It was a week ago I started writing this about Kevin Love. In a Thursday night TNT game against the Spurs, Love meandered around the perimeter keeping his toes tightly behind the three point arc with an effortless commitment as the Cavs succumbed to the San Antonio machine and in my mind Love’s borderline uselessness began to grow. His on/off stats for the night weren’t as bad as my perception but his game had the appearance of something between apathy and anonymity. Then came the Golden State game that created a rippling kerfuffle across the basketball space as the Cavs were shredded by Golden State’s bullying pick and roll versatility. And suddenly Kevin Love is topic du jour of my text message threads and I’m wondering, who the hell is Kevin Love?
On that Monday night when Love put up his second-lowest game score (2.8) of the season, the microscope was dialed up to its highest intensity and we all went overboard. It’s something that confounds because what we know to be true of Kevin Love: his first six seasons in the NBA portended a highly decorated Hall of Fame career. Love’s statistical accomplishments (19 points/game and 12 rebounds/game) over his first six seasons have been accomplished strictly by Hall of Famers. His 2013-14 masterpiece when he averaged 26.5ppg, 12.5rpg while dishing 4.4 assists/game and making 2.5 threes/game is nigh inimitable. To find another player who’s done the 26-12-4 in a single season we have to travel to pre-modern NBA (pre-1979-80 for this purpose) to 1975-76 when Jimmy Carter was about to snatch a presidency and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was doling out the impossible 27-17-5 with 4.1 blocks/game. Modern players don’t post this varied statistical gaudiness, let alone do it with over two threes/game. From now until the cows come home, we can build out stat comparisons showing how and why Love’s statistical peers are either residing in Springfield, Massachusetts at the Hall of Fame or they just don’t exist. This is the type of company Love keeps which is part of the reason he’s morphed into an enigmatic pro basketball player.
Between his rookie season in 2008-09 and his final season in Minnesota in 13-14, his combined point and rebound average was 31.4/game. In his 157 games in Cleveland, that number’s dropped to 26.2 – a decline of about 16% in production while his assists have been cut in half. This is and isn’t without precedent. Historically, players who score and rebound like Love don’t experience as significant a drop in production unless they’re injured (see messy chart below). But then there’s the Chris Bosh corollary whereby a big man partners with a pair of ball-dominant guards and experiences a mix of decline in raw production and unfair, poorly contextualized criticism with the tradeoff being the obvious and ultimate: realized championship aspirations.
Anything above zero is positive as it indicates season-over-season growth. Below zero indicates decline. Including pre-modern players expands the list to 15 total players which makes for a messier chart. Of the 19-12 club, just Elgin Baylor and Willis Reed experience greater season-over-season declines and both of those were the result of injuries. Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com
Where Love dropped from 31.4 to 26.2 (rebounds plus points), Bosh dropped from 29.6 in his Toronto days to 26.5 in his first two seasons in Miami – just over a 10% decline in raw production. This is where Love becomes a victim of his own success. The 26-12-4 has already been established, but back when he was a wide-assed 22-year-old, he averaged over 15rpg – the first player to accomplish that since Ben Wallace in 02-03 and before that, it was Dennis Rodman in 93-94. And if we want to go more exclusive, then factor in the 20ppg that accompanied Love’s 15rpg. To find the last guy to do this, we’re hop-skip-jumping back to the Reagan Administration in 82-83 with the dearly departed Moses Malone. Statistically speaking, Love set the bar so ridiculously high that his 16 and 10 with nearly two threes/game from last season feel inadequate even though he’s the only player in league history to do this – three separate times.
And this is exactly what LeBron James and Cleveland sought to embrace when they traded for Love after his historic 26-12 season – a power forward in his prime vying for the crown of best at his position in the league. What Love lacked in Blake Griffin’s athleticism or Anthony Davis’s length, he made up for in rebounding position, elite passing (from the elbow or full court outlet passes), and the ability to stretch the floor in ways only specialists had previously been able to do.
History tells us the Cavs and Minnesota had been kicking around the notion of a deal for Love well before the trade was finally completed. The biggest concern for the Cavs had always been around Love re-signing with the team and they thus strove to make the team compelling enough for either Bron or Love to join and whoever got there first would act as bait. With James on board and Kyrie extended, the team finally had the talent cache to be attractive enough for Love, but Chris Fedor, writing for Cleveland.com conveyed that Bron’s personal recruitment convinced Love to join:
“That (LeBron’s call) had a lot to do with my decision. I knew the Cavaliers had a lot of young pieces in place and a lot of great talent here as well. I knew the city relatively well, but (James’ call) had a lot to do with it.”
Despite all the front office volleys between Cavs General Managers, first Chris Grant, then David Griffin and Flip Saunders, it was James handpicking Love to join him and his merry band of Miami Heat North-Central that cemented the deal. The playbook was laughably transparent with Kyrie playing Wade, Love playing Bosh, and the King staying the King – with obvious individual idiosyncrasies. But whose playbook was it? LeBron’s or Cavs owner Dan Gilbert/Griffin’s? Or does it even matter because everyone was driven towards the same end game: a Cleveland Big Three. LeBron even went as far as bringing along James Gang bandits James Jones and Mike Miller; his fingerprints are everywhere as is often the case. But where the enigmas begin to unravel are all along the road from the summer of 2014 to the present.
