Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
After years of disparagement for not making the playoffs while he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and then more disparagement for not putting up the same colossal numbers when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Love has the last laugh in the form of a ring.
He was not the most important player, the second-most important player or arguably even the third-most important player on the Cavaliers last year, but he was an important player and a key to Cleveland getting its first championship in any sport in more than half a century. As LeBron James ages, though, Love and Kyrie Irving should be taking on more of the offensive load, and the big man could start becoming more of the Minnesota version of himself.
Love was arguably a top-10 player in Minnesota, putting up impressive numbers. His last year there, he averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 boards and had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.9. Last year in Cleveland, he averaged 16.0 points, 9.9 boards and had a PER of 19.0. That’s a pretty steep drop in production. But as LeBron ages, he looks like he plans on going the route of saving his energy for the playoffs, which means he should gradually start handing the reigns over to his younger stars.
How much that happens will affect Love’s ceiling. We know he is more than capable of 20-10 production. Should he hit those numbers, he should end up back on an All-NBA team, where he’d be a top-15 player.
There are mitigating factors, even to that, though. LeBron relinquishing control of the team means Irving handling the ball more, and Irving is not even remotely a passer on the level of James. Irving’s scoring could take a big hike while Love’s take a dip. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Love made 224 unassisted field goals in his last season in Minny. Last season in Cleveland he had 104.
Love’s ability to create shots for himself is a big area the Cavaliers aren’t tapping into, and it may be the case that even with Irving and Love taking more of the onus of the team in the regular season, he still doesn’t get the chance to carve out his own points.
Love, notably, is an outstanding shooter for a big man. With drivers like James and Irving on the team, that makes him a significant cog in the Cavaliers’ offense, even if he’s not a featured component like he was in Minnesota. In fact, Cleveland’s offensive rating was 7.3 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court than when he was on the bench, per NBA.com. While James had a bigger impact (+13.6 p/100), he was the only one. By comparison, Irving’s impact was just +4.0 p/100.
Love’s impact helped the whole team’s true shooting percentage (57.0 percent with, 53.7 percent without). In particular, Love’s court spreading helped James, whose true shooting percentage went from 56.4 percent sans Love to 60.0 percent with Love. Remarkably, according to NBAWowy.com, James’ field goal percentage at the rim was 71.5 percent with Love and 67.8 percent without him. And when Love was there, 48 percent of James’ shots came inside versus 45.4 percent when Love wasn’t.
Love’s court-stretching made arguably the best player in the world even better, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Love’s defense is a controversial subject because it’s pretty apparent to anyone who watches him that he’s not a good defender. Zach Lowe of ESPN wrote this during last year’s conference finals:
But Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.
Some people might want to point to Love guarding Stephen Curry during the Warriors’ last possession of the NBA Finals and argue that as evidence of Love’s defense. But being the man who was guarding the MVP when he took and missed a shot doesn’t make him a great defender, even if Love deserves some credit for it. No single play, game or even series dictates what and who a player is. That’s speciousness delved from the thought that “more important” means tiny sample sizes magically become more valid.
When it comes to actually stopping plays, Love is often out of position and slow to recover. He’s an average post-up defender, per Synergy stats at NBA.com, with his .84 points per possession being a dead-on average 50 percentile, and that’s where he arguably performs his “best” on defense.
Yet, he miraculously posted a 2.14 Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and that’s not because of Cleveland’s defense. It was good while he was in Minnesota, too (1.54). It has more to do with his defensive rebounding, and that’s a touchy thing when it comes to defense. It allows someone who is a bad defender on a decent defensive team to have a positive defensive impact. If there are other people who can force opponents to miss shots, having a guy who can secure those misses is a big plus. But if no one is there to make those misses happen, who needs defensive rebounding?
Point being: Love is not a good defender, but he does have a positive impact on the defense.