The Kevin Love Problem
How the Cavs just betrayed the evolution of basketball
The Red Queen hypothesis is an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt and evolve simply to survive while pitted against opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment.
The Cleveland Cavaliers finally traded Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future first round pick for Kevin Love.
We’ve seen this story before. It’s the story of every living thing in our observable universe. Basketball too is confined by the laws of man. It conforms to basic scientific fact. But the argument against the Kevin Love trade, like the most persuasive ideas in our world, is not just an empirical one. It is rooted in the philosophy and the history of the game.
I’ll remember this moment: Cleveland had an opportunity to write the next chapter in the evolution of basketball. Instead, they opted for more of the same.
Acclimatization is the process in which an individual organism adjusts to a gradual change in its environment allowing it to maintain competitiveness across a range of changing conditions.
Speaking broadly, you can track the evolution of the league by a few acclimations in style since 1990. After the Bad Boy era, Riley’s bruising slow-down Knicks brought the game to halt. In the mid-late 90s, more stringent illegal defense rules disallowed teams from sending weakside help until a player had committed to drive, spawning a decade long obsession with isolations and the two-man game.
Finally in 2005, Mike D’Antoni’s Suns played a fast, opportunistic offense that teams spent the next 8 years slowly incorporating. Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams emphasized the three-point shot to levels unprecedented at the time but today have become the norm. Popovich’s Spurs were one of the early exploiters of the MAGIC OF THE CORNER THREE (sorry this gets me excited) and more recently a fluid motion offense that emphasizes side-to-side movement, precise timing and misdirection.
History collided with the Miami Heat during the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Indiana when Bosh suffered an injury that forced the team to go ultra small. They never looked back.
The next summer, after discussions with football coach Chip Kelly, Spo codified this concept into the now famous Space and Pace offense. Move Bosh to the center, make LeBron a point-4. Clear the elbows for penetration and kickouts. Rotate the ball quickly across the perimeter. Instead of playing Wade and LeBron in pick-and-rolls together (that was painful) keep them AWAY from each other.
Now the rest of the league stretches the floor with their power forward, plays for corner threes, opens the elbow for penetration, plays small, doesn’t gamble on offensive rebounds, ices the pick and roll towards the baseline, clogs the lane obsessively, hedges on pick-and rolls and rotates “on-a-string.” This is the vernacular of today’s NBA.
It’s also why the teams that play different than everyone else overachieve. George Karl (take any three or point blank shot, but no mid-range), Van Gundy (take tons of threes, don’t crash the boards for rebounds), Hornacek (play with two point guards and no true center), Thibbs (run an ultra conservative Flex-offense that treats each trip down the floor like an NFL possession, DON’T help on double teams, help as little as possible).
The Cavs with Wiggins looked like one of the most unique title contenders in NBA history. James and Wiggins together wreacking havoc on the perimeter would have been one of the most devastating things in my lifetime, possibly beyond MJ and Pippen. I’m not a LeBron or Cavs fan by any means, but the possibility of this was genuinely exciting. Bennett and Thompson are young, bouncy players with the ball on the block and Kyrie could take defenders off the dribble and around screens in a myriad directions.
Every fast break would have been a must watch moment, objects in beautiful, terrifying motion. Like unlocking a new stage on Nintendo, this is the next level of how the game is played.
This put the Cavs in a position to develop a style of play that, like the LeBron-led Heat, the rest of the league lacked the personnel to imitate. Teams would have been forced to catch up with them. Instead of changing the landscape, the Kevin Love trade places the Cavs squarely in line with the rest of the league. That’s still very potent, I’m sure, but opponents are now acclimating to that approach. Everyone is trying to do and stop the same thing. They will inevitably catch up.
While conventional thinking says “You need more shooting to space the floor!” please remember that in science any worthwhile idea seems wrong until it is in fact proven right. Having LeBron allows you to experiment with things that the 29 other teams are unable to imagine. Instead, evolution, selection and adaption have been put on hold.
Coevolution is the change of a biological object triggered by the change of a related object.
Remove aesthetics and philosophy from the question for a moment: The premise of this trade is that in the short term (1-2 years), Love gives the Cavs a better shot to compete for a championship. But how is he a surefire thing more so than Wiggins?
