Kevin Love is the key to Cleveland’s playoff hopes

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 19: Kevin Love
CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 19: Kevin Love /

The Cleveland Cavaliers need “Minnesota” Kevin Love on this postseason run.

It’s our favorite time of year, as the Cleveland Cavaliers have officially started their attempt to get to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season. This team feels a little different, as the Cavs are missing one key piece: Kyrie Irving.

His absence has made a fourth trip to the Finals feel a lot less certain, as the Cavs embark on the journey with a younger, less-experienced squad. There is still optimism but there are more questions this go around.

The Cavs need to fill a clear playoff void left by the trade of Irving, which is a second guy that can create his own offense and get a bucket when the offensive is not running at full efficiency. Irving often was able to create offense and keep the team afloat with his own individual performance in moments when the Cavs offense was not as smooth. While Irving’s specific skillset can not be replicated, the only real candidate to fill this vital role is Kevin Love.

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Love is capable of doing this but he has been heavily utilized as a perimeter shooter and beneficiary of a LeBron James-centric offense. In order for Love to be the true second option that’s pivotal to Cleveland’s playoff success, I argue he needs to be more involved in the offense, and should also play more in the post.

In his peak years in Minnesota, Love had a usage rate between 28%-29%, which is close to the range Irving was consistently in while in Cleveland.

This season, Love’s usage rate is down to about 25.1%, significantly below James. To be a formidable second option deep in the playoffs, Love must at least get the touches to give him the opportunity to replicate Irving’s production.

If we want Love to play a more alpha-style, we may want to root for him to be more like his Minnesota self, which involved attacking the basket more frequently and playing closer to the basket.

On the Timberwolves, Love shot only 23.6% of shots from the three-point line. During his stint in Cleveland, Love is shooting 44.0% of his shots from long-range, including a career-high 45.3% this season.

Part of his spike in three-point attempts can obviously be explained by the great development of outside shot; he is shooting an impressive 41.5% from three this year. But it is also clear that this dramatic shift in shot selection is a result of him having to take a step back and serve as more of a floor-spacer, which he did not have to do in Minnesota.

The truth is Love has always been a capable outside shooter, even back in his college days at UCLA. What made him so special as a scorer earlier in his NBA career, though, was his ability to play in the post. We saw flashes of his great post game throughout the regular season, but we did not see him utilize his skills down low on a consistent basis.

Love going to the post more often would also get him to the foul line more often, where he is converting a career-best 88.0%.

Love’s shift to a more perimeter-oriented game since coming to Cleveland has cost him free throw opportunities. Love’s free throw attempt rate –the amount of free throws attempted per field goal goals taken—is .339 since joining the Cavs; in Minnesota, he is free-throw attempt rate was .457.

Playing Love down low also makes more sense when you take into account the personnel makeup of the team.

The current roster is clearly more backcourt-heavy, and the Cavs do not have a shortage of players capable of making perimeter jump shots. The questions on the Cavs are in the post, where Tristan Thompson has struggled and Larry Nance Jr. is very inexperienced. With the lack of depth in the frontcourt, Love may be forced to play more down in the post anyway.

Love’s ability to shoot from the outside of course should still be utilized. He can lure more traditional post players out to the three-point line and create floor spacing. However, the Cavs really need a more dynamic player who can get a bucket when the offense is not fluid.

In those situations, Love ought to a be more inside-oriented player.

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*All statistical data form Basketball-Reference