Let's Hear it for Our Love-able Third Wheel

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Harry Nilsson might’ve believed that one was the loneliest number, but he clearly never spent any time as the third wheel. It’s like having friends in that there’s company but it comes without any guarantee of having a role in conversation or sometimes a ride home. Kevin Love knows how you feel.

Don’t get him wrong, he’s not complaining. Love got bumped up from regular to AP classes and suddenly wasn’t the brightest kid in the room. He’s no dummy. He knows how good James and Irving are. He’s studied tapes of all the greats. His dad played the game. He understands basketball the way Ben Stiller understands comedy – while not a transcendent talent, he makes great use of his gifts. (But he’s no Robin Williams.)

Standing next to James and Irving might dim his shine but I’d imagine it's not all that bad.

Nobody knows what Kevin Love thinks – though he’s said all along that all he wants to do is win. He’s doing what’s being asked of him, and it’s not his call whether he’s stretch 4 or plays in the post or gets elbow touches. While there might have been a touch of petulance or complaint at one time in the season, winning has a way of salving wounds.

This is what J.R. Smith said about him in a Medium article yesterday entitled From Worst to First: My Journey to Contention. (We have no idea whether Lee Jenkins had any role in its writing.):

“More important than what you notice about Love’s game, though, is what you don’t. He does all of the little things a team needs to win, and that sort of stuff trickles down to each and every one of us, including me,” Smith wrote. “Guys like him make you want to play harder. They help you keep your focus and intensity, because if he’s doing it night in and night out with smarts, heart and determination, well … what’s your excuse? Put it this way: If I had a son grow up to be a big man, you better believe he’d be enrolled in Kevin Love’s summer camp.”

Beyond that, we suspect the scrutiny the team faced in late December and early January brought them closer together. Apparently James took Love and Irving aside at UCLA and talked to them about what they needed to do. They’re the Olympians, and how this team does rests on them. Whether it was the confidence, the challenge, or the three musketeer spirit, when James returned the tenor of the team changed.

We’d like to say that Love seems happy these days but he’s been pretty even keel throughout. Sometimes he’s seemed to have a slightly West Coast, somewhat bemused “just watching the wheels go by and by” attitude. It’s not laid-back so much as “Hey what can you expect?” Others can and have read it differently

But it’s given us the impression that Love’s in for at least this year and next, and if my guess is right, we’ll be talking about Love like we talk about Thome. He’s going to become a piece of Cleveland lore. There’s another reason we believe that.

He’s had a damn good season. People point to the most obvious thing – his scoring – and remain blinkered to everything else. So let’s address that first. Kevin Love gets a lot less opportunity to score (18.5 shots/gm vs. 12.7, 32% drop, scoring went from 26.1 to 16.4, 38% drop) because he’s not the best scorer on the team.

He simply can’t get other people involved out of the post as easily as Irving and James can off the bounce. Put another way, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

Which is not to disparage Love’s scoring. But let’s look who he’s playing with. LeBron James is quite possibly the league’s Most Valuable Player though he won’t win the award, and easily the league’s most gifted player even now at 30. Irving is an artistic finisher with a deadly stroke.

In the pick & roll Irving created .91 points/per play (PPP) 8th behind Lou Williams (1.03) Chris Paul (.97), Stephen Curry (.97), James Harden (.96), Darren Collison (.94) and George Hill (.92). That features three MVP candidates and the likely sixth-man of the year – at going to the hole. Irving also shot a career high 41.5% on 3-pointers, the fourth highest among players who average at least 15 points/game, behind Curry, Thompson and Reddick.

Similarly, Irving (9th) and James (13th) are among the most prolific drivers in the league. They each create about 11.75 points per game (between their own points, assists and foul shots taken/assisted) or 23.5 points on 19.2 drives/game, or 1.22 pts/drive.

For comparison:
James Harden (1.34, 10.7 drives/gm)
Jeff Teague (1.1, 11/gm)
Damian Lillard (1.26, 9.5/gm)
Russell Westbrook (1.16, 10.1/gm)
Tony Parker (1.13, 9.7/gm)

Irving and James are two of the best players in isolation as well. With James (.93 PPP) and Irving (1.09) are among the best in the league, in Irving’s case, the best, bettering Derrick Rose (1.05), Jamal Crawford (1.07), James Harden (1.01), Lillard (.99) and Klay Thompson (.98).

Simply put, Irving and James are the best pair of penetrators in the league and in tandem produce more points out of isolation and pick & roll penetration plays than any pair of players in the league.

