Kevin Love entered the 2016-2017 without the burden of validating the Andrew Wiggins trade; or fitting in; or the constant murmur of trade rumors. Instead he wrestled with a new weight on his shoulders; a WWE-style championship belt.
With his new found freedom, Love earned his first All-Star appearance since joining the Cavaliers. Prior to the All-Star break, Love averaged 20 points on 58.2 percent true-shooting percentage (43 percent on all field goals, 38 percent from three-point); his best marks as a Cavalier. Perhaps the biggest change was the fact that Love was using 26.5 percent of the team’s possessions when on the court, a full three percentage points better than at any other point as a Cavalier. Head Coach Ty Lue had told Love before the 2015-2016 playoffs, ‘Kevin, you got to be more aggressive. Tell LeBron, I’m a bad m—–f—– too, so throw me the ball.’ Love got the message.
Taking a deeper dive, Love’s play began to decline even before he was forced to missed time due to surgery. Coach Lue mentioned that Love had dealt with the knee issue for some time, and a look at his overall numbers indicates a decline through January:
The good news it that Love’s rebounding has remained at elite levels, both offensively and defensively. He doesn’t rely on his athleticism as much as positioning, and can still impact a game in that capacity. But if the Cavaliers want to reach the levels they did last year, they need Love to get back to his All-Star levels. This team is not built to have an elite defense, and if their offense is not scoring at a high level, they’re going to struggle. The Cavaliers scored 1.18 points per possession with Kevin Love on the floor prior to the All-Star break, and only 1.12 post-break. They need that pre-break number if they want to repeat as champions.
The problem with the Cavaliers sweeping the Pacers in the first round (if you can find a problem, that is) is that we only have four games worth of data to evaluate. While it’s hard to remember after lackluster performances in Game 3 and Game 4, Love actually had a great series, by the numbers. He hit 41 percent of his threes and had a 53.7 percent free throw attempt rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) giving him an overall true shooting percentage of 61.2 percent. His usage is way down (20.5 percent) making his counting numbers look small, but he hit shots and got to the line a a high clip. With a player like Love, it isn’t always his personal contributions that are the measure of his impact, but how his gravity keeps other big men out of the lane and lets Kyrie Irving and LeBron James get to the rim. Against the Pacers, the Cavaliers scored 1.18 points per possession with Love on the court, identical to their rate prior to the All-Star break when Love was playing at a high level.
This isn’t to say that Kevin Love is back. Those last two games against the Pacers were a step back, and as the Cavs face the Raptors in the next round, they’ll need Love spacing the floor and keeping Serge Ibaka out of the lane. With Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker to defend Irving and James, Love will also need to contribute some volume scoring. But, we saw something out of Kevin Love early this season that we haven’t seen since he came to Cleveland. His return from injury has been slow, but if he is rounding into shape it gives the Cavaliers a weapon they’ll desperately need.