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NBA PM: Are We Undervaluing Love?

Are NBA teams undervaluing Kevin Love as a potential trade target? James Blancarte breaks it down.

James Blancarte

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The 2015-16 NBA Finals ended in spectacular fashion for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team won a thrilling Game 7 on the road against the Golden State Warriors. Kyrie Irving scored the game-clinching three-point shot. LeBron James had an unbelievable defensive sequence with a coast-to-coast chase down block to preserve the win. And Cavaliers forward Kevin Love had the defensive sequence of his life as he stayed in front of superstar Stephen Curry for an entire possession, ultimately denying Curry a clean look at a crucial three-point shot that missed the mark.

Unfortunately, the 2016-17 NBA Finals didn’t have the same storybook ending for the Cavaliers. There was no signature plays for the Cavaliers stars as the team fell to the Warriors in five games. Plenty of factors are to blame for the loss, the biggest being the addition of forward Kevin Durant to the already loaded Warriors, which made a Cleveland repeat a daunting task. However, at least some of the blame landed at the feet of Love. How much more could Love have done in the Finals?

Despite the long odds and uneven play of several Cavalier players, a good amount of the blame landed at the feet of Kevin Love. So far this offseason, there has been plenty of speculation involving various trade targets the Cavaliers are seeking to acquire. The primary bait in nearly all of these alleged trade proposals is Love. But does anyone really want Love?

In five 2016-17 NBA Finals games, Love scored 16 points, pulled down 11.2 rebounds and notched 2.2 steals per game in 32.2 minutes. As the clear third option on the team, these basic stats show solid contributions. In fact, they are in line with Love’s entire playoff performance where these averages were virtually identical.

Unfortunately, digging deeper you find some more telling statistics. In the playoffs overall, Love had an offensive rating of 118.7 and a defensive rating of 107.2. In the Finals, that reversed for the worse on both the offensive (105.8) and defensive end (119.5). Also, Love’s shooting percentages dropped off across the board. In addition, although he scored well enough in three of the first four games, Love was a no-show in the Game 5 closeout, scoring only six points and failing to make any sort of notable positive impact.

Unlike the Cavaliers championship win the season prior, it is understandable if the 2016-17 NBA Finals left a bad taste in your mouth if you’re a Kevin Love fan. Instead of looking at the immediate past, let’s quickly take a look at who Love was before being traded to the Cavaliers.

Love spent the first six seasons of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He never led his team to the playoffs (nor has anyone else since he left), which could be held against him to a certain degree. However, Love’s Timberwolves teams usually never featured quite enough firepower to be a serious contender anyway. In his last season (2013-14) with the Timberwolves, Love averaged a career-high 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds, while hitting 2.5 threes on 6.6 attempts in 36.3 minutes per game over 77 total games played.

The following year, Love’s scoring dropped by roughly 10 points, down to 16.4 points per game. Love went from the focal point of the offense, dictating the action from the high post, to being converted to a three-point specialist and rebounder — a role that Love has never truly broken out of. Love will turn 29 by early next season and the hope for a team trading for him is that he would revert to his pre-Cavaliers day when he was considered a top power forward in the league and was even on the short list of top players in the league.

Look no further than forward Chris Bosh for someone who quickly rebounded after making a similar sacrifice as Love in order to be the third star player of a championship team alongside James. Following James’s departure from Miami, Bosh’s averages jumped up in field goals, free throws and three-point shots made and attempted, while his rebounding and assists also jumped up while only playing 3.4 minutes more per game. The biggest dip came in Bosh’s shooting percentages, which dropped due to the higher volume and suffering more attention from opposing defenses without James. Miami was able to build around Bosh and Dwyane Wade, with Bosh resuming  a leading man role again as his usage rates returned to the levels he maintained earlier in his career with the Toronto Raptors.

An additional factor working against Love is the way the NBA game is played has shifted so quickly over the past few years. Teams now actively seek out players with greater defensive versatility. The better teams, like the Warriors, will punish opponents who have weaker or limited defensive players. In the Finals, the Cavaliers often couldn’t play Love in critical moments since he struggled to switch and stay in front his opponents consistently. His defensive futility played a role in the Cavaliers’ inability to prevent Golden State from generating open looks at the basket and from three-point range consistently. To address this, the team would often trot out almost retired veteran forward Richard Jefferson in key moments as the team felt more comfortable with Jefferson’s ability to switch on defense and fit alongside Tristan Thompson.

Love’s lack of defensive versatility (e.g., he can’t slide over to center as Bosh did for the HEAT) and his inability to step up in the Finals have played a role in the relative lack of interest in the trade market. Due to Love already being in the prime of his career, it doesn’t make much sense for a rebuilding team (such as the Pacers if they simultaneously trade forward Paul George) to acquire him as Love’s prime won’t match the team’s long term timeline. That leaves potential contenders on the cusp as the most viable trade recipients of Love.

Additionally, there have been rumblings recently regarding inevitable buyouts of various veteran players, including Wade and New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, among others. A potential contender that might trade for Love could presumably wait for teams to start buying out players during the 2017-18 season and seek to sign one of these veterans for a low price and short period of time. It’s unlikely that a player of Love’s caliber would be available through a buyout, but the possibility of adding a similarly talented player while retaining other players and assets that would be lost in a deal for Love may be a more appealing option. With this in mind, it makes sense that Love may not be generating huge interest in the trade market despite his obvious talent.

Love has taken on a smaller role over the last few years as part of a very talented team. Any team trading for Love must hope that he can either revert to the star player he was during his time in Minnesota, or that he can successfully intergrate with a championship contending team that is in need of a sharpshooting big man. Based on his overall play over the last few seasons, neither of those scenarios is a guaranteed outcome.

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As of the time of this publishing, the NBA has released its selections for the 2016-17 NBA All-Defensive First and Second Teams.

NBA All-Defensive First Team

Forward Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (198 points)
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (196 points)
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (192 points)
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers (140 points)
Guard Patrick Beverly (110 points)

NBA All-Defensive Second Team

Guard Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies (80 points)
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs (68 points)
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (58 points)
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder (53 points)
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (35 points)

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Basketball Insiders Draft Recap Podcast

Basketball Insiders’ writers Cody Taylor and Spencer Davies talk winners and loser of the NBA Draft, the Jimmy Butler trade, Paul George’s future and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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