Kevin Love is a bonafide All-Star, averaging 17.9 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game in what might be his best season in Cleveland.
Love is scoring the most points per 100 possessions (31.3) and has his highest PER (22.9) since his final season in Minnesota. He is shooting 46.3% from the field and 40.4 percent from three, both marks he has not surpassed since the 2010-11 season.
Love is one of the only players in the NBA that can do this:
In fact, Love is one of two players this season to score at least one point per possession per post-up and shoot over 40 percent from three, per nba.com/stats. The other? Karl-Anthony Towns.
While there have been concerns about his defense — and remember that Love didn’t ask to play center — but took the role without complaint) there are few offensive dynamos in the NBA like Love.
Now with Love slated to miss up to two months with a non-displaced fracture in his left hand fifth metacarpal, the Cavs are tasked with the impossible assignment of replacing Love — or at least replicating his production.
So Far, So (Not) Good
The Cavs have re-inserted Jae Crowder into the starting lineup after briefly returning to starting the Love/Thompson frontcourt that was a linchpin of their recent success.
The Thomas/Smith/James/Crowder/Thompson starting lineup has a -38.9 Net Rating over an 84 possession span. Small sample aside, the results are not encouraging. The group has a 90.5 oRTG and 129.4 dRTG.
Expanding the sample, the Crowder/Thompson frontcourt has a 103.5 oRTG and -9.9 Net Rating in 257 possessions sharing the floor without Kevin Love. The oRTG actually declines to 100 when you add LeBron James to the mix.
There has been a dearth of spacing on the floor for this starting group.
You can see on this play that James Johnson comfortably goes under the Tristan Thompson screen, surrendering an open three to James that he does not attempt.
This tactic has become commonplace for opponents guarding James of late. He shot just 22.1 percent from three in January on 4.2 attempts per game. Jan. 2018 was the fourth worst three-point shooting month of James’ career, only surpassed by December 2015 (16.7 percent), January 2004 (17.6 percent) and December 2007 (21.1 percent).
The shooting woes follow a red-hot start to the season that saw him shoot 41 percent from three in October and 43 percent from three in December. Even worse, the 4.2 attempts per game are down over 1 attempt per game from both November and December and James’ hesitancy to pull the trigger from downtown shines through on film.
The most encouraging aspect of James’ shooting slump is that he does not appear to have lost the higher release he brought into the season.
There is a compelling argument to make that the decline is simply fatigue for the 15th-year player. James is currently playing 37 minutes per game and carrying a 31 percent usage rate. He has yet to miss a game all season.
In addition to James, the struggles of Isaiah Thomas have been well-documented. As he recovers from a hip injury, Thomas is averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 assists on 34 percent shooting (14 attempts per game) and 22 percent from three (6.1 attempts per game game) over his last 10 games. He is averaging 2.7 turnovers per game over that span and is a -86.
Thomas — previously one of the best small-man finishers in NBA history — is shooting just 48 percent at the rim and 25 percent from floater range. He has had his shot blocked 20 times in just 12 games played.
Thomas’ one saving grace has been his prolific mid-range shooting, where he is up to a scorching 58 percent:
Despite Jae Crowder shooting 45 percent from three over his last 10 games, teams have liberally taken to hiding weak defenders on him. Alongside Love, Crowder was often guarded by a lumbering center, but Miami stuck Goran Dragic on him Wednesday nigh, knowing Crowder (who has just 21 post touches all year) would not exploit the mismatch.
Furthermore, Crowder’s return to the starting lineup shifts James back to the free safety role defensively — one in which he has struggled. (A thread by ESPN Cleveland’s Jordan Zirm here and my own thoughts here go deeper into that subject.)
Thompson also struggled mightily against Miami, going 0-5 from the field and committing five fouls. Thompson obviously provides no gravity, shrinking the floor even further for James and Thomas. For fun, here is the only three-point attempt Thompson has shot from in front of half-court in his career (last January vs. Sacramento).
