Setting Expectations: Kevin Love as the Number 1 Option

With his new $120 million contract, Kevin Love is unquestionably the main guy left on the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Kevin Love has been up and down over the past few years. What kind of player might we see when he takes over as the Cavaliers' primary offensive weapon?

In the not-so-distant past, Kevin Love was a workhorse. His Minnesota days - also known as his All-NBA days, his prolific days, and his perennial-All-Star-contender days - seem like a long time ago because time moves quickly in the NBA landscape. In the time since Kevin Love last played for the Timberwolves, LeBron James has changed teams twice, Kobe and Tim Duncan retired, the Warriors established and upheld a dynasty, and Marv Albert refused to learn how to pronounce any new name that entered the league.

During that time, of course, Kevin Love joined the Cavaliers, got hurt en route to the Finals, then got hurt in the Finals the following year, came back from that second injury to win a title, which secured his legacy in Cleveland sports lore. He also made each of the last two All-Star games for the Eastern conference despite seeing decreased minutes. Meanwhile, the average pace has gone up by about four possessions per game.

In short, the NBA is a different place than when Kevin Love was a go-to guy, and it's hard to say whether or not his game will be able to readjust to the demands of an extra 6-8 field goals per night.

But why should that stop us from speculating?

For comparison, we're going to look at Love's last two full(ish) seasons in Minnesota and try to factor in his most recent years in Cleveland and see what it might look like to have him as option #1 for this year's Cavaliers. Let's take a look at what will arguably be the only part of his game that will matter.


This is going to be a HUGE surprise, but Kevin Love took fewer shots when he shared the court with LeBron James than in the years before he shared the court with LeBron James. I know that seems weird, but it's true. The raw numbers are substantially different (about 19 FGA/game in Minnesota and 13-14 FGA/game in Cleveland), but the per-36-minutes numbers still show a 2+ FGA/game discrepancy, favoring Minnesota. In all likelihood, Kevin Love is going to rediscover those field goal attempts.

The question facing Love this season will be where those shots are being taken. His 3PA numbers have, of course, increased over time (so have everyone else's in the NBA), but that means there's been a precipitous drop in his shots from inside the arc. Even adjusting for minutes played, Love averaged 12-13 two-pointers per 36 minutes in Minnesota and barely cleared 9.0 in Cleveland - something he only did during the 2016-17 season.

The reason for Love taking fewer shots inside is something that will be very interesting to watch: Kevin Love may not be an efficient post player. During the playoffs, I alluded to this, as I wrote about how Love is very confusing, and it's no less true now - especially considering that he'll be seeing more aggressive defenses.

Last season was surprisingly good from Love, as he finished in the 79th percentile in post-up scoring efficiency, per Synergy. However, 2016-17 saw him finish in the 45th percentile and we've seen him struggle in the post-season on a pretty regular basis. Playoff defense is probably a more likely indicator of what #1 option defense will be when compared to regular-season defense (particularly when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were both getting most of the attention). 

On the bright side, back in his younger, beefier days, Kevin Love was very good on the block. Despite regularly having a shockingly low shooting percentage - Love has never finished a season above 47% - Love ranked above the 70th percentile in each of the two most meaningful T'Wolves seasons when it came to scoring efficiency in the post. 

Realistically, between the likelihood of better plays being run for him, Love should see the ball more often in the post next season than in his past years in Cleveland. However, without a super-duper-megastar playmaker feeding him the ball, Love will also probably see his chances at open three-pointers become a bit more scarce. After all, who's going to double-team George Hill to leave Kevin Love open in the corner?

Love's points will almost certainly increase to probably 23-25 per game, although his per-36 numbers were already up to almost 23 points last year. The increase in touches plus the probable increase in minutes played is what could land him up near 25.

Unfortunately, as I touched on earlier, the increased defensive attention may be a drag on his already below-average shooting efficiency. More attempts will ultimately equal more points, but the odds of Kevin Love shooting better than 45-46% from the field are very low. The bright side of that is that he may be getting fouled more often, and Kevin Love is an excellent free throw shooter.

All in all, Love will be a valuable player. Our fantasy basketball projections have him ranked as the 23rd most valuable player going into the season. I would argue he'll rank higher as his points should increase. Not only that, he'll be playing his natural "4" position instead of pretending he's a center while Tristan Thompson comes off the bench. That nonsense was short-lived, and there's no sense pretending this season is going to end in another Finals trip. Worry about making guys comfortable instead.

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