The “New” Kevin Love

The Kevin Love everyone was waiting to see is the Kevin Love who has finally arrived, returning for a playoff encore in his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But, truthfully, he has never been here before. Last year, it all ended so abruptly for Love, he hardly left a footprint in the postseason. This, what Love is doing right now, has a better late than never texture as Love is displaying the entire arsenal of gifts he possesses from all areas of the court: scoring, rebounding and passing. Consequentially, Love has been an important part of the Cavs Big 3 in their series against Detroit. Consistent and aggressive on offense, he has posted two games of 20+ points, three games of 10+ rebounds, two games of a positive +/- rating.

Still, it’s a three game sample size.

Once he wins a ring, Kevin Love will distance himself from the whispers that the Love for Andrew Wiggins trade was the short end of the stick for the Cavs, a deal they will regret long term. While Wiggins was celebrating his Rookie of the Year honor last May, Love was nursing an injured shoulder and was understandably bitter at not being able to complete the playoffs.

Wiggins, in his second season, averaged more points than Love and shot a better percentage. Love, though, was a better all around player than Wiggins, even as a third option. His Real-Plus Minus rank, which measures on court impact, put Love second among power forwards, just behind Draymond Green. Andrew Wiggins RPM rank among shooting guards was 43rd, trailing C.J. Wilcox and Evan Turner.

Love’s PER of 19.0 was higher than Wiggins 16.5, and Love’s team played high pressure games all season long and is a contender to win the title while Wiggins team is young, inexperienced, and still in the developmental stage. But Wiggins team did something the Cavs have not been able to do. They beat the Warriors.

2015-16 Season Points True Shooting Percentage PER
Andrew Wiggins 20.7 54.3% 16.5
Kevin Love 16.0 55.3% 19.0

When Love  signed a max deal in the offseason, he was willingly attaching himself to scrutiny. The bar was set high as he had to perform to the level the contract required. The burden of that kind of critique comes with  an unnatural need to prove you are worthy of the contract. There is self-reflection and judgment as the external world says you are overpaid and you try to prove everyone wrong but the money amount sticks, even as what you are worth and what you produce often don’t line up equally.

Love’s regular season wasn’t great. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well.  His 41.9% was the second lowest shooting mark of his career, lower than his rookie year. He made up for it with three point accuracy, 36.0%, which was slightly off from last year’s 36.7%.

In the playoffs, Kevin Love is making 50% of his catch and shoot buckets, but 37.5% of his pull up jumpers. His True Shooting Percentage is 59.8% and his PER is 24.0, higher than LeBron’s PER of 22.6, and five points higher than his PER in the regular season. His scoring is up five points, his rebounding is up by nearly two, but his assists have dropped from 2.4 to 1.7. Love is playing almost five minutes more.

More numbers: He is shooting 44% from three, 50% on long twos, 55% on shots 10-16 feet. His 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds is exactly what a max player delivers in the playoffs and is a reminder of the time Love was an All-Star and put up eye-popping numbers: 26 points and 13 rebounds.

But he drifted last year, unclear about his role in an offense that wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Love reassured LeBron James over the summer that he was capable of doing more; the Cavs had barely skimmed the surface of Love’s abilities.

But the onus was on Ty Lue to devise a scheme where Love’s engagement would be all over the floor and in a variety of ways for the versatile power forward to impact the game.

Lue has made good on his promise, moving Love around, posting him up, having him slide to the three-point line, planting him on the elbow. Love has entered the playoff season almost as if he has something to prove, not because of the contract per se, but everything else that comes with being identified as a talented player who demands the highest salary. Love has to show he can deliver big for the Cavs and get them to the Finals, something he had the misfortune of missing out on because he was injured.

In three playoff games, Love has been the adhesive that has kept the Cavs on a string. No one anticipates or expects Love to be the Cavs best player, but he is an extremely important part of the offense that Lue had to legitimize with actions designed primarily for Love to take advantage of defenses.

When Love was in Minnesota, during that last year that was so tough for him because he wanted to win, but he also wanted to be loyal, whispers were that Love was a stat guy, that he had little interest in making teammates better, that on his agenda was an All-Star appearance, implying that selfishness-his- was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But selfishness can be inner directed and provide dividends and selfishness can be more remarkable in what it provides at the very end.

LeBron James made note of the “new” Kevin Love early in the season. James who had to take on an unhealthy burden in the NBA Finals is more than willing to share the spotlight and the wealth.

“I knew he’d be sharp when I had my conversations with him in Los Angeles in the offseason. We’ll use Kevin however he wants to be used. I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus. He’s going to have a hell of a season. He’s going to get back to that All-Star status.”

Last summer, Kevin Love was adamant and convincing. It wasn’t that he could and would do more this season but that he wanted to do more. Desire goes a long way, particularly since last year David Blatt and his underwhelming offensive sets had Kevin Love alone on an island, nearly invisible, a disappearing man. It was costly to Love’s psyche as the season wore on and when Blatt was fired, Love was resurrected.

Blatt, an experienced offensive coach but a NBA rookie seemed blinded last year by the enormous expectations, the enormity of LeBron James star power, and the athleticism and skill of the league itself. Blatt had his baptism by fire and he got burned. Lue has had his ups and downs too, but has a better handle on how the Cavs are going to defend their Eastern Conference champion crown.

So far, Kevin Love is in full agreement with both James and Lue. He is a difference maker. He has unique abilities the Cavs have to utilize to give them the versatility they need to beat the Pistons of the world. And Atlanta. And Toronto.

When Love came to Cleveland, Chris Bosh leveled a warning. Offensive regression messes with your mind. Being the primary option and having it define you, and then, all of a sudden, being relegated to the third spoke in the wheel, often forgotten, is a mental hurdle, a tough river to cross. It seemed to bother Love last season, the LeBron James world transition. But this season Love has passed Bosh as far as the LeBron hierarchy goes, sitting with him during post game press conferences. Bosh was marginalized and punished for being the last rung on the Big 3 ladder, a solo act at his press conference, as if he wasn’t good enough to sit with LeBron and Wade.

So Love has arrived. He  is slowly integrating himself into Cavs playoff life.  He is the 15th best scorer in the playoffs and the 4th best rebounder.

This much is true right now. Kevin Love is exactly who the Cavaliers need him to be.

 

photo via lllananba