What Kevin Love's Statistical Sacrifice Means for the Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Love is good, but not everybody really knows just how good.
Playing six years for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who went 153-323 with Love on their roster, Love was out of the NBA's mainstream, big-market-dominant national television schedule, and only the consumers willing to watch a whole lot of Luke Ridnour and Michael Beasley got to see Love do some work over the years.
Things trended up last year for the T'Wolves, and they finished 40-42, their best mark in the Love era. But that era has closed, and Love's best work appears to be behind him for now.
This year, of course, Love is teamed up with the uber popular LeBron James, so he's on television quite a bit, but he is producing, basically, his worst per-game numbers since his sophomore year in the league.
Sure, Love is still one of just seven players to average at least 17.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game this year, but at just 17.8 points per game and 10.5 rebounds, Love -- so far -- isn't who he used to be.
A downtick in production could have been expected with this new set-up, but is it good for Love? And is it good for the Cavs?
Among the Greats
In case you aren't fully aware of Love's productivity in his career, I'm going to show you a list of all the players in NBA history to average at least 19.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in their careers since the inclusion of the three-point arc in 1979-80.
Charles Barkley, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kevin Love.
But Love has the inherent tag of "good stats, bad team" all over his career production. Despite that, he isn't too far removed from their win shares per 48 minutes, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage. And his rebounding percentages (the percentage of boards he pulls in that he could realistically get while he's on the floor) are at least on par with theirs -- and better in most cases.
|Player||TS%||eFG%||O Reb%||D Reb %||WS/48|
Yes, his win shares per 48 aren't as high as Barkley's or Duncan's, but to say that Love isn't at least in the same arena as some of the best ever isn't fair. His points, rebounds, and assists place him in historic company, but playing on the other side of the Wall in the north, he, to most casual observers, may as well have been a White Walker -- believed in by the relative few who have seen his play.
Love's numbers -- meaning his scoring and rebounding -- have taken a significant hit while in Cleveland.
Here are Love's offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, his win shares per 48 minutes, and his nERD and numberFire efficiency scores and ranks in those metrics. (nERD is sort of like win shares and estimates how many games a team would go over or under .500 with that player as a starter.)
|Love||O Reb%||D Reb%||WS/48||nERD||nF Eff|
|2013-14||8.5%||29.5%||0.245||17.7 (3)||5.0 (4)|
|2014-15||6.3%||27.6%||0.173||8.6 (18)||2.6 (30)|
Love has gone from a top-four player in the league to something resembling little more than second- or third-fiddle on a good team. Sure, that's obvious given his role on the team, but according to our metrics, he's about as relevant as -- wait for it -- Klay Thompson, whose metrics are nearly identical to Love's: an 8.4 nERD and a 2.7 efficiency rating.
His overall impact is down, and it's not really hard to understand why. Look at his usage, effective field goal percentage, and total rebound percentage this year compared to his career numbers and his final four with Minnesota.
|2010-11 to 2013-14||23.5||13.7||26.90%||50.3%||20.7%|
Love's usage is down, and so is his total rebounding percentage, resulting in his worst per-game numbers since 2010-11. A decline of 8.3 points per game (from 26.1 to 17.8) and 2.0 rebounds per game (12.5 to 10.5) -- prior to the Cavs' game against Atlanta on December 17 -- has resulted in the plummeting of his nERD and win shares, and despite an increase in effective field goal percentage, his nF efficiency is off his 2013-14 mark significantly.
Is it LeBron?
Partly, yes, but that's not all of it. Love's usage is down this year by a lot. We've been over that already. According to NBAwowy.com, with Love, LeBron, and Irving on the court together, Love's usage is 21.9%. LeBron's is 29.1%, Irving's is 19.6%, and Anderson Varejao's is 19.9%.
The offense doesn't run through Love, and he's not that far from being the fourth option when those three players share the court.
The scoring is down even though his effective field goal percentage is up, and his field goal attempts per game are down to 12.9 from 18.5 last year.
What about the rebounding though?
Cannibalization on the Glass
This year, though, the majority of Love's court time is shared with Varejao, who is seeing his best per-minute nERD output in his career. Thompson, whose only non-negative nERD season was last year (0.5), has a nERD of 4.2 so far this year.
What exactly has Varejao and Thompson done to Love's rebounding?
Here are Love's rebounding splits with and without Varejao and Thompson to date.
|Splits||Possessions||O Reb%||D Reb%||T Reb%|
With just 63 possessions without either Thompson or Varejao, the majority of Love's on-court time has come with some guys who can rebound the ball adequately. His defensive rebounding percentages still seem significant, but his total rebounding is down compared to his 20.7% mark from 2010-11 to 2013-14.
But last year, Dieng took the basketball world by storm, proving himself a dominant per-minute rebounder. And Nikola Pekovic doesn't seem like a bad rebounder (spoiler: he's not that dominant), but what did Love's numbers look like on the court with them last year?
|Splits||Possessions||O Reb%||D Reb%||T Reb%|
Dieng, who practically out-rebounded Love across the board (13.7%/25.9%/19.6%), played with Love on a very small portion of possessions when compared to Love with Pekovic or Love without either on the court. Love's rebounding was drastically better (a total rebounding percentage of 18.7% on 2,237 possessions) last year than it is this year (8.7% on just 63 possessions) -- most notably when Love played as the main big guy, something he hasn't really done this year.
What Does It All Mean?
Well, for starters, it means that 2014-15 Kevin Love isn't the same player who dominated the league in Minnesota for the past few years. And while everybody who knows anything could have predicted that, to say that he's simply taking a backseat to LeBron and Kyrie isn't exactly correct.
Love -- according to the data -- isn't racking up big minutes as a primary rebounding big, which is puzzling given his ability to clean the glass. Both Varejao and Thompson are having their best seasons ever, which could be a result of playing with LeBron at this stage in his career, but those improvements have come at the expense of perhaps the best rebounder in the league.
The Love-for-Klay-Thompson trade may have been one of the biggest non-stories in recent NBA history, but with the way Kevin Love is being used in Cleveland, the Cavs are getting someone about as helpful overall, according to our algorithms, as Klay is for the Golden State Warriors.
Despite top-five overall potential -- and knowing that Love already realized that potential based on his 2013-14 campaign -- the player donning the number zero in wine and gold is, overall, playing a role on this team that is helping his teammates produce some of their best ball ever.
But it has come at the expense of one of the best players in the league playing to his fullest potential. That much is certain.