The Third Evolution of Kevin Love

Armed with a new contract extension, Kevin Love will once again be the focal point of his team. How will it all play out for Love and the Cavs?

July 25, 2018 — Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America

After watching Kevin Love toil away in Minnesota, it seemed befitting that the oft-maligned power forward — infinitely and notoriously pitted against Blake Griffin for the title of top power forward — would get a chance to shine as an assistant to LeBron and Kyrie. Alas, his first contract in Cleveland was anything but enlightening. LeBron called him out for trying to fit out, not in. His own team even turned on him for a fake injury.

At every pit stop of his 10-year NBA career, we have witnessed a refined version of Kevin Love. Of course, his days in Minnesota were defined by numerous 20 point-20 rebound games and full-court touchdown outlet passes. Good stats-bad team Kevin Love in Minnesota melted down to Cleveland Kevin Love, courtesy of a strict diet regimen. No matter the circumstance, Love starred in a consequential role — from outright star to third wheel to expensive trade bait.

While Lebron is arguably the GOAT, his play-style victimizes and pigeonholes dependent teammates. D-Wade and Lebron struggled to click, as the battle for number one option led to an 8–9 start. Kyrie refused to take the backseat in Lebron’s car. Isaiah Thomas lasted only until the trade deadline before written off as damaged goods. In the grand scheme of things, Love was a small fish in a big pond.

This time, Love breaks free of the shackles placed on him by Lebron. Following Lebron’s Hollywood bolt, conventional wisdom deduced a Love departure. Surely, Cleveland would resort to tanking in hopes of a brighter future. If the profusion of Duke prospects did not turn heads, then the allotment of minutes to younger players would (who doesn’t want to see Cedi Osman drop 20 any given night?).

However, Ty Lue, and Koby Altman confirmed Love’s imminent stay in Cleveland — for now, at least. In a revolving door of offseason movement, the Cavs chose to stay put.

While his game conformed to the bigger picture, his abilities have endured. On the face of it, his minutes and field goal attempts have taken a nosedive.

The driving reason for the hit on basic statistics was the tailspin of his usage—Basketball Reference notes a 28.8 usage in his waning days as a T-Wolf to a 23.3 4-season average in The Land. All the while, Love’s 22.7 points per 36 minutes are both Cleveland career-highs. His field goal and three-point percentage reached a pinnacle unseen since his breakout season in Minnesota. Not to mention, Love was firing 2 and 3-point shots at a more efficient rate this season than seasons prior.

What does the Contract Extension look like?

The Kevin Love Cleveland extension is eerily similar to the Blake Griffin Clipper extension. Blake Griffin — a “Clipper for life” for about 12 seconds — was shipped to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and what became the 12th pick. If trade history is any indication, Cleveland gets 20 cents on the dollar in a Kevin Love swap.

As Cleveland.com pointed out, Love’s contract falls short of the max. In fact, the contract falls $9 million (nickels and dimes for Kevin) short. The contract goes through peaks and valleys as well: $25 million each year over the first two, then $31 million, and falls at $28 million for the final year. Love will be 34 when the contract expires. Sexton and Love are set to be the only players employed through 2021–22.

With his monetary value in mind, which Kevin Love will we see in the second leg of his Cleveland career?

The Pick and Roll Maestro

Undoubtedly, Kevin Love’s bread and butter is the pick and roll. Love forces the defense into a “pick-your-poison” situation — defend the three or get a three smacked in your face.

On this play, Love recognizes that both Millsap and Teague are concentrated on Irving’s next moves. So when he goes to set the screen, he swiftly bolts to the opposite side of the court, knowing the defenders are stranded together on Irving Island and that Irving — with his basketball IQ and vision — would easily find him with a cross-court heave.

It pays off for Love, as he receives a pass right into his breadbasket. Love — fully loaded and inches past the arc — fires an uncontested three-pointer.

Likewise, Love make Jazz defenders pay for their neglect towards his three-point ability. He drags Kanter — whose slow feet trudge through molasses — outside his comfort zone. Kanter, in typical Kanter fashion, chooses to sag off Love. The former UCLA player got the scenario he had hoped for and stepped back with ideal footwork.

According to Synergy Sports Tracking, Love placed in the 59th percentile of pick and roll players in 2017–18. More importantly, K-Love can pick and choose his spots after setting the screen.

Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype collected significant information from a tweet by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton:

“According to NBA Advanced Stats tracking, Love averaged 8.0 touches at the elbow per game his final season in Minnesota, which ranked sixth in the league. While in Cleveland, he never averaged more than 2.1 elbow touches per game.”

Love will thrive if Tyron Lue extracts plays from the Timberwolves teams Love dominated on. With the addition of Sexton — who creates shots utilizing a variety of skill-moves — the transition will be smooth and symbiotic for both parties.

After all, Lue has experience in drawing up plays for score-first point guards. While Irving and Sexton are not mirror images, their similarities are difficult to ignore.

The Help: Collin Sexton

Etched into Alabama lore, Cleveland’s new point guard led his college team to their second tourney appearance in 12 years and even scored 40 points in a 3 on 5 game. After being named the 7th pick in the draft, Collin Sexton fit a Cavs hat over his spiky hair.

