When Kyle Korver played for the Atlanta Hawks, the team’s Twitter account displayed a “Korver Kounter” to document how many three pointers the shooting guard hit per game. When the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired him last season the Cavs’ social media people did not duplicate the Hawks’ effort. This was a good idea because A) stealing another team’s social media gimmick is incredibly rude and B) the Cavs had so many players who hit three pointers it did not make sense to single out just one. Flip the calendar to 2017-18 and Korver no doubt feels a little more alone on the perimeter. The former Creighton Blue Jay has been the only consistent long range player for the Cavs through fourteen games. What can we learn from that sample, and how could the team perhaps use him better?
Basketball is a young man’s game. Dozens of players in the league cannot legally purchase alcohol in the US. So when General Manager Pro Tempe Koby Altman signed the 36-year-old Korver to a three year, $22 million dollar deal in July it was reasonable to be suspicious. So far, however, it looks like a good investment. In fourteen games this season, all off the bench, Korver is averaging 10.9 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 0.4 assists in 20.3 minutes per game. His primary purpose on the court is simple: run around a screen at the arc, catch the ball, shoot a three. So far, it is working. Korver has hit a team-leading 36 triples in a team-leading 79 attempts which comes out to a team-leading 45.6% success rate. That connection percentage falls just outside the NBA’s top twenty, where Minnesota’s Nemanja Bjelica (who?) is hitting triples at a 53.1% clip.
Recently Korver has been saving his best for last. Against the Knicks Monday night he dropped 19 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-8 three-point shooting plus four icing free throws. Against Dallas he scored all thirteen of his points in the final frame. Late-game heroics plus a steady hand at the free throw stripe make it easy for head coach Ty Lue to keep him on the floor at closing time. It leads one to wonder though, should he be out there at tipoff?
Kyle Korver has played in 1,045 games, but only started in 418 of them – 40%. Atlanta predominantly used him as a starter from 2012-2016; he played 31.6 minutes per game and still hit 45.6% of threes. He has also thrived in the second unit. During his tenures in Cleveland, Chicago, Utah, and Philadelphia he more often than not watched the jump ball while wearing his warmups. In light of the Cavs’ struggles with the starting rotation and trouble with the deep ball, they could perhaps benefit from granting No. 26 more minutes. The question then turns to who would have to swap out of the starting five which is bad news for JR Smith.
In theory, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver are similar players. They work best from range, hit free throws, and love to catch and shoot. The biggest knock on Korver, and one of the reasons Smith starts over him, is defense. Korver’s defense has historically been a liability; for proof please review tape of him trying to guard anyone in last year’s Finals. Smith’s defensive chops should give him an extra dimension that makes a difference late in games. However, the stats so far this season do not bear that out. J.R. Smith’s defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions per basketball-reference) is 117. Korver checks in at 115. Meanwhile, Smith’s offensive rating (an estimate of points produced or scored per 100 possessions) sits at 97 while Korver rocks a mean 127. In summary, Korver offers a better DRtg (+2) and ORtg (+30) than Smith. If Smith cannot rediscover his defensive grit and shooting touch then it becomes tougher to argue that he offers the Cavaliers a superior starting option than Korver.
For the record, I adore J.R. Smith as a person and a player. He makes basketball more fun and is one of very few players who can literally shoot through a slump and succeed. On the year, J.R. has attemped 78 three-pointers, hitting only 25 of them (32.1%). Those numbers are down from his 2016-17 figures (35.1%) which are in turn down from his 2015-16 numbers (40%). Obviously it’s difficult to be critical of last year’s stats due to his injuries and family situation. That’s what makes this so difficult now – as far as the team has announced Smith is healthy. He needs to play better on both sides of the ball. The season is still young-ish (requisite proclamation of small sample size) and Smith has more than paid his dues to earn the benefit of the doubt. He completely has the potential to go off on any given night with a sharp 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He has scored double digits in three of his past four games so maybe he is already shaking off some early season doldrums. Still, his overall numbers remain concerning.
Players and fans want consistency in minutes, rotations, and playing time. Model franchises, the kind that win championships, ideally roll out the same starting five for six months then have a parade. Coach Lue has already experimented with a number of starting groups and subs. The rotations will change again when Isaiah Thomas returns to the floor. I’m not advocating change for its own sake, but simply saying that the Cavs’ early season struggles indicate that perhaps they would benefit from Korver getting more time. If his and Smith’s defensive abilities remain even, but J.R. continues to struggle then it makes it easier for Lue to insert Korver into the starting lineup.