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The Distancing Kevin Love

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The title here would lead one to assume that the three-time All-Star forward is looking to break away from the Cavaliers, but that’s not the case. Rather, this is about Love’s game, which over the course of his career has moved further and further away from the basket:

Percentage of field goal attempts, by distance, sorted by 0-3 feet:

08/09: 52.8%
09/10: 42.7%
10/11: 35.2%
11/12: 33.5%
12/13: 32.2%
13/14: 25.3%
14/15: 21.3%
15/16: 20.2%

Naturally, Love’s evolution as a three-point shooter has had a huge effect on these numbers. As a rookie, only 2.8% of his attempts were from long range, compared to 46.1% today. Either way you slice it, maintaining a shot-selection in the 50%-range from within three feet while bombing away from the outside would have been impossible.

But the decline in shots around the basket does bring some challenges, such as making it easier to plan against Love, knowing full-well that he prefers to spot up and is a poor driver. Last season, Love drove the ball 0.9 times per game, shooting 29.4% in the process. This year, Love has six drives, going 0-for-3 with one turnover and two assists. Essentially, teams won’t have to make huge adjustments when Love puts the ball on the deck.

But let’s hold off for a minute before categorizing Love as a stretch 4. As Mike Prada wrote yesterday, when Love is, in fact, going into the post, he’s one of the best in the league. He attempts 2.5 shots from there a game and connects on 80%, which helps balance the horrid 23.8% turnover rate, which is bound to go down over the course of the season. Additionally, Love has a free-throw rate of 19%, as well as the highest and-one rate in the league at 14.3%.

It’s through his success that a question arises, which is: Why isn’t Love down there even more?

Even before leaving Minnesota for Cleveland, Love was developing into a shooter more so than a post-player, so the “LeBron excuse”, while partly accurate, doesn’t explain everything. If anything, Love could stand to rediscover his offensive mojo, seeing as he’s launching 6.8 triples a night at just 29.3% accuracy. Those are last year Derrick Rose numbers, which isn’t a compliment.

Looking at Love’s free-throw rate, he doesn’t draw a lot of shooting fouls outside the post area, either. He’s currently attempting a career-low 2.7 shots from the line a night, where he averaged over eight previously. Thirty-six of Love’s 97 points on the year have come from deep, 29 from the post, and just 15 from the line. It’s still just six games obviously, but given how Love had to change his game last year to accommodate both LeBron and Kyrie Irving, it’s concerning that he seems unable to tap more into what he showed in Minnesota with Irving out, and LeBron saving himself in a larger degree to the playoffs.

Even Mo Williams is scoring at a higher—and more efficient—per-minute rate than Love right now.  And while the 32-year old point guard has terrific chemistry with LeBron, there is a need for letting Love locate his All-Star form, especially if LeBron is so eager to take games off down the road, which after 36,000 career minutes is probably a good idea.

Look, ignoring the numbers for a moment, there is something troubling about the James/Love pairing. Both are obviously immensely talented, and both will rack up regular season wins like it’s nothing, but unlike the James/Chris Bosh pairing in Miami, Love doesn’t offer the versatility that Bosh did. There is no fluidity to Love’s game, whereas Bosh was basically a 6’11 small forward with quick feet and a better adapting mentality. Sure he was used much like Love in a spot-up scoring role, but when the situation demanded flexibility, Bosh would serve it on a platter.

This was Bosh in a game without James, which forced him to take on a larger scoring role. Look at the herky-jerky moves Bosh puts on Robin Lopez early in the game. That ball-handling ability, combined with his length, consistently allows for self-creation, unlike with Love where there is no driving game, and 79.4% of his field goals from last year were assisted.

Making this a Love vs. Bosh case would be unfair, seeing as Bosh’s versatility just suited LeBron that much better. When Love was the offensive foundation in Minnesota, he was a better scorer than Bosh has ever been, although his points came off less creative venues. Comparing them to each other, and in a vacuum, is comparing apples to oranges.

But, comparing them with the shared responsibilities of being LeBron’s co-pilots, and there’s no way of getting around it: Versatility, fluidity, and offensive unpredictability, matter. Love, for all his strengths on the glass, and as a passer, shooter, and post-player, has very little of that.

Does it prevent Cleveland from winning a title? Probably not. Golden State or San Antonio would be the reasons for that. But you must use Love in very specific ways, which wasn’t the case with Bosh, who would routinely find a way to make himself vital. Even when Love’s shooting percentages return—and they will—you still know what you’re getting with him, and what you needn’t worry about.

Love will pick-and-pop, he’ll go down to the low blocks, he’ll never put the ball on the floor, he’ll pass from the high-post, he’ll rebound, he won’t be able to switch consistently on defense, and he’ll take very few mid-range shots. Any team worth their salt will know where to key in on him, and where to let him get the ball.

With Love’s tendency to move further away— also noted in the fact that the average distance on his shot this year is at a career-high 17.5 feet—teams won’t concern themselves with 3-to-5 touches down low a game, knowing full well he’ll drift away anyway.

So, that’s what needs changing for Love and the Cavs going forward. Even the offensively challenged Hassan Whiteside is getting more post-ups this year than Love, with Al Jefferson leading the pack at 8.4 possessions a game.

That’s an in-the-ballpark number that Love needs to reach to make himself not only more efficient but less predictable. It’ll diverge from how James usually uses his bigs, but given that Love will still have plenty of opportunities to step back outside, it should be worth a test.

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