Here’s what we know about Kevin Love: His beard is awesome. His uncle was a Beach Boy. He grabs a lot of rebounds and can shoot the ball well. Other than that, we’re not really sure what we’re getting. Let’s see if he can play ONE playoff game first before we start calling him a top 3 power forward in the game. Not only has he never made the playoffs, but he’s never even gotten CLOSE to them. His win totals: 24, 15, 17, 26 (lockout 66-game season), 31, and 40. In Love’s career arc, finishing one game under .500 last season actually feels like an accomplishment. Forget playoff experience, Love hasn’t even played a truly meaningful NBA game after the all-star break.
I’m not one to put every egg in the “What have you done in the playoffs?” basket, but it’s still relevant. We’ve seen players struggle in the one-and-done rut year after year. Garnett, T-Mac, Melo. This is another level.
Can you think of another player in NBA history that was considered a top 10-15 guy in the league after 5+ seasons but never made the playoffs? There isn’t one.
What does it say that Love occupies this unique place in modern NBA history approached by none over the last 20-30 years? It might mean that Love’s career is simply a cosmically unmatchable event of the rarest kind: the first great player in modern NBA history to wallow in uniquely terrible circumstances for 6 straight years. Or it might mean that he actually isn’t a top 10-15 player.
Love’s supporters make the case that 25 and 15 a night is still the same whether you win or not. Obviously, this is ridiculous. The entire point of the game is to win, and frequently we see players making the decision to play a style that may not rack up stats the same in order to put their team in a better position to win (see Bosh, Duncan, Noah, LeBron). Changes are made for the greater good. This is how teams and stars coevolve in the NBA. And while Love’s Win Shares are great, and that calculates a player’s individual contribution to a win, it fails to quantify a player’s ability to enable his teammates to contribute towards wins. This is the scale all great players are judged on.
The popular narrative is that Kevin Love simply had terrible teammates. This is true, though when we think of top NBA players we usually expect them to have some positive impact on their teammates. Why is it that so many of his teammates wind up worse than they were projected to be? Take Ramon Sessions, who’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) pre-Minnesota was 17.6, followed by a paltry 12.9 as Love’s teammate. What happened the very next season after a trade to the Bobcats? Back up to a 19.0.
This is not an anomaly. Minnesota’s last six years are littered with players whose efficiency took a dive when playing along Love, most notably but not confined to Chase Budinger (14.9, 9.7), Michael Beasley (16.1, 13.0)and Al Jefferson (23.1, 19.0). There’s an even longer list of players who saw an increase in production upon leaving the Wolves, guys like Wayne Ellington (9.4, 12.2), Kousta Koufos (10.4, 20.3), Cory Brewer (10.3 to 17.6), Martell Webster (10.0, 13.9), Wesley Johnson (8.0, 10.3 and 11.0 after he left) and Derrick Williams (7.6, 11.9).
Is there a reason that Barrea hasn’t really been the impact in Minnesota that many thought he could be after playing a key role in Dallas’ 2011 Championship? Is it a coincidence that ultra-talented Ricky Rubio plateaued so early on in his NBA career (PER of 14.6, 16.2, 15.4). Why did Alexey Shved look so much more promising when Love was sitting on the bench with an injury? Why did Kevin Martin just have one of his worst shooting seasons on his career? Why was Shabazz Muhammad nowhere near as effective an offensive player has scouts pegged him to be? Yes I’m picking nits, but in six years you won’t find ONE perimeter oriented player who either improved as Love’s teammate or diminished upon leaving the team. Not one.
I’m not saying Love isn’t a very talented player, but maybe if he was a top ten guy then sometime in the last 6 years SOMEONE would have benefited to play on his team and he might have won half of his games at least once.
Love’s inability to coevolve around the team is further exposed at the end of close games. Last year the Wolves went 7-14 in games decided by 5 points or less and OT because it’s not a secret around the league: Love is relatively easy to manage at the end of games. Because he doesn’t have a quick first step, defenders can play him tight at the 3 point line. His post game is easy to muddle up with two defenders and he hasn’t evolved into a threat from 16–23 feet like most closers in the league.