Minutes later, Sexton sent a recruiting pitch to Lebron. A pitch that would not work; instead of playing next to Lebron, the former Alabama player will face the tall task of replacing him. Don’t get me wrong, replacing him is impossible. After all, the aforementioned was a homegrown superstar that led the Cavs to 8 straight finals appearances.

That being said, Sexton has the potential to be a true second fiddle to Kevin Love.

Of course, Sexton dominated in college using a blow-by hesitation. Most of the time, Sexton’s talent outweighed his teammates’ contributions. Avery Johnson’s best tactic was to let him create by himself.

When he did get screens, he used his tantalizing speed to zip past big men and his vision to decipher a multitude of defensive sets thrown at him. By weaving in and out, with his in-and-out dribble and Tim Hardaway-like crossover, he should continue to escape the grasp of big men at the next level.

Courtesy of Draftexpress and ESPN, you can see Sexton mediates offense through isolation and pick and roll-driven plays.

He does have his fair share of weaknesses though: inability to see over the top of the defense, lack of true point guard vision, and tendency to look for his own shot rather than teammates. It only takes a trip to Basketball Reference to see that Sexton shot 33.6% on three’s. How will he fare with a deeper line and a tighter leash?

Still, there is an overall realization that he is work in progress. Sexton is a lock to garner minutes — if not start — on a short-handed Cavs team. That means Love (who played 32.5 minutes last season) will be playing with Sexton for 20+ minutes next season. How do the two mesh?

The pairing go together like cars and fuel. Sexton’s explosiveness offsets Love’s old-man, slow-motion game. Vice versa, Love’s marksman shooting touch neutralizes Sexton’s inconsistency from deep.

The Beauty of the Shot-Fake

If you played basketball growing up, you can comprehend coaches’ obsession over the pump fake. Whether the play be used to trick an unsuspecting 2–3 zone or get a defender in the air, it works 90% of the time. Forwards that are respected from deep leverage their shooting prowess and recognition to keep defenders on their toes — or flying in the air. That’s exactly what Love does.

Even when Love catches the ball outside his shooting pocket — and doesn’t have the time to fake the shot — his three-point shooting prowess forces defenders to run him off the line. On this play against the 2016 Bulls, Love bobbles the ball, crosses over from left to right, and notices a collapse in the 2–3 zone defense. Love recognizes he can zoom by Mirotic — who, despite maximum effort, is not a sound perimeter defender — and instead of settling for a jumper, glides over Pau Gasol for a two-handed slam. Graceful is certainly not the word to describe Love’s game, but awareness is.

In the case that Love does not like what he sees through a pick and roll scenario, he’s content with his teammates making the right play. In both of these plays, Love’s underrated passing ability is accentuated.

A theme forgotten by time is Kevin’s extraordinary passing ability. Yes, fans have heard the references to Love’s Unseld-like full-court heaves, but blown over is Love’s dexterity to fit passes through closing windows, with substantial ‘mustard’ on them.

Simply put, the fact that a 9-minute 28-second video is compiled of a power forward making pinpoint passes is mind-blowing.

Love, plausibly, will return back to his Minnesota days with higher usage and more minutes. He could even be inclined to indulge in junk food and tack on a few pounds. Like Chris Bosh did when Lebron jettisoned town, Love is a shoo-in to produce 23 points and 10 rebounds. Really, fans from The Land worry about Love’s performance on the other side of the ball.

Defense in the Pick-and-Roll

Kevin Love basically won the Cavs the 2015 championship by putting the clamps on Steph Curry. The Warriors continuously tried to exploit various mismatches—Kevin Love certainly being a point of interest. Steph Curry matched up against Love appeared to be an easy basket. Even then, Love, using his lighter frame, shifted his body at every twist and turn by Curry.

Clutch defense aside, Love is not a genuine pick-and-roll defender.

In a mash-up of plays in a preseason game versus Maccabi Tel Aviv, the forward repeatedly trips over himself trying to defend the pick and roll.

Love is continuously exposed by Guy Pnini (a 32-year old at the time) who beat Kevin Love off the dribble on consecutive plays. Due to lack of communication, poor foot speed, and the absence of a detailed scouting report, Pnini speeds by Love and hits a three before Kevin can say “Maccabi.”

However, the heart of the matter is not personnel knowledge or foot speed, but rather a player on a mediocre team (okay not mediocre, they were Euroleague champions) in Europe could beat Love that easily. If that happens, it’s frightening to imagine what damage NBA small-ball power forwards can do (IE: Jayson Tatum or Draymond Green).

Outside the pick and roll, Kevin Love is not necessarily adept at defense either. His rim protection was notably shoddy last season. Just like past seasons, his rim-protection—or lack of it—made him unplayable against the Warriors. According to NBA.com, for forwards that appeared in 50 (or more games) and defended 3 or more shots at the rim (within 6 feet), Love ranked 60th (64.4% exactly). If Lue wants a stop, the likes of Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson replace the incumbent.

The next footprint in Love’s journey is a familiar one. Without Kyrie and Lebron, K-Love gets a chance to relive the glory days. Maybe he is destined to be a good-stats, bad-team type of player after all. For all we know, if he defends at a higher level while retaining the Timberwolves vigor, we may see a brand-new version of Kevin Love.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and Synergy Sports Technology.

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

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