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When Love comes to town

Why Kevin Love, who makes his return to the Target Center Saturday night, is struggling with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love rebounding in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

These are curiously hard times for Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love.

The 2014-15 season was supposed to be when he cemented his status as one of the elite players in the NBA. After six seasons of establishing himself as the second-best player in the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love was joining Lebron James and Kyrie Irving as part of a new “Big Three” who would dominate the league with their complementary skills and dazzling star power, just as the Miami triumvirate of Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had done in winning two NBA championships.

It hasn’t happened. If the season were to end today, Cleveland wouldn’t even enjoy home court advantage in the playoffs in the weaker Eastern Conference. And alongside first-year Cavs head coach David Blatt, Love is frequently cited as the cause of his team’s disappointing performance thus far.

Consider that when the starting lineups and reserves were announced for the annual NBA All Star Game this week, Lebron, Irving, Bosh and Wade all made the Eastern Conference team. Love was the lone member of either edition of Lebron’s “Big Three” to be omitted.

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Love’s reputation has taken such a hit this season that even the NBA’s least successful franchise, the Timberwolves, feel free to downplay his exploits and mock his status on the cusp of his first trip back to Target Center Saturday night since being traded to Cleveland last summer.

In an interview I did with Wolves coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders earlier this month, Saunders took a couple of passive-aggressive shots at Love’s tenure in Minnesota. First, he stated that the Wolves (current record, 8-37) are closer to a championship now than they were a year ago, because they now possess “a guy with the potential to be a top five player, having a player with the ability to create shots for himself.” This was in prideful reference to Andrew Wiggins, the primary bounty garnered by Flip in the Love trade.

Later in the interview, Saunders again made a reference to Love’s inability to create his own shot, noting that “Love’s three-point shooting has gone down because he’s not playing with [Ricky] Rubio. For all the criticism that Rubio doesn’t score — hey, as I told Kevin last summer, ‘six or seven of your three-pointers you are getting you ain’t getting anywhere else, because Rubio is finding you.’”

This week, the Wolves’ marketing team got into the act. After not being able to sell out Saturday’s game—despite the arrival of Love and an appearance by Lebron—they decided to hype the contest with humor, at Love’s expense. In a video titled #TheReturn, they heralded the game as a chance to watch the return of….Mike Miller in a Cleveland uniform.

A polarizing legacy

Love has provided plenty of ammunition for all of this. His time in Minnesota is renowned for the incredible numbers he amassed as an individual player, though wins and amiability were in much shorter supply.

Precious few moments during his half-dozen years were free of drama. As a rookie there were questions about his ability to co-exist on a front line with another dominant low-post player, Al Jefferson. (Alas, Jefferson was traded before Love had a chance to showcase his outside shooting.) During his second and third seasons, he toiled for a coach, Kurt Rambis, who denigrated his talent and was clueless about how to deploy him (along with myriad other blind spots). It wasn’t until Love grabbed 30 rebounds against the Knicks — the first time it had been accomplished in 28 years — that he was even assured a spot in the starting lineup.

The first two of Love’s three seasons with Rick Adelman were waylaid by injuries, the first befalling Rubio and the second his own slew of physical misfortunes that caused him to play only 18 games while posting the worst stats of his career. That 2012-13 season also featured Love’s unfortunate interview with Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, in which he ripped just about everybody associated with the franchise, from the owner to the general manager to, less directly, his teammates.

Much of the rancor behind the Yahoo interview stemmed from Love wanting a five-year maximum contract — a length permitted to only one player per franchise under the collective bargaining agreement — and being rebuffed. Instead, he and the team agreed on a four-year deal with an option for Love to declare himself an unrestricted free agent after three seasons. It was a slap in the face that could be perceived as the Wolves front office — then David Kahn working with owner Glen Taylor — pushing Love prematurely out the door.

Love’s ability to opt out was the dominant subtext of the entire 2013-14 season in Minnesota. It was widely (and correctly) assumed that if the Wolves once again failed to make the playoffs, Love was gone. As early as six weeks before the end of the season, rumors were prevalent that Love had informed the team that he was indeed ready to move on.

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Fortune finally smiled on the Wolves when Cleveland once again won the lottery rights to the top overall pick in the NBA draft, followed by Lebron’s dramatic decision to return to his hometown franchise. Those things combined to create the situation where Minnesota landed Wiggins, the Cavs’ top pick. Although the package also included forwards Anthony Bennett and Thad Young, subsequent events have demonstrated that the deal will be remembered primarily as a Love-for-Wiggins exchange.

Anyone who reads this column knows that the above recounting is enormously abridged; that the details and drama surrounding Love’s Minnesota tenure have been copiously recorded, debated and hung out to dry.

As for his legacy here, there are things Love did in Minnesota that will be recounted for generations. He scored more than 50 points, grabbed more than 30 rebounds and consistently put up eye-popping numbers that rivaled the exploits of the game’s greatest current players.

If you want Love as a Timberwolf in a nutshell, look at his penultimate season here, the 2013-14 campaign. He finished fourth in scoring, third in rebounding, and third — behind only MVP Kevin Durant and multiple former MVP Lebron James — in Player Efficiency Rating, the most widely regarded metric for overall excellence. Yet for the sixth straight season he was in Minnesota, the Wolves not only failed to make the playoffs, but lost more games than they won.