None of this is to say Love isn’t a VERY good player, a perennial all-star. But to treat his impact on winning basketball as a quantifiable fact is a stretch. We know Kevin Love has put up great scoring and rebounding numbers on a bad team for exactly three seasons when he was healthy and a starter. That’s it.
The Ecological Niche describes how an organism or population responds to competitors or conditions and how it in turn alters those same factors for its own gain.
Perhaps the most relevant question is this: Is Love even as good a LeBron sidekick as Chris Bosh? Look at this comparison:
Kevin Love, Age 25 (6th season, final in Minnesota)
26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 45.7% FG, 37.6% 3PT, 82.1% FT, 59.2% True Shooting, 26.9 PER, 18.7% rebound rate, 28.8 Usage rate. Win Loss 40-42
Chris Bosh, Age 25 (7th season, final in Toronto)
24.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 51.8% FG, 36.4% 3PT, 79.7% FT, 59.1% True Shooting, 25.0 PER, 17.7% rebound rate, 28.7 Usage rate. Win loss 40-42.
They are eerily similar.
When the Heat trio came together in 2010, pundits predicted that Wade and LeBron would be redundant on the perimeter. Conventional thinking said that Bosh would have to take a major step forward in controlling the paint, which was a perceived weakness of his.
Instead of taking a step closer, Bosh took a step further back. In his final Toronto season, Bosh took 35.1% of his shots 0-3 feet from the hoop, a number that dramatically fell to 22.5% his first season with the Heat. These shots were swapped with long twos (16-23 feet), which went from 22.4% to a whopping 34.8% of this attempts.
While the rest of the league tried to minimize the long two in favor of layups and threes, Bosh made it his niche.
A quick look beyond the surface reveals what Bosh brought to the team and why Spolestra consistently referred to him as their most important player. Bosh’s ability to play the 5 actually won them basketball games without Bosh even producing any statistics. Immediately, he forced the opposition to make a decision that put them outside their comfort zone.
Guess what? Love will not be playing center, even in a hybrid scheme. He simply is not long enough to defend opposing bigs. Bosh struggled with this as well, but did a good enough job to keep teams honest. The Heat were also able to counterattack by making the entry pass SOOOOO difficult, and swarming the post player with such persistence that opposing teams had to think twice.
Bosh also has a DEADLY long two-point shot. Shooting the 3 is good, but you can’t always put four guys on the arc and leave LeBron to penetrate. Bosh’s midrange game allowed the Heat to do all sorts of nifty things, like have Bosh screen other shooters and fade a few feet away to another spot inside the arch, or pop out to the top of the circle as a safety value or for misdirections.
This is simply not part of Love’s game. Last season, he shot 13.7% of his shots between 16-23 feet. It makes sense considering he shot only 40% from those spots. A few steps in and he’s worse, shooting 35.4% of shots from 10-16 feet. Comparatively, Bosh before the Heat was 46.3% on long twos and 42.5% from 10-16 feet. Today he shoots over 48% from both spots, which is actually amazing.
Much was made during the Heat’s run of LeBron and Wade’s prowess swarming the pick and roll while Bosh’s contributions often went overlooked. He was asked to show VERY aggressively on guards a foot shorter than him sometimes 25 feet away from the hoop, then drop back and recover on his man. His willingness and attentiveness to the scheme allowed Miami to put an unparalleled amount of pressure on the ball.
Bosh’s length and active hands became as important as every intercepted Wade pass and chase-down LeBron block.
Love is not going to be this guy. Never. He will improve his D in the next few years but he simply does not have the physical tools or mentality required to play the Bosh role. And minus Wiggins, coach David Blatt will be compelled to play very conservatively against the pick-and roll. Miami threw out the book after year one with regards to rim protection and defensive rebounding. They strategically decided to let the other team have that because they knew they had the speed, length and tenacity to take you out of what you like to do. This new Cavs team with Love will not have that luxury. Like most of the league, they will be forced to hedge.
On offense, will Love be able to play this third role? Remember, um, Kyrie Irving likes to dribble. A lot. We know that playing with LeBron is really easy, but playing with LeBron is really hard too. It required Bosh AND Wade to conform their games. Kyrie will have the ball in his hands most of the time so that transition will be more natural. Does Love have the skill set and temperament to thrive in this role?
