Benching Kevin Love fuels Cavs win over Magic
The game against the Magic was the first of many in which Kevin Love will have to sit out the fourth quarter when opponents go small.
The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Orlando Magic Friday night thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback. In and on itself, that’s not particularly noteworthy. The Cavaliers have dug holes for themselves a few times this season only to step on the gas pedal late. The Magic aren’t a great team, having won only 11 out of their 32 games.
The way Cleveland got the win is interesting, however: David Blatt benched Kevin Love for the entire fourth quarter and his absence was directly related to Cleveland’s surge.
Love had 22 points, seven rebounds and two assists in only 33 minutes. He shot 41 percent from the field, but Cleveland still outscored the Magic by two points when he was on the court. Through the first three quarters, that was the best mark for any Cavalier outside Mike Miller.
Love wasn’t the reason why Cleveland trailed by four points going into the fourth quarter. But his absence in the final quarter was justified since Friday night’s game illustrates two points that are undeniable right now: Love hurts the Cavaliers’ defense and he is not well suited to be a small-ball center.
The Magic shot a blistering 57.4 percent from the field when Love was on the court as opposed to 34.6 percent when he wasn’t. Within five feet of the basket, Orlando shot 75 percent (12-of-16) with Love playing and just 36.4 percent (4-of-11) with him sitting. Those numbers are just a super-sized version of a trend: The Cavaliers have allowed a lower field-goal percentage to opponents when Love sits. Opponent field-goal percentage at the rim is actually lower when Love plays, but they attempt more shots within five feet and shoot a much better percentage on shots in the paint overall, negating whatever positive impact the marginally smaller, close-range field-goal percentage represents.
What we are seeing in Cleveland is consistent with what Love showed in his time with the Timberwolves. He can play good post defense and he is a great defensive rebounder, but he’s just not a good overall defender at all, often missing rotations or failing to bother shots. Here’s an example from the Orlando game:
Love doesn’t even react despite being on Kyle O’Quinn, a big man that has gone 6-of-20 on three pointers for his career. Good defensive anchors have the awareness to prioritize where they should be. Love doesn’t. Even when he tries to protect the rim, he has a hard time bothering shots, as illustrated here in a play in which he doesn’t even get a hand up on a shot by Elfrid Payton:
Once again, this is common knowledge. Love is not, and will never be, an elite defender and probably not even an average rim protector. Among players who log at least 30 minutes and contest at least five shots at the rim per game (most starting bigs), Love allows the highest field-goal percentage at 60.8 percent. Paul Millsap ranks as the second worst player at 57.8 percent and there is an over five percentage points gap between Love and the third-ranked Al Jefferson.
When a player is as talented offensively as Love is, teams will live with those flaws because there’s a good chance he gives back on offense whatever he allows on defense. Playing alongside a top defender in the Tyson Chandler mold, those weaknesses can be hidden to a degree. The Cavaliers don’t have anyone like that, but Tristan Thompson is a decent rim protector. With a more conservative scheme that allows Love to sit back on pick and rolls to make up for his lack of foot speed instead of hedging, he could pass as a neutral defender.
The problem for the Cavaliers is that because of Anderson Varejao’s injury and LeBron James‘ ability to slide up to power forward to wreak havoc, they will probably play a lot of small-ball with only one big man on the court. That’s what they did in the fourth quarter against Orlando, to fantastic results. And in those circumstances, Love’s defense will get exposed. Thompson is a much better option, since he is quicker and springier than Love, allowing him to cover more ground against offenses that space the floor.
So Love will be asked to sacrifice, as LeBron James hinted at after the game:
“Tonight we took a step forward. With Kevin Love’s sacrifice in the fourth quarter, he didn’t play and was helping, cheering, slapping hands, every time we came to the sideline, we took a step forward in that. And I hope everyone seen that. I hope everyone saw it. You know I did, I saw it.”
Love, for his part, sounded fine with not playing since his absence helped the team:
“There was one point where [Blatt] looked at me and I just said, ‘Keep them,’” Love said. “They matched up really well, especially Tristan [Thompson] with [Nikola] Vucevic. I thought he was doing a great job.”
Love stayed as engaged in the game when he was out as he was when he was on the court.
“They went small and it wasn’t hard for me at all,” Love said. “I was up [cheering on the bench] for pretty much every play I could be.”
Considering there will be a lot of teams that will gladly take their chances by going small against the Cavaliers, it’s great to hear Love is OK with Blatt’s decision. As long as the wins keep on coming, it shouldn’t be a problem for Love to take the benchings in stride. It will be interesting to see if he shows the same level of patience and maturity when things don’t go well.
As for the Cavaliers, this new development puts them in an awkward position. Love is a star. He’s getting paid like one and Cleveland is planning to sign him to a max contract once he opts out of his current one following this season. They need to find a way to have him on the court when it matters. That means personnel changes, because Love won’t become a viable small-ball center anytime soon. The Cavaliers have pieces they could move and their talent alone should carry them far into the playoffs. There’s no need to panic. It’s time, however, to acknowledge the concerns many had about Love’s fit in the Cleveland roster were correct.