Is the Cavs' Big Three Built to Last?

We dispatched with the Sixers write-up in favor of writing a Sunday column on the team in general. We wonder mostly about the two cornerstones Kevin Love and LeBron James. One will presumably take a lot heavier load in the future, but sure doesn’t feel ready for the yoke yet. (Don’t worry, there are another four years on the contract, and that’s a good thing, right?)

So without further ado, we ask….

Where’s the Love?

Kevin Love didn’t start off well on Friday against the Sixers. He had some kind miscommunication on the inbounds play that resulted in Mo Williams throwing a pass directly to a Sixer while Love moved out of the post, then after Jared Cunningham knocked away the ball on the ensuing possession, seemed to pay little attention to where he was going, practically running Cunningham off his corner spot, when Love would have been better served staying up top on the wing by the break.

They got him the ball next time down running that elevator play we discussed last time. He double clutched – even though open – before dropping it. They then ran a pick and flare with LeBron where Love (as is usual on these) more makes like he’s going to pick than actually do so. Nonetheless it opened up an open 3 for Love which he airballed. Luckily Mozgov knocked the ball away from the Sixers and put it in for an “and 1.”

A moment later, Love was blocked from behind on a pass from Jared Cunningham where he was this open.

If the night improved for him it was only because it couldn’t get much worse. It’s been an up and down start to the season for Love. After a fine start he’s shooting worse (39% FG & 29% from 3) than he did during last year’s “off” season (43% & 37%). (Love’s career marks are 45% & 36%.)

Even in his slower, somewhat diminished shape after off-season knee surgery, Mozgov is a world class space-eater who alters shots. Maybe he only plays 20 minutes/game in the current small-ball environment, but he’s effective even at 80-85% (our peg for his relative health) allowing only 41.7% of shots he faces at the rim to go in. That’s Gobert-esque. (Last year he was 47.4%.) Tristan Thompson has seen similar improvement, going from last year’s 52.2% to 47.8% this year.

We say this in the middle of a column about Kevin Love to soften the impact of the fact that Love’s behind last year’s numbers. He’s allowing a 57.1% in a non-trivial 5.8 shots a game – nearly the same as Mozgov. Last year Love allowed 52.7% defending the rim.

We were warned by some who had watched the broadcast (and thus, presumably could see the action better than we could at the Q) that Love was particularly bad on defense.

On looking at it in replay, it seemed that a lot of this isn’t Love’s fault. It’s true, he doesn’t do a great job of contesting on some of his one-on-ones around the basket, and he could do a better job of establishing position, but a lot of this is just the fact that he’s not physically built to handle more athletic guys in the post. He does a decent job of moving his feet, and pokes away several balls.

We also noticed during the second half that he disappeared to some extent, grabbing only one board and taking two shots through the first 18 minutes of the second half. Much of this was during LeBron’s explosion and there were a lot of points coming in transition. (Do we need to tell you that Love is frequently a trailer in such situations?) It didn’t seem like Love was being lost per se, or failing to assert himself. He was there on the boards.

This kind of summed up the situation for Love as a Cavalier. Like Chris Bosh, it seems destined for the big to take a brunt of the shit, in part because LeBron’s preference for driving and the post forces any big to play away from the basket and learn to cut and drive. In truth, this isn’t Love’s game so much as someone like Larry Nance.

In case you haven’t noticed Kevin Love looks a lot more like a California surfer than a tall blade-like slam dunk contest winner. Perhaps it will always be his lot to be the third wheel, overly maligned for his faults because many of his best skills (rebounding, outlet passing, quick hands) don’t necessarily stand out. He’s a versatile guy who seems to really want to fit, and it is perhaps making him press a bit. Or maybe that’s just the role of third banana in the LeBron James show.

Even as the putative Second Banana with Kyrie Irving out, Love just doesn’t seem confident or aggressive enough. It’s not for lack of playing hard so much as still finding the correct manner to fit in rather than fit out. We wonder if James’ former St. Vincent teammate Romeo Travis had the same problem.

LeBron’s Inevitable Decline

It is a sad truth that over the next few years we will be witnessing the physical decline of the era’s greatest basketball player. Last year’s two-week holiday break and this year’s preseason injection for his back are two sigils of what’s to come.

Last year James had the highest turnover rate of his career and the lowest 2-point shooting percentage of his career. .Dig deeper into some of the advanced stats and last year’s performance looks even worse.

His offensive rating (team’s points per 100 possessions) tied for his lowest since his rookie season and his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was his highest. His win shares (10.4) was the lowest since his rookie season (5.1) and an extraordinary 6.6 lower than he’s averaged the last seven seasons.

This is even with his highest usage rate since his last year in Cleveland. While you can certainly dismiss that as the struggles acclimating to a new team, the level of difference begs that question whether that’s just an excuse for something Cavaliers fans don’t want to admit.

Six games in is hardly a large enough sample to discern anything. His Win Shares/48 minutes has rebounded somewhat but is still lower all but one of his last six years before returning to Cleveland. Indeed, while he’s currently posting the best defensive rating of his life, he’s also posting the worst offensive rating, eight points below his career average.

Of course, it’s also true that even during his worst statistical year; he was able to lead a very shorthanded team within two games of a championship. It’s not like the Cavaliers need peak LeBron to win the championship. This older, wiser James may even be better.

Speaking to Jim Chones before yesterday’s game, he noted how much LeBron would force the action or get frustrated with his lack of support prior to leaving. Since his return, he’s shown more ability and willingness to delegate. Of course, his patience is still pretty thin. (Just ask Kevin Love.)

