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Analyzing Kevin Love’s start to the season

Seven games seems like an appropriate sample size to revisit everyone’s expectations for Love.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers
I would scream too if I were as scrutinized as Kevin Love
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers (and much of the NBA) had a wild offseason and, for a player who did not change teams, Kevin Love was pretty significantly affected. One-third of the Cavaliers’ Big Three was traded for a former AAU teammate of Love’s who won’t be able to play for several months.

This raised a few questions: will Love be able to be the number two weapon to LeBron James and the offensive hub when LeBron is on the bench? When he shares the floor with LeBron, can he reduce LeBron’s work load?

Then, Tyronn Lue moved Love to the starting center position, throwing more variables into the equation. Can he protect the rim and handle interior defense? How will he perform with the additional duty of being the Cavs’ primary rebounder?

Everyone knew coming into the season that Love was going to have to step up his offensive contribution to make up for the loss of Kyrie Irving and injury to Isaiah Thomas. Thus far in the young NBA season, Love has managed to lead the Cavaliers in usage rate in all minutes. Even in minutes with both LeBron and Love on the floor, Love has a greater usage, per nbawowy.

Even with such an increase in volume, the Cavaliers cannot afford for any loss in efficiency. There were, and still are, legitimate concerns about Love’s ability to remain efficient even on such usage. Even with an early-season shooting slump from behind the arc, Love is still posting a true-shooting percentage noticeably greater than his career average.

Additionally, Love is making an effort to generate the most efficient shots: field goal attempts at the rim, free throws, and three-pointers. He’s doing it at a rate never before seen from a big man. No player over 6’7” has ever taken as many free throws and three-pointers on major usage and starter’s minutes like Love right now, per BBRef.

The concern about Love being a primary rebounder in addition to all of these other roles was great. Kevin has picked up his production in this area as well. As of midday Oct. 30, he is averaging the 8th-most rebounds per game among those qualified in the league and is posting the highest rebounding percentages of his Cleveland career.

The final question of Love’s production has always been on the defensive end. It is NBA law that he will never get the credit he deserves on this end, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is a good defender when matched up with more traditional 4s and slightly smaller fives.

His defensive capability in the post and paint has been shown this season. Opponents are shooting 4.7 percent worse inside of 6 feet on Kevin Love and 4.4 percent worse inside of 10 feet compared to their expected field-goal percentage on these shots.

However, getting Love in space has proved to be bad news for the Cavaliers. Opponents are shooting 15 percent better than expected on three-pointers with Love as the primary defender and 10.2 percent better between 15 feet and the three-point line.

The most surprising development has been how Love has defended the rim. If he were a team, the Kevin Loves would have the second lowest opponent field-goal percentage on shots at the rim. Of all NBA players who have defended at least 20 shots at the rim, Love is allowing the 15th-lowest field goal percentage on these shots.

In terms of overall impact, Love’s numbers are not great. The Cavaliers’ awful early-season net rating has already been well-documented, and Love’s own net rating is equally poor and equally commonly discussed. He’s posting a personal minus-9 net rating so far.

It can’t all be his fault, however. Using nbawowy, one can see that Love’s net rating jumps to plus-1.5 when J.R. Smith is not on the court. Check his net rating when neither J.R. Smith nor Jose Calderon are on the floor and one might be shocked to see a plus-13 net rating with an on-off of plus-6.1.

Love is, in fact, limited in a number of ways. Everyone sees it when he is forced to switch on defense. He’s also struggled with a few costly turnovers due to the increased responsibility, but he has still shown that he can give the Cavaliers what they need. The whole roster just has to put it together at once.

All stats courtesy of NBA Stats unless otherwise noted.