As LeBron James clings onto his playoff life with the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving attempts to maintain the slumping Boston Celtics’ positioning in the standings, the third member of the former Cleveland Cavaliers big three is relishing the chance to play the game he loves.
“I feel like a big part of my life and my identity is taken away when the game is taken away from me,” Kevin Love said after a win over the Memphis Grizzlies in late February. “So I feel really good and really fortunate just to be out there.”
Having been sidelined from mid-October to the beginning of February, Kevin Love played in just his 11th game of the season this past Sunday night. The All-Star big man put up a 16-point, 14-rebound double-double, his fourth in five contests.
Since Feb. 11, Love is averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds on 46.5 percent from deep on over seven attempts per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage rate is 26.8 percent and the Cavaliers on/off differential with him playing is plus-14.2 per 100 possessions.
“He’s a walking double-double,” Larry Nance Jr. said of Love after beating the New York Knicks. “That’s something he’s been his whole career and that’s certainly not gonna change now. He’s just such a weapon for us.”
Cleveland head coach Larry Drew noticed a difference in the team’s flow and rhythm the moment that Love hit the floor in Washington a month ago. Not surprisingly, his effect has only gotten more significant.
In the seven games the Cavaliers have played with Love, their record is 5-2. Overall, they have won five of the last eight and are .500 in their last 14 games. All of this coincides with the minute the 30-year-old came back to practice and started logging minutes on the floor with his teammates.
“He’s our go-to guy,” Drew told Basketball Insiders at Friday’s practice. “And anytime you have a go-to guy, you’re gonna play through him. And we haven’t had that luxury all season long where he’s been out.
“Now that he’s with us, we can play through him – whether we play through him on the post or whether we play through him on the perimeter – we have a guy that we can play through.”
Those on the outside are seeing Love’s production with the eye-popping statistics as he continues to get back to his usual workload, but his mere presence has improved the on-court product and accelerated the growth of team chemistry almost immediately.
“I mean, he’s an All-Star,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a major impact on a team. And it’s not just his points or his rebounds. It’s just the level of respect the opposing team has to have for him when he’s on the court. So yeah, this is what we knew he was gonna do.
“That’s why, coming into this year, we were very optimistic about what we can be and who we can become. And now when he’s back, you see us optimistic again. There are only, what, 24 All-Stars in the NBA and that’s one of ’em. It’s great to have him back.”
While Love usually doesn’t take too much credit for his performances, he does understand the difference he makes for others. Specifically, he believes that second-year wing Cedi Osman and rookie point guard Collin Sexton—and Ante Zizic in certain cases—have benefited the most.
“Just by spacing the floor because the other team has to react to that being able to play inside-out, being able to pass the ball,” Love said. “I think all of us have been jelling in practice, and the more time we’re out there together, the better we’re gonna get.”
Lineup data backs this claim.
Out of Cleveland’s six four-man combinations that have played together for at least 65 minutes since the comeback, the top lineup in offensive (118), defensive (102.5) and net rating (plus-15.5) across the board are those three previously mentioned players and Love.
Regarding the six three-man lineups used with a minimum of 100 minutes, the top trio in offensive (120.9) and net rating (plus-12.5) is Love, Osman and Sexton. And as for the young core guys specifically, it’s only fitting that Sexton and Osman, each paired with Love, have the top two offensive and net ratings among duos on the team based on the same scale.
Let’s put this in perspective in the easiest way possible—Sexton and Osman have played a team-high 1,292 minutes together this season, by far the leading two-man lineup Cleveland has sent out there. Their net rating (minus-16.1), though, is dead last in the league. Enough said, right?
If those figures are still a little too confusing to sort through, allow the aforementioned players themselves to tell you about Love’s influence.
“I’m feeling really comfortable right now,” Osman said. “I’m always looking for Kevin, especially in that post whenever he wants the ball I’ll pass it to him because we know that he’s gonna either make a basket or he’s gonna make you a good pass.”
“It’s good because you have to play him honest,” Sexton said after Cleveland’s most recent victory. “He’s a great shooter. He posts up. He draws so much attention and it makes it easier for everybody else. And then when it’s like that, we’re a pretty hard team to beat.”
With the majority of Sexton’s first year spent without a veteran—aside from the games Tristan Thompson has played in—Love believes the rookie’s development was somewhat halted.