Yes, LeBron will be on the receiving end of some perfectly timed Kevin Love outlet passes and it will be beautiful, but do you think the Bulls are going to allow that in May? Maybe eventually Love perfects his role on this team, but let’s stop acting like it’s a given that he will immediately make sense in the Cav’s new system. And if he takes a year or two to really gel with LeBron, how is that any better than waiting for Wiggins to develop?
Adaptation is the evolutionary process whereby an organism becomes better able to thrive in its habitat.
Why are we doubting Andrew Wiggins in the first place? Yes, he doesn’t have a reliable shot yet. In other news, most 6'8" athletic 20 year old freaks with 78 inch verticals don’t either. SHOULD he even have a good jumper yet? He’s played basketball his entire life taller, faster and more explosive than everyone else on the court up to this level.
What would we say about Wiggins’ functioning intelligence if he spent half of his adolescence pulling up for 18 foot jumpers? We’d say he was an idiot.
Here is a list of number one picks who were perimeter players and played at over 25 minutes per game (that means excluding James Worthy who played on a STACKED Laker team and Anthony Bennett who we will address later).
Mark Aguirre — Averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over a 13 year career. Two NBA titles with the Bad Boy Pistons and 3 all-star appearances during a TOUGH time for small forwards in the west. His first year in the league: 18.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 46.5% FG.
Larry Johnson — Averaged 19.2 points (on 49% FG) and 11 rebounds his rookie year, followed by a 22.1 and 10.5 rebound season that put him the all-star starting lineup. A debilitating back injury would rob him of his athleticism and force LJ to develop a more perimeter oriented game. He morphed into a solid role player for the rest of his career.
Glenn Robinson — Two time NBA all-star with career averages of 20.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists over an 11 year career. His rookie season he averaged 21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 45% FG.
Allen Iverson — 11 time NBA all-star, NBA MVP and career averages of 26.7 points, 6.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. 7 time all-NBA and 4 time scoring champion. Also the most entertaining basketball player of all-time. Rookie year: 23.5 points, 7.5 assists and 4.1 rebounds on 41.6% FG.
LeBron James — four time MVP (and counting), 2 time NBA champ (and counting), 10 all-star appearances (I stopped counting). Career averages: 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists on 49.7% FG (WTF). Rookie year: 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
Derrick Rose (RIP) — 3 time NBA All-star, 1 NBA MVP (technically lol) and 2 career ending injuries. Career averages: 20.8 points, 6.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds on 46% FG. Rookie year: 16.8 points, 6.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds on 47.5% FG.
John Wall — Made first all-star team last season (more to come). Slam Dunk Contest Dunker of the Night (whatever the hell that means). Career averages of 17.7 points, 8.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds on 42.6% FG. Rookie year: 16.4 points, 8.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 40.9% FG
Kyrie Irving — NBA Rookie of the year, 2 time NBA all-star (and counting). 20.7 points, 5.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds on 44.7% FG. Rookie year: 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, and 3.7 rebounds on 46.9% FG.
The notion that number one picks don’t always pan out does not apply to perimeter oriented players. Only big men (Olowokandi), foreigners (Olowokandi), fat-asses (Olowokandi), or all of the above (Olowokandi). It takes a large leap of logic to project Wiggins will somehow buck a 35-year trend in NBA history, but it’s a narrative that has picked up steam because of Wiggins’ uneven offensive play in college.
Now go look at the college stats of any super-freak athlete whose game was more suited for the NBA’s speed, space and and one-on-one emphasis. Russell Westbrook. Allen Iverson. Scottie Pippen. Paul Goerge. Kahwi Leonard. These guys didn’t come into the league with consistent shot-making. Fortunately, in the hierarchy of basketball skills, shooting is among the easiest to improve.
Simply put, Wiggins’ shooting will improve as he adapts his game for the NBA. The learning curve will be easier in an NBA offense where athletic skill is given emphasis through increased isolation, space, fast breaks and fewer zone defenses. It’s not a crap shoot, the kid is going to be transformatively great.
Would you trade the first 3-4 years of any of the above number one draft picks plus Anthony Bennett and a future first round pick for 4 years of Kevin Love’s best Chris Bosh impersonation?
Remember, it’s only four years of Love, because LeBron’s title extravaganza will be ending by then. Love wouldn’t stick around if/when (LOL) LeBron leaves, and even if he did, you won’t be able to build with Love as your number one guy.