Where LeBron’s Miami journey was a unification of super friends all bought into the same end game at similar stages in their careers with a centralized authority in Basketball Godfather Pat Riley, the Cleveland model lacks the basic foundation or spine of Miami. Gilbert appears to be reactionary as an owner while Griffin seems to be serving two masters in James and Gilbert. The new Cavs have achieved nothing but success since 2014. They won 53 games in their formative season, then waltzed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record despite losing Love in the first round. And it’s fairly inconceivable that a Cavs roster without Love or Irving somehow took a 2-1 lead over an obviously superior Warriors team before collapsing to that suffocating, innovating versatility of Golden State and Andre Iguodala’s full realization. In 2015-16, it’s more of the same with Cleveland ascending the top of an improved East and owning the third best record in basketball.
And yet, the past 18-20 months are littered and streaked with negativity and tumult. LeBron and Love have taken pains to awkwardly communicate through the media or social media. I sat 15 rows from the court in Cavs at Blazers last season when LeBron, fed up with perplexing selfish play from teammates, mailed in the second half. It was James at his passive aggressive worst and presaged the eight-game sabbatical he’d take in the middle of the season. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently wrote about James giving Love this type of treatment: “Love has learned this and sometimes when there’s a mix-up, James will glare his way and Love will stare at the hardwood so as not to meet James’ eyes.”
[NOTE: As I write this, David Blatt has just been fired which brings its own massive ramifications for Love, LeBron and the entire franchise. Blatt’s final record (playoffs and regular season combined) was 97 wins and 46 losses (68% winning).]
Of all the basketball players on the planet, to have LeBron James personally recruit you to join him is like a kiss of immortality, the ultimate in acceptance and approval. I have no idea if Love needs approval. He was a multi-time All-Star and Olympian. He knew what he was capable of and yet, it’s possible he still strove to please the King. In a piece written by Jason Lloyd in November of 2015, Lloyd alludes not necessarily to insecurity, but perhaps a touch of uncertainty:
James spent years admiring Love. The two stars didn’t know each other well when James was heaping so much praise on Love’s game during the 2012 Olympics that Love initially thought James was just messing with him. [Italics mine]
Later in the piece, Lloyd writes:
James loves talent and he loves playing alongside elite players. Love’s physical condition (at the start of 2014-15) prevented him from being the player James thought he was getting. As a result, James gravitated toward Kyrie Irving and Love never fit well into this system.
Such is the fickle nature of LeBron James. To be accepted, then to be rejected can wreak havoc on anyone’s confidence, let alone when it’s the greatest player on the planet. In that same piece by Lloyd, he references a clearing of the air between James and Love over the summer and we saw a marked improvement in how Love came out to start the season. In October James went as far as saying Love was the “focal point” and the “main focus” of the Cavs offense. Through November, Love lived up to the billing, averaging nearly 20 and 12 compared to 16 and 10 in his first season with Cleveland. Then in December, Love had his worst month shooting the ball since 2013 when he was playing with a broken hand. His TS for the month was 47.4% and his January trends are improving, but still well below his norms. With the recent avalanche of criticism around his inability to defend Golden State (which somehow morphed into a commentary about his overall defense), the shooting struggles, and Windhorst reporting that Cavs players thought the team meeting on Friday was about Love being traded instead of Blatt being fired, it’s fair to wonder how Love or LeBron respond. Does Bron go “sour” on him again? Does, or is, Love’s confidence shake at the prospect of again letting James down? As Love’s shooting accuracy has declined each month, so too have his shooting opportunities – from ~15 FGAs/game to 12 to just over 10 in January which is no doubt a by-product of the reintegration of Irving into the offense. But regardless of cap implications, does a team intentionally limit a player of Love’s offensive caliber to just 10 shots/game?
For a piece where the primary subject is Kevin Love, LeBron James inevitably becomes subject 1a. As I spent these last days rolling this riddle over in my head, it all kept coming back to LeBron; which isn’t to say Love isn’t accountable for his own play. Above, I talked about Bosh being the prime point of comparison for Love and where Bosh experienced a similar decrease in opportunity (5% decline in USG for Bosh going from TOR to MIA compared to 7% for Love), he counterbalanced it by becoming a savant defending the pick and roll and completely embracing that role – while also putting up 18 and 7. Love is not Bosh and shouldn’t strive to be, but whether in mental approach or direct communication (as opposed to talking to LeBron through the media), there are opportunities for change. Neither should James take full accountability for Love’s decline. Between Blatt’s game planning and last season’s fourth quarter benchings, the evolution of Kyrie from ball-dominant point guard on a lottery team to second option a contending team, to the overall synthesizing of Love and James alongside mid-season trades that brought three significant players to the roster, it’s wholly conceivable that there isn’t a single source of Love’s declines.
LeBron’s shadow looms over the entirety of the Cavs organization. There’s a sense, true or not, despite counter-statements from Griffin, that James is somehow involved in all team personnel decisions. At its most cynical, it is as Woj wrote, that he stirred up an open rebellion against Blatt in order to force a coaching change. He played a powerful role in getting Love to Cleveland and was possibly indirectly involved in Tristan Thompson’s contract. When Zach Lowe quotes Griffin on his recent podcast (~8:20 mark) saying the biggest lesson he learned is that you have to be thoughtful in what ball handlers you place alongside LeBron, I hear the description of a shadow, a glove, a blanket, a presence that exists like oil coating every part of the Cavs machine. From the reshaping of the roster to fit Miami to the firing of Blatt to the prominence of Love in the offense, Bron’s been involved. This is Cleveland 2.0 where the front office still appears to kowtow to LeBron. And Kevin Love, existing somewhere between the future Hall of Famer in Minnesota and a good stretch four in Cleveland, is at the King’s mercy like everyone else. But don’t cry for Kevin, this is just one route on the path championship immortality and as Love’s learning and Bosh learned before him, the sacrifice is real and at times painful as his basketball-playing identity contracts and expands through the never-ending media maelstrom that’s become the Cavs.