Cleveland must know that it is not impossible to create an efficient offense without Love. Last year, in the month Love missed following a knee injury, the Cavs went bananas on offense — posting a 115 oRTG (119 oRTG with LeBron James on the floor).
But LeBron James averaged 27 points on 58 percent shooting (42 percent from three) over that stretch. And the now-departed Kyrie Irving pitched in 27.5 points per game on 48 percent shooting. Although James and Thomas are certainly capable of mirroring that production, the burden of picking up the slack will likely fall to other Cavaliers.
Chief among them is Channing Frye — who has averaged 18 points per game on 21 minutes per game in the two games Love has missed. Frye befuddled traditional centers Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside, neither of whom showed much desire to guard the perimeter.
Frye also threw down his second dunk of the season off the Cavs’ elbow set, which befuddled the Heat for a multi-possession stretch in the third quarter.
While Frye may not be relied upon to consistently score 15 points per game, he is the best proxy for Love’s shooting on the roster and one of only two big men currently in Cleveland’s rotation. His role will be huge in Love’s absence and the Cavs must certainly be thrilled he wasn’t traded to Sacramento before Love went down.
The Cavs will also experiment with going small — playing Green and James together while increasing the minutes load for Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver. But these lineups have hemorrhaged points (111.5 dRTG) and allowed opponents to grab 32 percent of their own misses over the course of 381 possessions.
The best 5-man combo with Green and James in the frontcourt is a switchy, no point guard unit that includes Wade, Korver and Crowder. That lineup has seen limited playing time so far (44 possessions) but is interesting defensively. Inserting Thomas for Korver and Wade for Green--as the Cavs did to close against Miami — limits that switchability.
The Cavs may try to eschew some offensive production in favor of defense. They have a 98.9 dRTG the last two games. Miami also went 1-19 on open jump shots. The idea that the defense may improve with Love out (2.3 points/100 better with him off the floor this year) is likely true, but at what cost?
This is a roster built to win offensive shootouts, not defensive slogs. The win over Miami was only their 2nd with an oRTG under 102. They have eight wins with a dRTG over 115.
There is no proxy for Love’s production offensively on this Cavs roster. I may be alone in this belief, but I fear they will be unable to build an efficient offense over the next two months without Love. Their 106 oRTG in January — when Love did play--already ranked 20th in the NBA.
Cleveland shot 31.6 percent as a team in January and that was with Love shooting 38.6 percent from deep on over four attempts per game. After a hot end to the month, J.R. Smith finished January at 31.7 percent from downtown. James, Thomas, Green, and Wade all shot under 30 percent from distance.
With decreased spacing offensively, there is a real question as to whether the Cavs can sustain their percentage or attempt rate from deep. In the two games without Love, the Cavs attempted 30.5 three-point attempts per game, down from 32.7 three-point attempts per game game on the season.
There is certainly the possibility of trading for a Love replacement — I mentioned my preference for Nikola Mirotic on Twitter, but he was traded to New Orleans. The other options — ranging from stretchy players like Ersan Ilyasova or low-post bigs like Zach Randolph — only replicate one aspect of Love’s game, if that.
The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd reported that the Cavs are no more willing to trade for a big after the Love injury than they were prior to him going down. This makes sense for a team with limited assets that will (in all likelihood) get Love back before the playoffs. Cleveland has other short and long-term concerns on the wing and with rim protection that will persist beyond Love’s absence. Fixing these in any trade should probably be a priority.
And yet, I wonder if that’s enough to overcome the offensive gulf left by Love. Certainly, a return to form by Isaiah Thomas may mitigate the offensive woes all by itself, but his health is more important in April than February.
The 96.8 oRTG over the last two games is a concern, but one that is magnified by larger concerns already surrounding the offense. While the defense continues to be the focal-point, my worry is whether the Cavs can create an above-average offense without Kevin Love.
The loss of Love will be difficult to overcome. He is an All-Star, in the midst of his best season in Cleveland, and without a parallel on the Cavs’ roster. Whether they are able to internally or externally replicate his production will likely mean the difference between staying as a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference or potentially falling out of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.