Problems in Cleveland

Going to the Cavs was supposed to change all that. At the very least the trade would provide new, compelling evidence on a hotly-debated topic:
Was Love held back by the ineptitude of the Wolves franchise, or was the problem his own style and skill set, which produces great individual numbers without enabling great team performances?

Right now the easy answer to that question seems to be that Love has been overrated because of his gaudy statistics. The Cavs own a record of 27-20, the highest winning percentage of any NBA squad Love has played for, but the evidence shows that he is hardly the cause of whatever success the team is having, and may in fact be dragging them down.

According to the “on/off court” measure at Basketball-reference.com, the Cavs are 2.8 points better per 100 possessions in the 1592 minutes Love plays compared to the 671 minutes he sits. But that is dramatically worse than any of the other top five players in minutes on the Cavs roster. All Stars James and Irving improve the team by 14.5 and 12.4 points per 100 possessions, respectively. For Tristan Thompson it is 6.4 points; for Shawn Marion, 5.4 points.

As one who has frequently defended Love against the charge that he is a great guy to have on your fantasy team but a corrosive player in terms of stylistic team chemistry, I maintain that Love is being misused on offense and has only himself to blame his failure to improve on defense.

In Minnesota, Love proved that he was a matchup nightmare for opponents to guard and could frustrate defenses in innumerable ways. He could, and did, take larger forwards out on the perimeter and burn them with three-pointers. He could, and did, take smaller forward down beneath the baskets for layups and putbacks. He could, and did, routinely frustrate traps and double-teams with pinpoint passes.

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In Cleveland, however, Love rarely gets the opportunity to break down opponents in this fashion, because he is so obviously the third-or-fourth wheel in an offense where he is seldom featured. Compared to last season, his shot attempts have dropped from 18.5 to 13.2 per game, his free throws from 8.1 to 5.3, his assists 4.4 to 2.3, his usage rate from 28.8 to 22.0.

In terms of frequency of shots per minute, Love is the fourth option in Cleveland’s offense, an absurd development for a player who averaged 21.1 points per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of 56.5 during his time in Minnesota. Right now, Lebron leads the team in shots per minute; Irving is second, and the shooting guard slot in the form of either Dion Waiters (since traded to Oklahoma City) or J.R. Smith (acquired from New York at the time Waiters was dealt) in third.

Compounding the problem is the fact that too many of Love’s touches are occurring out on the perimeter. One of the game great rebounders — he has ranked among the top three in total rebounds the past three seasons he has been healthy — is making three-pointers a bigger part of his shot selection than at any point in his career. While this continues a trend that began in Minnesota, the Wolves had few options from long range. By contrast, both J.R. Smith and Irving launch more treys per minute than Love, and Lebron is jacking up 4.7 of them per 36 minutes compared to Love’s 4.9. Meanwhile, Love’s offensive rebounding percentage is a career-low 7.1, less than half of what it was during his peak seasons for that discipline early in his career.

All that said, Cleveland is not underperforming because they misuse Love on offense. The Cavs offensive rating (points scored per possession) ranks fifth in the NBA. Cleveland’s defense (points allowed per possession) is a woeful 25th of the 30 NBA teams. And Love remains a subpar defender, highlighted by his stubborn refusal to even pretend to protect the rim.

According to the stats page at nba.com, the Cavs are the second-worst team in the NBA at protecting the rim (behind only, yes, the Wolves), yielding a 54.8 percent conversion rate on shots right at the basket. Personally, Love is yielding 55.2 percent and has given up 4.1 baskets per game at the rim, the 13th highest total in the league.

Dig a little deeper into the data and a very familiar pattern emerges. Theoretically, Love is not hurting his team’s defensive efficiency. The Cavs actually yield 1.4 more points per 100 possessions when he sits compared to when he plays. But a lot of that has to do with Love’s disinclination to foul — he is averaging a measly 2.1 fouls per game this season, right around his career mark.

This column has discussed the pros and cons of not fouling quite often during Love’s tenure in Minnesota. Not fouling raises a team’s defensive efficiency but also enables opponents to attack the rim with impunity. It should also be noted that the best defense of all is being in position to deter shots at the rim without needing to foul. Love doesn’t do that well. And when he gets in a position where he has to foul to avoid the basket, he shies away and gambles that the opponent will miss the shot.

It is thus not coincidence that Cleveland allows the fewest free throws per field goal attempt of any NBA team, a distinction held by Minnesota a year ago. When your team is 2nd worst in preventing made baskets at the rim and 25th in overall defensive efficiency, maybe it is time to stand your ground. It certainly explains why the Cavs have started winning after acquiring rim protector Timofey Mozkov — a mediocre player in nearly every other aspect of the game — in a trade from Denver.

Love at a crossroads

With Love being cited as one of the reasons for Cleveland’s relatively disappointing season thus far, there is talk about whether or not he will remain in Cleveland or exercise that option Minnesota originally provided and declare free agency. 

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To me, it is a no-brainer: Love needs to do what he should have done in the last off-season — work tirelessly on his defensive fundamentals and use some of that enormous grit he displays in rebounding on the dirty job of rim protection. If you can’t win with Lebron James as your teammate, it is time to start checking yourself, regardless of how you are being used, or misused, on offense. 

Meanwhile, a little context is in order. Love is only 26 years old, entering what should be the peak years of his career. One would imagine that sooner or later, the Cavs will figure it out. Their current eight-game winning streak indicates they are enmeshed in that process already. Kevin Love is no fool. Expect a better second half from him this year, and all star games in seasons to come.