Clearly, Kevin Love is having a bad time in the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers power forward is averaging just 7.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 0.8 assists on 36.8 percent shooting. His defense, a huge concern coming into the series, hasn’t been too much of an issue. Instead he has become practically invisible on offense.
Love was a positive influence on the Cavaliers’ offense throughout the season, even if that didn’t always show up in his personal numbers. But when games and series got tight, he was often the Cav left behind. Explanations for this typically refer to “fit” and “sacrifice,” suggesting Love’s game is incompatible with Lebron James’s and that he’ll just have to suck it up. Love is an imperfect fit in Cleveland, but the issue isn’t a lack of sacrifice, it’s that all he can do is sacrifice.
Here’s the basic problem: LeBron James is the best power forward in the NBA. This is an obvious, inescapable truth, but one that has made life difficult for the big men on his teams for the last several years.
James’s teams do three things on offense: go to the hole, kick out for threes and, occasionally, isolate their elite perimeter players on the wing. Everybody plays defense. Players who do things that strengthen this basic setup — offensive rebounders or off-ball cutters or spot-up shooters — tend to do well, as long as they stay in those roles. Players who excel at other things either decide to trim the fat from their games and add new skills or languish in a role that often minimizes their talents and maximizes their weaknesses. Kevin Love is languishing.
To understand why Love isn’t working out with James, it’s important to understand why other players have — and why fit was never an issue for Love on the Wolves.
Let’s start with Chris Bosh. Here’s his shot chart in 2009-10, his last season in Toronto, via StatMuse:
Now here it is after he teamed up with James on the Miami Heat in 2010-11:
In the span of a single season, Bosh’s shots were completely reversed — he went from playing predominantly on the block and along the baseline to primarily shooting from the elbows.
Effectively, James chased Bosh off of the block, because James needs that space to work on drives from the wing and, after the 2011-12 season, post-ups of his own. This worked out in the end because Bosh is a versatile player: He focused his energies on defense and retooled his game to accommodate his new teammates.
The stats back up the eye test: According to data from Synergy Sports Technology, Bosh gave up 90.8 points per 100 possessions on defense in his final three seasons in Toronto — a pretty bad individual number. In his first three seasons in Miami, that dropped to 79.1 points per 100 possessions, which is excellent.
On offense, in his final season in Toronto, 35 percent of his possessions came as post-ups (he scored an outstanding 109.3 points per 100 on these) and 18.2 percent on isolations (91.6 PP100, pretty good), according to Synergy data. By 2012-13, when the Heat won the championship, he was using just 14.1 percent of his possessions on post-ups and 5.4 percent on isolations. Instead, he was spotting up (32.8 percent of his possessions), playing pick-and-roll with James and Dywane Wade, and cutting to the rim off the ball more than ever. The raw number of possessions he used dropped to about 1,200 in 2012-13 from about 1,600 in his final season in Toronto. Bosh had become a spot-up shooter, a role-player. This is what all that “sacrifice” looks like in practice.
Meanwhile, James’s shot chart did not go through any similar gut renovations; he simply trimmed some excesses in the midrange and from long range when he arrived in Miami and added a post game after the Dallas Mavericks embarrassed him there in the 2011 NBA Finals. That doesn’t mean that James is selfish or that Bosh got the rotten end — it just means that the team understood that maximizing what James does best is best for all parties, even when it’s inconvenient for some of his teammates.
Adding the skills required to play with James made Bosh a much more complete player. Here’s how his shots looked in 2014-15, after James went back to Cleveland:
Love might have been a better player in Minnesota than Bosh was in Toronto, but Bosh was the more capable player once the he was forced out of his comfort zone.
Love’s success on the Timberwolves was never a solo affair — a lot of what was great about Love in Minnesota was great because Ricky Rubio made it so. Take the pick-and-roll game that has been so disappointing in Cleveland. In his last season on the Wolves, Love scored 103.9 points per 100 possessions on pick-and-rolls/pops where he ended up taking a shot, according to NBA player-tracking data. Over his two seasons in Cleveland, that’s down to 94.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s a massive dropoff in personal production (it was especially bad last season), but it makes more sense when you remember Love is playing with James and not with Rubio.
