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The Importance of Kyle Korver

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How the three-point marksman has become one of the most important players in the NBA, on both sides of the ball.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Dallas Mavericks Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

No player in the NBA has made his team better than Kyle Korver this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 23.1 points per 100 possessions better with Korver on the floor compared to on the bench.

This represents a return to normal for the 15-year veteran, who ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in On/Off Differential the four years prior to 2016-17 (per Cleaning the Glass).

But following a mid-season trade last year, Korver was never optimally weaponized by the Cavs. Cleveland’s offense was 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Korver on the floor, something that had not happened since the 2008-09 season in Utah.

Combine that with a Cavs defense that was 5.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Korver on and Korver finished in the 19th percentile in On/Off Differential, easily the lowest of his career.

One off-season (and a new contract) later, Korver has become perhaps the single most important player not named LeBron James on a Cleveland team that is thriving despite Isaiah Thomas not having played his first game in a Cavs uniform.

Off-Screens

Korver’s 67.7 percent True Shooting percentage ranks 6th in the league, behind a bevy of big men and Cleveland’s own Jose Calderon (67.8%).

He has shot the ball well from all areas of the court, ranking in the 88th percentile or higher from every shot range.

Part of the problem with Korver’s integration on-the-fly last season was fitting a sharpshooter who prefers the left side of the floor in next to a superstar in LeBron James who operates almost solely on the same side.

After one off-season of work, Tyronn Lue and the Cavs’ coaching staff have designed a number of sets to make that problem disappear. Gone are the days of Floppy (sometimes called “Single-Double”) from Korver’s time in Atlanta.

The set has been replaced by a series of pin-down actions, ranging from simple to complex, designed to let Korver catch the ball flying to his right.

The most simple of these is a quick pin-down to begin possessions, a staple of the Cavs’ offense this year.

Korver is shooting 43.4% on left-wing 3s, well above the league-average of 36.1%.

Defend the simple pin-down and the Cavs will counter with a staggered double screen for Korver, often using bigs to set the second screen and forcing traditional centers to leave the paint and contest.

Lue has even called triple screens for Korver, using every available Cleveland player to help free his sharpshooter.

The Cavs have often paired Korver with a big man screener in an attempt to draw opposing bigs out of their comfort zone. Traditional centers are not used to stepping up to defend off-screens and this is not a traditional switch situation for most teams.

Another way the Cavs have done this is by faking a quick “step-up” screen.

Tristan Thompson acts like he is setting a ball screen for LeBron, forcing Ian Mahimni into an aggressive drop position on the right side of the screen. Thompson immediately sprints and screens Korver’s man, leaving Mahimni trailing and freeing Korver for a wide-open 3.

The Cavs have also done this with near-side ball screens.

On the season, Korver is shooting 50% on 115 off-screen possessions (67 eFG%). This ranks 3rd of all players with at least 25 off-screen possessions (per Synergy), trailing Joe Ingles and Aaron Gordon—who have only 74 possessions combined.

Korver is coming off a screen to his preferred right side 82% of the time, behind only Gordon who has come off to his right 84% of the time.

On all of the playtypes above, one thing remains constant. They begin with Kyle Korver lurking in the right corner, ready to unleash his shooting prowess in the blink of an eye. The Cavs have put him in a position to be comfortable and he is taking advantage of the opportunity.

Handoffs and Cuts

Korver has also doubled his share of dribble handoffs from last season and has joined his teammates in the cutting revolution.

Korver is finishing over 10% of his plays on handoffs, up from 5% last year. They often function as extensions of pin-down actions with him coming to receive the ball after the defender denies the initial pass.

But Korver has also joined his teammates in cutting more this season. The Cavs rank 1st in the NBA on points per cut (1.45 ppp) and are finishing 8% of their possessions with cuts, 7th most in the NBA.

Watch how Korver uses Kent Bazemore’s assumptions against him.

Bazemore sees Channing Frye preparing to set a typical pindown for Korver in the left corner and moves to defend on the high side. Korver hesitates before zipping to the hoop, leaving Bazemore on his hip.

Gravity

Given Korver’s incredible shooting ability, his presence alone bends defenses like few other players in the NBA. Opposing players are constantly selling out to stop him from getting open threes, abandoning other Cavs in the process.

Korver and Frye have developed a deadly screening chemistry on the left side of the floor. Sell out to stop Korver and Frye can beat you popping to the 3-point line.

Try the same thing with Tristan Thompson on the floor and watch as Korver threads him a perfect pass for a layup.

Sometimes, the mere threat of Korver alone is enough to bewilder defenses. Against Atlanta, the Cavs prepare a simple staggered pindown for him on the left side. This draws the attention of both Hawks’ big men. Watch what happens next:

Neither is anywhere near ready to help off on LeBron James streaking down the middle for a monstrous dunk. All because of Kyle Korver.

As a team, the Cavs are shooting 72.8% at the rim with Korver on the floor, 4.2% better than when he’s on the bench. James is shooting 83.6% at the rim and is taking 8 more shots there per 36 minutes with Korver on compared to 73.7% at the rim with him on the bench.

Korver’s gravity has led the Cavs to a 120.7 oRTG overall and 107.9 oRTG in the half court when he’s on the floor—both rank in the 99th percentile.

Defense

One of the most surprising aspects of the Cavs’ season has been the defensive expertise of the bench. Though not thought of as a traditional lock-down defender, Korver has always been a strong team defender.

His ability to rotate and his length to contest shots have allowed the Cavs to be 11.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor (97th percentile).

Lineups with Korver, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green have posted a 100.6 dRTG on the season. Opponents are shooting just 59.7% against the trio at the rim.

While opposing teams have scored a mere 85.1 points per 100 half-court possessions (95th percentile) against the trio, they have been just as good in transition—a trouble area for the Cavs the last two seasons.

Opponents are scoring just 103.9 points per 100 transition possessions (94th percentile) and running on only 14% of all possessions.

Add Frye and James to the trio and that lineup has an astounding 91.8 dRTG over 140 possessions.

While Korver, Wade and Green are not the best one-on-one defenders, they rotate well and seem to always be in the right place at the right time. Combine that with three wingspans of at least 7-feet and you get a pesky defensive unit that contests a ton of shots.

Conclusion

It is hard to overstate just how important Kyle Korver has been to the Cavs this season. After struggling to acclimate to a new team last year, Korver has been freed from the shackles this year to incredible results.

Always near the top of the NBA in 3-point shooting, he continues to fill it up from deep. The Cavs have designed a number of sets to free him off-screens, often taking advantage of opposing big men. His gravity has added another dimension to the offense, gluing defenders to him and opening looks for teammates.

His intelligence on the defensive end and competence as a team defender has allowed the Cavs’ second unit to dominate opposing benches. He has been one of the best and most important players for Cleveland this year and his presence will continue to be critical for the team to reach its ultimate ceiling.

All stats as of Dec. 23