We wondered how long we could reasonably expect for James to uphold his level of play. We took a sampling of superstars for the last four decades and split them into two eras. We compared their age of their peak win shares, what that was, that last year they produced greater than 10 win share (a good sign of superstar status), and the year they wound up retiring, as well as total win shares and games.

As you can see guys still peak around the same age (24-27), but they’re still producing superstar win shares two to three years later. Also where it was relatively rare for a star to play past 36, every star of the last couple two decades played past that into their late thirties.

It used to be one of those jokes around the league that young guys never start stretching and working on their body until they started to begin to see younger players show them up athletically.

“It takes a long time, but everybody’s different, everybody’s body is different and some guys have to do more than others,” says Richard Jefferson, who’s peak win share (11.7) was at 25, but has kept going another ten years. “It took me about 9-10 years before I had to work and get stronger.”

That was when Jefferson turned thirty, which James did last year. Of course, the league’s gotten much more religious about exercise and training regimes in the past decade, Jefferson notes.

“That’s why there are going to be guys who are always going to be playing longer. There is just so much more science involved. There’s science in our socks, literally,” he says, pointing to the socks he’s putting on with its micro compression bands.

Retreating back to the above chart, it’s worth noting the outlying nature of both Jordan and James’ win shares, at least 25% higher than the best their peers can produce. That’s one helluva standard deviation. Jordan put up a 15.8 win share during his last year in Chicago and took four years off before his two year stint in Washington.

Based on that and the fact that Tim Duncan nearly produced a 10+ win share last year (9.6) at 38, there’s reason to believe that LeBron can continue to produce star level results for at least four more seasons, and it would not surprise us if he played until he was 40 like Karl Malone.

Malone’s an interesting comparison because he had an exquisite physique he worked hard to maintain much like James, and he played a very physically demanding position. Duncan, Garnett, and Nowitzki aren’t super physical players and don’t mix it up inside as much, but still must take the pounding on defense making them decent comparisons. Each led their team to a championship between the ages of 30 and 32.

Early Statistical Notes

A number of interesting things while parsing the’s advance stats site. Understand this is a very small sample of games to determine anything, but its still interesting.

* SHOOTING: Cavaliers lead the league in effective (weighting 3s) shooting percentage when tightly guarded (within 2’) within 10’ of basket, and are fifth (G.S.’s #1) in open & wide-open jumpers from over 10’ away. They are even more open/wide open shots from >10’ (40.7%) than last year’s rate (38.6%), which matched Golden State.
* This even with James Jones, J.R. Smith and Kevin Love all shooting less than 40%. Credit Mo Williams for shooting at a 49% clip alongside LeBron James’ 50%, combining for 32 shots a night. That’s 37% of the team’s shots. They’re shooting 50%; the rest of the team is shooting 44%.
* ON-COURT/OFF-COURT: Never too sure how indicative these numbers ever really are but still… Kevin Love (109), LeBron (108) and Cunningham (107) own the team’s best on-court offensive ratings (pts/100 pos.). Anderson Varejao (79), Matthew Dellavedova (87) and Tristan Thompson (90) are the top defensive players with James and Love right behind.
* The team’s at its worst defensively when either James (103.8) or Delly (103.7) aren’t on the floor. Interestingly the team’s pace is much better when either James (101) or Mozgov (100) aren’t on the floor. Strangely, Mo Williams is third. The guys who create the best pace are Cunningham, Thompson and James Jones (excluding current human victory cigars Joe Harris and Sasha Kaun).
* DEFENSE: The Cavaliers are 12th in defensive effective FG%, TOs forced and FG% allowed within 5’ of the hoop. On the positive side, they allow the 8th lowest number of shots in that area, they’re the league’s third best defensive rebounding team and have the fifth lowest fouling rate. This is partly good and partly a reflection of the Cavs not playing hard enough on D. They’re allowing opponents the fifth lowest assists/game, and their defensive rating is sixth in the league.
* OFFENSE: The Cavs have the second best point-differential (per 100 pos.) and the third best assist/turnover rate while playing at the 9th slowest pace. So far more than half (51.2%) their shots are coming without a dribble (48.1% last year), and their eFG% on those shots is 60.3% (57.5%). Just 11.2% of their possessions feature more than 7 dribbles (vs. 13.5% last year).


If you skimmed over that, here’s the takeaways: Mo Williams and LeBron James have this offense clicking at a high rate. They’re getting a lot of open shots and they’re knocking them down, but even when they’re covered close to the basket, they’re making their shots, even if their 3-point shooting is way off (18th).

It obviously helps that they’re running the offense and moving the ball as opposed to the more stagnant (but still very effective) ISO sets for James and Kyrie Irving, which is good because they don’t have the same kind of creators out there and they need to make catch & shoot shots. It’s when they don’t get these that the team’s shooting % falls badly.

That’s positive news, because as players return from injury and get into game shape there will presumably be even more catch & shoot opportunities. The defense isn’t doing badly either. The end results have been pretty good, mainly because the team’s best defensive players come in with the second squad and absolutely smother the opponents.

This is often the reverse of most team’s situations where the bench is lined with guys who think the game’s about the number of points they can score. The Cavs bench is built on playing at a high level and playing together. Delly, Tristan and Andy have been together for three years offering a continuity some benches might lack. They still need to do better at defending shots, but they aren’t letting teams get the ball close to the basket while doing a passably good job (#11) at defending the 3.

None of this should really surprise you. The defense is further along than the offense, which is still running very efficiently, if at a slightly lower octane. There’s room for improvement in both, but given the limited practice time it’s surprising things have gone this well. 
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland Sports articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.