I’ve already mentioned how I don’t really like Love for the Cavaliers, and I’ll get to that shortly. But first, I think this whole process has given us an unprecedented look at just how powerful the league’s best player at the peak of his influence and free agency can be. Lebron’s process basically held up league traffic this summer as it did in 2010, and most of the news and insinuations from Brian Windhorst and others is that the Kevin Love trade was an ‘owners deal’ desired and pushed through by Lebron, with the GMs left to iron out the details.
But other than the potential for an amazing Uncle Drew episode now that Drew and Wes are united, I don’t like the trade much for Cleveland, as I’ve said before. I understand that Lebron’s going to be 30 before the year is out, and the Paul George injury shows just how quickly championship windows can close, but I’m left wondering just how much of a window Love’s acquisition provides.
I haven’t seen Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving play much. But I do know that both of them fit several molds that I’m wary of, when assessing players as superstars:
– best player on bad teams: neither player has ever made the playoffs. If you’re going to go and anoint someone a superstar, they should be able to at least carry their teams that far. If people are going to call this Cavs the new big three, let’s consider that Chris Bosh of the old big three twice carried his Raptors to the postseason, and Wade obviously took them much further (though Wade’s credentials were never really up for debate). The additional downside to this is that I am especially wary of players like Kyrie Irving who build reputations based on flash. He hasn’t always been healthy, and his raw productivity doesn’t even separate him much from solid starters like Isaiah Thomas. But he’s got a nasty handle and makes Brandon Jennings look like a puppet in the Rookie-Sophomore game. Ever played My Player mode in 2K? You get some points for highlight moments, but more points for the other stuff that helps your team win. The numbers indicate that Kyrie was a very mediocre spot-up shooter last year (31%), and he’s not respected as a defender. In some ways he’s like a point guard version of Carmelo – tantalizing talent and skill set, ability to make a ton of eye-catching plays and put up huge numbers (and therefore win the hearts and minds of the many casual fans and observers), but just not that great of a two way player. Love is more established, more decorated, and has an incredible offensive skillset at a position that seldom sees the kind of versatility he brings. I’ve got much more respect for what he brings to the table based on his productivity in the western conference, but there are serious concerns about his defense too, and he’s not a rim protector. He’s also likely not going to be as productive on a team as talented as this one, which brings me to my next concern, perhaps the biggest:
– fit. A big part of this is going to be on new coach David Blatt, a coach with a decorated foreign resume who has a reputation for wildly different stylistic adjustments based on his personnel. But my main concern with Love/Kyrie as your second and third stars is that they both do most of their damage in the same area: offense. Kyrie has more range than Wade and is of course still young, but he’s accustomed to having the keys to a bad team. The Cavs may intend to keep the ball in his hands to take some of the burden off Lebron, but it will be a major adjustment for him to play effectively off the ball, make the most of the open looks that his teammates generate (I expect his spotup numbers to go up, but will they go up enough under increased pressure?) Love’s remarkable range alleviates some of the concerns in this category for him, but he’s also a player used to having plenty of touches. It’s going to be a finicky juggling act to get everyone their opportunities and shots, and the pressure increases for each guy when you’re getting fewer possessions, and you have such good players around you who would also use them effectively. What looks like an embarrassment of riches often ends up just a reminder that there’s only one basketball out there.
Just remember that the initial Heat big three looked awkward and clunky on offense. There were some incredible plays that you can’t scheme and draw up and are just a product of incredible talent given spontaneous expression, like those full court alleys between James and Wade. But all three players had to make MAJOR adjustments to ultimately make things work – James moved into the post and Bosh largely out of it, while Wade never added legitimate three-point range, which when combined with his physical breakdown led to people wondering if he should be a sixth man.
Defensively, too, the Heat were still forced to play a unique style to fit its stars’ diverse talents. They aggressively trapped and chased out pick and rolls because of the transcendent mobility, athleticism, and instincts of their three stars. Bosh isn’t a prototypical rim protector, but he’s as good as it gets when it comes to bigs being able to close out and move to put out fires across the court. Wade is what I’d call an intangible defender, someone who might make fundamentalists cringe with his freelancing but always seem to have a hand in loose balls and blind-side steals, well-timed blocks and challenges at the rim. The two wings stars basically added a totally unexpected and unprecedented layer of potential rim protection from positions that seldom offer it. But even despite that, in crunch time Lebron, as the team’s best 1-on-1 and perimeter defender, was often asked to lock up the opponent’s most threatening player in any position on the floor – in consecutive rounds in 2013, that meant David West and then Tony Parker.
And with Lebron coming off one of his worst defensive seasons and his prime winding down, I’m not sure if you can ask him to do all of that anymore. He’s lost plenty of weight this offseason, which doesn’t figure to help him defend interior players. There’s nothing exceptional or intangible about Love and Irving’s defensive abilities – they should be able to refocus more energy in that direction with their offensive burdens lightened, but that again requires a series of challenging adjustments, and neither has shown any of the positionally unique/elite defensive skills that Wade and Bosh did. This may not matter in the regular season in a weak conference when people will be celebrating their highlight plays and gawking at their record and resurgence, but it will matter in the playoffs when they have to get stops and there are fewer possessions with more weight.
And this is largely why I don’t like the trade. This new ‘big three’, when it hits its stride, should be offensively scarier than the old one. But it’s not anywhere near its equal on defense. By all accounts, Wiggins is an unpolished offensive player, but an excellent defender given his instincts and ridiculous athleticism. A capable perimeter/wing defender has gone a long way in making teams contenders. Obviously, most of Wiggins’ value comes from his superstar physical tools and potential, but he’s also a young player who can take considerable pressure off Lebron defensively, which will become more important as Lebron ages. It also allows Lebron more freedom to focus on the help defense or interior disruption at which he also excels.
Offensively, not having Love doesn’t make them quite as scary, but I can’t imagine any attack featuring Lebron and Irving struggling to put up points, largely because of how malleable and unselfish Lebron is. If the pre-decision Cavaliers could score enough to consistently win 60 games, they can certainly do it now with Lebron a more confident, efficient, and versatile (the post) offensive juggernaut together with Kyrie. And if you’re able to consistently generate open looks for incredible athletes who can hit spot-ups (Wiggins) or players evaluated as rangy stretch-4s (Bennett), it’s not as if those two would have been useless on offense. But they wouldn’t have NEEDED (or been used to having) the ball to do it.
So the big question for the new look Cavs is going to be: how do they defend? Blatt will surely have things up his sleeve, but will that be enough? If defense wins championships and fit matters, Cleveland may have dealt itself into a more tenuous position when it starts playing the games that matter in May and June.