Habitat destruction is the process in which natural habitat is rendered functionally unable to support the species present. Regions of unstable governments typically experience high rates of habitat destruction.
Let’s imagine the following script for a sports movie tragedy: After one very solid year in college, a top prospect winds up declaring for the draft. Before the draft process begins, he suffers a torn rotator cuff, sidelining him for four months. By missing pre-draft workouts and the NBA combine he is shrouded in mystery. Surprise, he’s drafted a few picks higher than previously expected. Number one. Expectations are heightened.
But the torn rotator cuff keeps him from playing Summer League, a key experience that helps acclimate new players to the speed and physicality of the NBA. In mid-September, just a few days before training camp, he plays 5-on-5 for the first time. Training camp begins, and after almost 5 months of non-competitive basketball and rehab from the shoulder, he is 20 pounds overweight.
Also, the team is overstocked with players at his position. The coach has not articulated an offensive strategy that utilizes his abilities. The team has a PG who hasn’t learned how to lead and second guard who is a gunner. They clash. The coach has no control or authority to sort out the mess. They slap the rookie, who is known for his bruising post game, out by the three point line and tell him to play the stretch four.
So the rookie starts the season 4 months behind schedule, out of shape, in the wrong position, with an incompetent coach and two clashing guards who are splitting the team apart in a battle over shots. Of course, he begins TERRIBLY.
He goes 0-15 from the field in his first week. He can’t keep up with speed of the game, his extra 20 pounds of weight and the increased distance of shooting the ball. He suffers a historic stretch of ineptitude. It’s a legitimate news story.
He stops playing. Over a seven game mid-season stretch, the rookie plays FIVE minutes. Total. There is talk of sending him to the D-League. A FIRST OVERALL PICK. Stunningly, the rookie says he would be okay with it. His confidence is officially shot. Then a key vet goes down and the rookie gets a second chance. By this point, he’s lost about 15 pounds and starts to find his game-body. Now he has the speed and stamina to play his attacking style that got him selected first. With minimal opportunities, he starts to carve out a spot on the rotation.
After showing steady improvement, a strain to his left patellar tendon sidelines him for three weeks. There is personal pressure to continue playing, to come back quicker, but the team keeps him out over a month. They clearly don’t think he can help them win games. The team has a mandate for the playoffs and they have no time to sacrifice for player development. The GM has been fired, the coach is next unless he turns things around. He sits until the final game of the season, which turns out to be his finale with the team.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Anthony Bennett and the Cleveland Cavaliers! Would you plausibly expect the story to go any other way?
Now reports are coming out about Bennett’s much improved game. His new man body and a not yet seen before aggressiveness around the basket. Truth is, Anthony Bennett is actually a very good basketball player, he always was.
The Cavs were simply unable to provide a suitable habitat. When you read stories in January about how much he is thriving in Minnesota remember how science works and try not to be shocked by this development.
Natural selection is the gradual process by which biological or behavioral traits become either more or less common as a function of species fitness. It is a key mechanism of evolution.
So here we are: Cleveland is trading a surefire STUD and another promising gunner, both who can play LeBron’s supporting cast for 4 years then carry the mantle for ten years after that. Oh yeah, and both are on rookie contracts which is literally THE BIGGEST ASSET IN THE NBA. And hey, let’s throw in a future first round pick while we’re at it. Those aren’t valuable or anything.
All of this for a guy making $15 million who hasn’t accomplished anything beyond ogles of points, rebounds and threes on losing teams. A guy we KNOW will never be a great defender. A guy that is very talented but has yet to answer any questions we have about him beside raw statistical production.
And how will the Cavs fill out this roster? Marion. Miller. Jones. I loved these players when my voice was changing in high school, but isn’t loading up on old guys past their prime EXACTLY what Miami just did last season?
It’s at this point that I begin to question how universal law permitted this to happen. Why Cleveland got this lucky in the first place. How much they had to suck, and suck, and keep sucking at life in order to stumble into 3 top picks and catch every break in the book. It makes me wonder: Is getting LeBron back a repudiation of the natural laws of basketball, or is the Cav’s foolish decision to trade for Love a reinforcement of it?