When the Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving this summer, they were left with a playmaking void behind LeBron James. And while the signings of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade complicated the issue, the sentiment among the fan base remained clear.
Kevin Love was going to step up into the role of secondary playmaker. Many envisioned a throwback to Love’s days in Minnesota, where he operated as a devastating passer from the elbows.
Instead, the additions of Wade and Rose (and even Jeff Green) have turned Love into the exact same player he was last season. And for the Cavaliers, that simply isn’t good enough.
Cavs fans have grown accustomed to “First Quarter Love.” It is no secret that the Cavs have made an effort to force-feed Love the ball early in games, often using a double screen to get him a touch on the left block:
But as games go on, Love often turns from a focal-point to a floor spacer. His secondary role late in games usually involves him waiting for a pass around the arc before firing up a three.
Unsurprisingly, the numbers bear this out. Here’s a look at Love’s usage rate by quarter during his time in Cleveland:
Regardless of the year or his overall usage rate, the first quarter has always been his featured time. In order to compare across years, here is the chart normalized (by dividing his quarter usage by his overall usage):
Aside from one singular outlier (the third quarter in 2014-15), Love’s usage rate has declined by quarter over the course of the game. This continues to be the case this season.
In fact, when looking further into where and how often Love is touching the ball, the numbers continue to be remarkably unchanged.
His touches per game and possessions used per game are nearly identical.
Those elbow touches that Cavs’ fans envisioned him getting before the season? Actually down from last year. In fact, the Cavs are averaging 11.1 elbow touches per game, down from 13.1 last season. The 11.1 elbow touches per game are 8th fewest in the NBA.
The only significant change from last year to this year is that Love is getting the ball more often in the post. His slight uptick in average seconds/touch can likely be attributed to his post-ups as well.
But Love’s post-ups have been incredibly ineffective this season, perhaps hampered by the lack of spacing around him. Note how all five Nets are focused on him on this possession and Spencer Dinwiddie is able to get a late dig down to alter his shot.
Love is only scoring 0.70 points per possession on post-ups this year, which ranks 19th of 22 players with at least 25 post-up possessions.
Last year, he scored 0.87 points per possession on post-ups, which ranked in the 45th percentile and he has not been above league average since 2015-16 (0.98 ppp).
When Love has the ball, his role in the offense has not expanded to one focused on playmaking.
His 8.3 percent AST% is his lowest since posting a seven percent AST% in his rookie year in Minnesota and a far cry from his 20.4% AST% in his last season with the Timberwolves.
While the Cavs have certainly struggled shooting the ball from deep (33.4 percent compared to 38 percent last season), the cold spell has yet to really impact Love’s potential assists. He has only seen a marginal uptick from 3.2 potential assists per game last year to 3.4 this season.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the way in which Love is being used is that his shot profile has not changed from last season. Even with an increase in post touches, he remains largely a weapon at the three-point line.
Essentially, regardless of coach or situation, Love has basically seen the same shot profile every year in Cleveland.
Compared to last year, he is actually attempting fewer shots (19.3 to 22) and 3-pointers (8.6 to 9) per 100 possessions. He has, however, seen an uptick from 7.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions to 9.2.
But the change is largely due to an increase in fouls drawn on the floor as well as him shooting more technical free throws. He has drawn fewer shooting fouls, but is drawing a floor foul on 4.5 percent of Cavs possessions (up from 2.6 percent last year).
Coming into the season, it seemed as if the Cavs were going to have to rely on Kevin Love to be the second option offensively. Through 10 games, the plan certainly appears to be working differently.
Last year, only LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love had USG% over 20%. This year, in addition to Love and James, newcomers Derrick Rose (25.1 percent), Dwyane Wade (22.1 percent) and Jeff Green (21.1 percent) are all using over 20 percent of possessions when they are on the floor.
Bringing in ball-dominant guards who do not excel at passing the basketball has limited Love’s ability to grow within the offensive scheme. Rather than using his passing ability at the elbow, he has been relegated to his usual role of first quarter post-up threat and spot-up shooter.
But the Cavs’ lack of spacing at the perimeter has impacted his ability to post-up, drawing more attention and leading to longer possessions coupled with more turnovers. Being guarded by traditional centers isn’t helping, either.
The Cavs need to find a way to get Love more involved in the offense to be successful in the months before Isaiah Thomas returns. So far, he has looked like the exact same guy as last year.
And for a team that’s struggling to replace the departed Kyrie Irving’s offense, that simply isn’t good enough.