With Rubio, Love would rarely set his screen. Instead, he’d approach Rubio’s defender, wait for his own man to anticipate having to switch or at least slow down Rubio, and then slip out of his screen and sprint to whatever open space he could find, at which point Rubio would throw a magical pass that hit Love in stride for an easy shot. And because Rubio is one of the worst shooters in professional basketball, he could easily drag his defenders far from the hoop without worrying about creating his own offense, thereby creating even more space for Love. These weren’t set plays, but rather improvisations by Love (who has great spatial sense) and Rubio (who is an unholy sorcerer). Here’s how that went:
That is not at all how the pick-and-roll works in Cleveland. With James, a pick-and-roll is an act of violence. It’s not even necessarily that James can’t throw those Rubio passes — he whipped some truly incredible passes around in Game 6 of this year’s Finals — but that every movement he makes is in service of getting to the rim or getting an open 3-pointer for his team. Love getting free for an open runner 10 feet from the rim would never enter James’s mind. Just look:
Now and then, the Cavs will run less grinding actions — like in their crushing Game 5 and Game 6 wins against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals — and Love will spring to life. This is also likely why Love has been much better playing pick-and-roll with Kyrie Irving than he has with James. The Cavs score 105.0 points per 100 chances when Love runs a pick-and-roll with Irving, according to player-tracking data, compared to just 92.2 points when he runs one with James and 86.2 with any other Cavalier.
Rubio’s absence shows up in the stats a few different ways. In his last season on the Wolves, Love rolled 46.7 percent of the time and popped out to spot up just 35.6 percent of the time, according to player-tracking data; in Cleveland, he has popped 49.7 percent of the time and rolled just 29 percent. Love averaged 5.0 2-point attempts per game off Rubio passes in 2013-14 (he shot 50 percent) and 3.1 3-pointers (36.9 percent); this season, he got 2.1 3-point attempts from James (41.5) and just 2.1 2-point attempts. (Kyrie Irving chips in 1.5 2PA and 1.6 3PA for Love.) This is a complex way of saying that Kevin Love has been turned into a spot-up roleplayer — just like Chris Bosh.
Here’s Love’s 2013-14 shot chart, still in Minnesota, again via StatMuse:
And here’s his 2015-16 shot chart on the Cavs:
At a glance, this looks like a more painless transition than the one Bosh underwent in Miami — Love already had the 3-point range it would take Bosh years to develop. But the differences, beyond Bosh’s obvious defensive capabilities, come down to play around the rim. Where Bosh was able to work better off the ball, Love finds fewer possessions as a cutter on the Cavs than he did on the Wolves, in part because he just isn’t built to attack the rack like Bosh. It’s the same reason Love’s rolls on pick-and-roll plays are muted: The Cavs aren’t interested in those in-between plays — they need their bigs running hard at the rim, dragging defenders with them, and in position for alley-oops or offensive put-backs, neither of which has ever been Love’s game. When he tries, he has found himself on the wrong end of humiliating rejections.
Listen to the latest episode of our sports podcast Hot Takedown.
Every time Love receives the ball on the wing and makes a notional effort to go into an isolation sequence or post-up at the elbow, he’s duplicating something James could be doing better. Dwyane Wade played his entire career on the left wing, but once James joined the Heat, Wade cut the fat, which in his case was everything but relentless drives to the hole and pressing, suffocating perimeter defense. Chris Bosh spent his whole career on the block and facing up, but became a pick-and-pop specialist and defensive anchor. Kevin Love is still good at what he has always done, he just doesn’t seem to have any greater depth.
CORRECTION (June 18, 11:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article misidentified, in one reference, Kevin Love’s former team. It was the Minnesota Timberwolves, not the Toronto Raptors.