free throw rate of .457. During his first two seasons in Cleveland, that rate went down to .337 and .321 respectively. The slimmed-down Love was playing a less physical game and spent more time than ever on the perimeter. This year Love is back to terrorizing teams both physically and from the outside. His free throw rate is up .450 while still taking nearly 6 three pointers a game. Tyronn Lue has found a way to allow James to dominate, Irving to grow as a scorer, all while maximizing Love offensively. It’s a stark contrast from what we’ve seen in the past with this team. All of the sacrifices and changes this roster has made for the good of the team are beginning to pay off and we are seeing just how good they can be.
While his offensive play is nearly at the same level it was in Minnesota, what currently sets this season apart from all the rest is his play on the defensive end of the floor. Love will always have limitations, and nobody is expecting him to suddenly become a rim protector. But his defensive numbers in several key areas appear to have benefitted from the extra work he put in this past summer to improve his mobility.
One of the biggest knocks on Love’s defense has been his play defending the pick and roll. Last season Love surrendered 1.0 points per possession to the roll man in the pick and roll. Which was in the 34th percentile for all players. This season he is only giving up 0.69 points per possession, which is in the 65th percentile.
The pick and roll isn’t the only spot he’s improved. In isolation Love surrendered 0.82ppp last season, this year it’s down to 0.53ppp. In the post the numbers remain solid, going from 0.86ppp to 0.85ppp. Love was in the 50th percentile in post defense last season, and it wasn’t an area that teams would focus on when they would attack the Cavs. But it’s nice to see those numbers hold steady.
The improvement in his individual numbers has also been reflected in the team’s numbers as a whole. The Cavaliers give up 4.3 points per 100 possessions fewer when Love is on the court. While the James plus bench lineup remains their most potent offensively, the defensive growth of Love and Thompson (another story for another day) has made their starting lineup more imposing than ever before.
The sample size is obviously small and these figures are subject to change. But what they do is confirm the eye test that Love physically is moving better than ever and has dedicated himself to improving on the defensive end of the floor.
This is the best team the Cleveland Cavaliers have ever put forward and the continued growth of both Love and Irving bodes well for their future. If they can continue to shoulder a load like this, it will help the team’s top priority of keep James fresh and extending his window of competing for titles. Part of why James pushed for adding Love and joined forces with Irving was he believed they were a duo he could hand over the reins to so that he can age gracefully. It appears as though one of the best basketball minds we’ve seen was once again correct in his assessment.