When someone drives to the front of the rim, they typically don’t want someone standing there in the post whose defender is going to help unless they’re very good at the baseline –oop slam for when their guy does help. Much better to have that guy stand at the 3 line for high-percentage high-value open jumpers. It’s simply the best allocation of your resources.

Blatt of course has done things to alleviate this like run plays for Love in the first quarter – for so long that other coaches began to gameplan it – which seemed to accompany a pull-back from that strategy in March.

He’s also run some high post action for Love with Irving and James as cutters, but while they’re good at it, that diminishes their passing/creation ability. You’ll see it some during the playoffs, undoubtedly, but it’s not optimal as a general strategy, even though Love is a tremendous passer.

Six weeks ago or so, Blatt started fooling with the rotation so that James came in during the second period, letting Love team with Irving late in the first. The main issue seems to be that Love has never really played a lot as the roll man or maybe just sucks at it this year (29th percentile), so you’re a little more limited in using him that way.

The sun on the horizon is the fact that during the playoffs games slow down and teams tend to take away your first and second options. It’s almost inevitable as the main third option (a role shared with J.R. Smith lately, truth be told) that Love will see more opportunities in the post as he receives the ball late in the clock and must do something. We’ve also seen him attack the close out a few teams and take the ball into the post, something he could definitely do more of.

Still, it’s worth noting that Kevin Love is 18th in the league in number of post-up possessions, so it’s not like he’s been utterly neglected. Only Jonas Valanciunas (blame Chris Grant) has scored better in the post (1.02 PPP) than Kevin Love (.98). So it’s hardly like he’s shit the bed. He hasn’t even had an off-season.

Here are the most efficient (eFG%, which accounts for difference between 2/3s) shooters left in the playoffs. You’ll notice that the Irving and James are #10 and #11. Love is #16.

Insert Shooting efficiency

While Love had his worst FG% shooting year of his career, that’s because 3pt shots made up more than 40% of his shots – which he hit a smidge better (36.7%) than his career mark (36.3%) which is still better than how well LeBron shot them (35.4%).

Strangely, Love’s taken around 5% more 3-pointers a year, every year since his second season. After hoisting just 16 total his first year they comprised 17% of his shots his second year, up to 21% his third, 26% his fourth, to 31% his fifth, to 36% last year, and finally 41% of his shots this year. It’s almost eerie, right?

While his rebounding numbers are down even taking into account the fact he’s playing several less minutes/game, he’s just as tenacious on the boards. Last year he grabbed 65% of every rebound within 3.5’ of him. This year it was 64%.

As comparison, Mozgov (57%) and Thompson (56%) are only above average, while perhaps not surprisingly LeBron sets the standards grabbing 75% of every rebound near him. Best in the league among those with at least seven opportunities/game, better than DeAndre Jordan (74%), LeMarcus Aldridge & Russell Westbrook (72%), and Kawhi Leonard (70%).

Meanwhile Love improved his defense. He’s still only fair at defending the rim (52.6% FG allowed) but miles better than last year (57.4%), though Tristan Thompson’s actually improved more (58% to 52.2%). According to Synergy, Love’s now a credible low post defender (74th percentile vs. Thompson’s 68th and Mozgov’s 35th) as well as a pretty decent pick and roll defender.(71st vs. Thompson’s 82nd and Mozgov 51st).

Love will never have the same impact on a game he did when he was The Man in Minnesota, but he’s clearly turned his energy elsewhere. According to player tracking he’s lowered the FG% of people he’s defended by 1% including -2.9% within 6’ of the hoop and -3.3% at least 15’ from the hoop. Last year those numbers were +3.25/+4.3%/-0.7%. That’s across the board improvement.

Between the situational scoring, long-range shooting, ability in the post, the rebounding and the improving defense, there is a lot to Love. He doesn’t look as sweet standing next to Irving and James, but sometimes that’s the price of admission to the biggest dance.

We didn’t do post-games on the last couple games for a couple reasons, among them the fact that there was very little to be gleaned from them, similar to the exhibition season. Obviously that wasn’t the case in the Western Conference which shuffled quite a bit down to the last day.

Teams are now catching their rest throughout the season more it seems. Also, we’ve been under the weather a bit, and with a busy week and coverage of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction for Billboard, it seemed prudent to take it easy. But we felt guilty and are going to do Saturday and Sunday columns in anticipation of the playoff opener Sunday afternoon.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the playoffs and Sunday we’ll preview the Celtics series. Sunday afternoon we’ll be at the Q for the playoff opener. This is what we’ve been playing for and we’re going to turn it up, because, well, it’s what we were born to do. As always you can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and hear us Monday mornings around 10:45 on the Michael James show on WRUW, 91.1. Look for my columns all week on the Scene blog.

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