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: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.