Going back to his beginnings with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love cited that he missed having Al Jefferson out on the floor to show him the ways after the big center had torn his ACL in the same respect Sexton missed him.
“Anytime you have a veteran presence around guys that have gone through it – both losing and winning in that respect – you can learn a lot from them,” Love said. “I think him not having us out there is definitely effective in a lot of ways.
“I think that our veteran leadership and always just having somebody in your ear is a good way to help, especially when you have your ups and downs of a rookie season.”
Don’t shortchange Love’s impact to only the inexperienced talents, either. Guys who have been there have felt it, too.
Nance notes that he’s used to getting tags on screen-and-rolls, but the lane has now opened up for him because of how much defenses respect Love.
“His gravity is ridiculous. He just pulls everybody towards him on the defensive end,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “You can see Cedi hitting wide open shots, Collin getting open shots, Collin being able to attack close-outs, both of them. When a guy like that is on the court, it’s a major advantage.”
Jordan Clarkson says teams can’t drop or show on screens because Love will head over to the perimeter to either shoot, swing or put it on the floor. And if he gets switched on at the block, it’s usually a huge mismatch in strength that leads to a score “90 percent of the time.”
“He makes the game so much easier – a lot of shots, a lot of free moving,” Clarkson said. “The ball is popping. He knows how to play. If you pass it to him on the wing, he’s giving it right back to you right into a screen, just slip in, doing what he does.”
A teammate of Love’s on the 2016 NBA Championship version of the Cavaliers, Matthew Dellavedova has observed a change in the matured power forward’s leadership.
“He’s a lot more vocal, I’ll tell you that,” Dellavedova said at Tuesday’s practice. “He’s definitely grown a lot there and he’s doing a good job of talking to the younger guys.
“I think everyone inside the locker room and inside the organization obviously knows his value and what he brings to the team. If outside people [don’t], they should see it. They should have already seen it.”
Dellavedova is not wrong.
Going back to that same date of Feb. 11, Cleveland is second in win differential and 10th in offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions. Per Cleaning The Glass, they are playing like a 40-win team.
It’s only a less-than-one-month sample size, yes, but body language tells the story of how far this Cavaliers team has come. Remember, this roster was once a mix of disgruntled veterans and inexperienced youth that didn’t seem to mesh the way the organization would’ve hoped. When Love went down, that tension only got worse.
Credit general manager Koby Altman for not only trading last year’s leftovers with undesirable contracts, but also going into asset accumulation mode and setting this franchise up for financial flexibility and success moving forward. The locker room has absolutely been better off since those moves. Nevertheless, the on-court product had been bit of a wildcard.
However, now that Love’s back and playing with the core he was supposed to, both aspects of Cleveland’s situation have turned into a breath of fresh air. The front office is looking at true progress from the team’s most vital pieces, and that was what they had been desiring all along.
And unless there is some kind of crazy shakeup due to a winning streak (or losing streak), they’re essentially guaranteed a top-four position in the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery. Remember, the odds have been altered to prevent tanking, too.
But the Cavaliers are dead set on finishing the season out on a high note. Nance has made it clear that he wants to be a top-eight ball club in the second half of the season. Sexton is motivated by missing out on the Rising Stars game. Osman would like to build on the strides he’s made as well.
For Love, it’s all been enjoyable. The vibe around Cleveland is as good as it’s been all season, and everybody’s plan is to let the good times roll.
“It’s funny to say…like it seems a little bit elementary, but we’re having fun.” Love said after a 107-93 bounceback against the Magic. “It’s always fun to win. But we’re sharing the ball, we’re moving the ball, we’re playing for each other and I think we’re making steps and strides in the right direction.
“I think that relieves any tension from losing and just not accepting the losses. So I think we’ve definitely learned a lot, but just learning how to win and what it takes is key, especially with this young group.”
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte
No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.
Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.
Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.
But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.
While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.
With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.
Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.
The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.
Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.
Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.
As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.
The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.
Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.
The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.
He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.
NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26
Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.
This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.
When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.
That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.
Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.
The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.
Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.
Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.
Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.
This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.
The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.
Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.
Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.
Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.
While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.
Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner
So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.
Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.
Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.
Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward
It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.
However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.
Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.
With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.