Kevin Love is a $21 million X-Factor for the Cleveland Cavaliers


Written by Kevin Nye (@kevinpnye) on 15 April 2017

First thing's first. Kevin Love played fantastic defense against Stephen Curry in game 7 of the NBA Finals, helping secure the Cavaliers first NBA title. Anything else he does for the rest of his life comes with that qualifier - he could spit in my face and I'd thank him for that stop before I got upset.

Moving on. It's become a strange topic amongst Cavalier fans to discuss Kevin Love. Is he a great three point shooter? Sometimes. Is he a low-post beast? Maybe. Is he a bad defender? Could be. Was he better when he was heavier? At some things, probably.

When Kevin Love plays well, he's unstoppable. When he plays poorly, he plays very poorly. That's what makes him a huge X-factor in these playoffs. Overall, what do we make of him?

Here are some simple things we think about Kevin Love and what the advanced stats say about these things.

1) Kevin Love is a great outside shooter

Love shoots just over 39% on catch and shoot threes and over 37% overall from deep. Both of those numbers are above average, although the 40% mark is typically where the distinction is drawn for "great." However, being a power forward makes his numbers more impressive. There aren't a lot of big guys who can do what Love does from the arc.

On the catch and shoot list, Love is ahead of guys like Dirk, Ilyasova, and Doug McDermott, although he trails a few notables like Gallinari (who had a really good season, by the way), Jae Crowder, and studs like Durant/Kawhi/Ryan Anderson.

Per Synergy Sports, Kevin Love spotting up is excellent. He's in the 90th percentile in points per possession (ppp), meaning each time a possession ends with Love spotting up, it scores almost 1.2 points (catch and shoots are a major part of this category). The guys in front of him here are notable spot-up stars like Korver, Curry, Isaiah, and a couple dozen other shooters.

This is how the Cavaliers best utilize Love.

Shooting 40% on these is huge. In the playoffs, he might have a tougher time getting open on those shots, but a stronger commitment toward him gives Kyrie or LeBron more room to work with. That's a win/win.

Verdict: Kevin Love is a very good outside shooter.

2) Kevin Love is a bad defender

We all know that Kevin Love will never be an elite rim protector or shot blocker. Before game 7 of last year's Finals, we probably wouldn't have even put him in the "solid defender" category, but he's apparently great when it matters the absolute most.

Despite the reputation, Kevin Love is actually rated as a "very good" defender by Synergy's metrics, where he's in the 72nd percentile on overall defense. His opponents don't score very efficiently against him. He's above average at defending post-ups (64th percentile) and spot ups (79th!), while he's right in the middle of the pack on pick and rolls.

However, the eye test begs to differ. There are surely plays where Love hedges out laughably far on a pick and roll, gets in the small defender's way, and then the ball handler has a free run to the hoop. We see this almost every game, and it doesn't show up on Love's stat-sheet, even with Synergy's advanced measures. Still, it's encouraging that he's not a sieve when someone gets the ball on the block.

Verdict: Kevin Love is, at worst, an average defender.

3) Kevin Love is a strong interior player

Cover your eyes. This one is rough.

Kevin Love is in the bottom half of the NBA when it comes to post-up offense. Per Synergy, his own scoring puts him in the 45th percentile in the NBA and the "derived offense" from his post-ups is actually worse - the 35th percentile. The short version is that the Cavaliers are not getting much out of it when Kevin Love posts up. The long version is...well, longer.

Kevin Love has finished 148 possessions from the left block. He is in the 32nd percentile in ppp from the left block. That is bad. Starting with his back to the basket, if he turns over his right shoulder he's scoring in the 38th percentile. If he turns over his left shoulder, he's in the 33rd.

Remember last year when Fred McLeod would talk about how great it was when Love turned to the middle for a hook shot? This year those hook shots are not working. He has scored just 33 points on 40 hook shot possessions, putting his percentage in the 26th percentile in the NBA. When he faces up from the left block, it's somehow even worse: 11th percentile.

This is what a lot of these possessions look like, although this one mercifully ends in a foul.

This wouldn't be so alarming were it not for two other factors. 1) Love is thought of as the Cavaliers primary post-up threat. 2) He's actually substantially better from the right block, they just don't give him the ball there.

On the right block, Love has finished only 65 possessions but he's in the 76th percentile scoring from there. He's terrible if he turns baseline, but when he faces up or goes to the middle he's actually very efficient, having scored 48 points on 39 tries.

This is weird, but it's the same story as last year. Love was substantially better from the right block but only ended 71 possessions there as opposed to the left, where he had over 170. It's almost like Ty Lue has no idea what he's doing.

Last thing: Kevin Love is shooting just 56% from 0-3 feet for the season. That's 10% lower than his best season as a PF in Minnesota. Per NBA.com, among the 226 players who try more than two shots per game inside of five feet, Kevin Love ranks 184th in FG%. There are some notable names beneath him, but those names belong to guards.

Verdict: Kevin Love is not very good (this year) from the post.

4) Kevin Love is a great rebounder

This one's murky too. Love is a prolific rebounder, pulling down over 11 per game this season. However, when it comes to battling for rebounds, he's not particularly impressive. 

Contested rebounds are exactly what they sound like and NBA.com offers statistics like contested rebound percentage - how often your rebounds are difficult ones. For Kevin Love, the number is only 31.7%. This is a double-edged sword: Either Love is not getting the rebounds that he's battling for or Love is getting uncontested rebounds because nobody wants to battle him for them. Inconclusive, so far.

Among forwards, Love has the 2nd highest number of rebounding chances per game - he has a shot at almost 18 rebounds and gathers 11.1 of them. That's pretty good. That's the 13th best rebounding percentage among 154 forwards (LeBron is 3rd, which makes both his and Love's stats more impressive).

Basketball-reference's "rebound percentage" stats suggest that Love is not the rebounding machine he once was, but he has steadily improved each year in Cleveland. He now grabs almost 30% of the available defensive rebounds when he's on the floor and almost 10% of the offensive ones. Each number is better than last year, which was better than the year before. 

Verdict: Whether they're contested or not, Love's getting a lot of rebounds. It's not necessarily his fault that they're uncontested, so Kevin Love is still a very good rebounder.

I know this has been confusing, but Kevin Love is confusing. The Cavaliers don't necessarily live and die by his success, but when a guy who averaged 20+ points per game is suddenly scoring 10, other points need to come from somewhere else.

Since his return from knee surgery, Kevin Love has been working back into shape, focusing on getting ready for the playoffs. In 14 games he's averaging 16 and 11 (good). He's fouled out twice and committed 4+ fouls four other times (bad). He's had four games of 15+ rebounds (good). He's shot 33% on threes (bad).

The Cavaliers need Good Kevin Love in order to make a deep run in this postseason. They can't keep counting on 35-year-olds to step up. That's why Kevin Love is the X-factor.

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