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Kevin Love’s improvement is here to stay

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The return of Isaiah Thomas shouldn’t hurt Love’s production.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been forced to adjust on the fly this season. With the various injuries they’ve faced, the only real constants for them have been the presence of LeBron James and Kevin Love. Both players are averaging near career highs in efficiency, but with another All-Star on the way, there are valid questions about how they will have to adjust when Isaiah Thomas arrives.

With LeBron, there are obviously fewer questions. He is the driving force of the team and will continue to operate in the same role we have seen, even next to Thomas. But with Love, there is some mystery surrounding what the future holds. His usage and the team’s past of using him as a decoy may force some to question the sustainability of his excellent production this year — especially when we take a look at his past with the Cavaliers.

There’s a perception that we have seen this type of production from Love before during his time with the team. With Kyrie Irving out to start the 2015-16 season, Love came out of the gates strong and helped the team stay afloat.

Love’s struggles after Irving arrived have lead some to believe that history will repeat itself when Isaiah Thomas returns. While it’s true that Love was featured less once Irving returned, his struggles predated Irving’s return to the lineup.

In the seven games prior to Irving returning on Dec. 20, Kevin Love averaged 12.1 points, 8.2 rebounds per game on 32.8 percent shooting from the floor and 15 percent shooting from behind the arc. He had struggled with the increased load early in the year and had begun to break-down far before Irving joined the lineup.

When you compare the production of Love last season to this year, his strong play isn’t simply a result of increased volume shifted over from Irving. Last season Love averaged 60.1 touches per game, a figure that has surprisingly decreased to 56.5 this year. Some of that is due to his minutes per game decreasing from 31.4 to 29.6, but even on a per minute basis he is averaging slightly fewer touches.

Love is benefiting from the increased off-ball movement the team is playing with. While Thomas can be a ball-stopper, he also is accustomed to playing in a system where there is a lot of movement off-ball and shouldn’t disrupt the existing flow the team is playing with.

Even with last year’s Irving, these type of looks were always something the team could have created for Love. Not having the crutch of a 1-2 punch of LeBron and Irving offensively has forced the team to adjust and find ways to get their role players going. And where the role players excel, the team’s All-Star caliber talent in Love has found a way to dominate.

This is not the same Kevin Love as we have seen in year’s past. Nor is it the same offense we are accustomed to seeing.

It’s possible that Love will play a few more minutes after Thomas returns, given that he will have less responsibility on the offensive end. Or, we may see Love check out of game’s earlier in order to play more minutes with the bench instead of Channing Frye, given the scoring punch Thomas should bring to the starters.

But even with Thomas returning, there’s little to no reason to expect Love to average fewer touches than he is already receiving. His 56.5 touches per game are already his lowest as a Cavalier, going from 63.7, to 62.3, to 60.1 in his first three seasons with the team.

The Cavs have found a way to maximize Love when he does get the ball. They have trimmed the fat off of his game, as he trimmed the fat off his physique. There are no more possessions where the ball is dumped to him in the hopes that he can make something happen. Every cut he makes and every possession he receives has a purpose.

With Thomas returning, players like Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, and even Dwyane Wade will likely see their touches reduced. But when you look at the differences between what happened to Love in 2015, and the player he is today, there should be little concern about whether or not history will repeat itself.