Hawks Circling Overhead While the Cavs Look for Love

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If there are two things that keep Cavaliers fans reaching for the Xanax (beyond an inbred tendency to expect the worst), it’s the Atlanta Hawks’ trapping defense and Kevin Love’s integration into the offense, which pretty much requires busing at this point.

The Hawks sprung an aggressive trapping scheme on the Cavaliers aimed at forcing the ball out of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving’s hands and it discombobulated the team worse than adding Dennis Miller to Monday Night Football. (Please stop me before I sub-reference another has-been.)

When it happened, it shocked me as much for Budenholzer showing his hand as anything else. We’re still curious about the timing though at least we have a couple theories. First, we think he wanted to give his team a little confidence boost as the Cavs’ mid-season launch had put an “uh-oh” in the back of a lot of teams’ minds. But that still doesn’t seem enough to justify it.

My feeling now is that Budenholzer wanted to plant the seed in Blatt’s mind and see how he responded, and we don’t just mean in the third quarter. Given the layout of the Eastern Conference, you might imagine Blatt and Budenholzer eyes narrowed and brow knitted, circling the ring dispatching nearby second-tier combatants like “Walking Dead,” all the while one-eyballin’ the other in anticipation of this “Highlander” throw-down.

In the time since that matchup, Blatt’s toyed with his small lineup and now the post-action LeBron figurine. He’s had J.R. Smith initiate the pick and roll with Kevin Love and Mozgov while LeBron was in the post and Kyrie on the weakside. Irving’s only had 25 or so possessions where he’s made a play off a cut, but he’s done well (88th percentile) as has LeBron (94th).

This are all answers to Things You Might Do If Your Opponent Aggressively Traps Your Pick & Roll Ballhandlers.

The problem with the Cavs typical pick and roll in this situation is that the trap occurs so far from the basket it makes it difficult to get it to the roll guy and even if you do, how well can Tristan and Mozgov actually score off the bounce from the top of the key?

The other issue is that everyone is so used to the ball being in the Big Two’s hands that there’s an unfamiliar, “scramble” aspect when other are forced to create – or there was in that Atlanta game.

Clearly Blatt’s examined responses that include using other ballhandlers in the pick & roll, allowing LeBron and Kyrie to receive the ball off cuts and create from there. He’s played LeBron in the post and at the power forward position, which allows for three guards/wings, creating a mismatch near the basket and hopefully enough handle on the perimeter to beat the traps.

The ability to use Love on the pick and roll is another option that the Cavs have been working on. We were shocked by the Synergy Stats on this, though not that Love is in the 27th percentile – fifth worse of guys with 150+ possessions – in company of Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Sere Ibaka, David West and LaMarcus Aldridge. It shocked us that he had 150 possessions. These are usually such low yield plays that you don’t even notice them happening.

Love is shooting 37% (eFG 44%) on these pick & roll plays while Varajeao, Mozgov and Thompson are shooting in the mid-sixties with eFG > 65%. As Love’s nearby company suggests, these are all guys who score well in the post and don’t really need to run the pick and roll to do so.

Nonetheless it would help greatly if Love could get his skill up near the fiftieth percentile where Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Carlos Boozer, Derrick Favors and even Pero Antic reside. None of those guys are all that agile or even great finishers but they’ve figured it out enough not to perform at a bottom-quartile rate.

Falling in and out of Love

A lot of grief has come Kevin Love’s way when he’s had the biggest adjustment to make. This guy was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year. He was a Top 5 draft pick and an all-star that led his team in several categories. Like LeBron, he found you can only go so far with a bunch of stiffs and narrowly skilled players. So he left.

That first year in Miami was really tough for LeBron, and you can bet it’s been equally vexing for Love. He’s in his mid-twenties and he’s gone from the biggest fish to the third-best player on his team and on some days the fourth (see, J.R. “Cooking With Gas” Smith). He’s had his frontcourt touches fall by a quarter (49.7 to 37.1) and his shots fall by nearly a third (18.5 to 12.7). Is it any wonder his scoring’s tumbled (26.1 to 16.4) by almost 40%?

There have been times in Love’s life where he has bristled at not receiving his due. In high school his senior year a golfer won athlete of year, even with though Love captured the Gatorade award that year. (Ya think he was beloved there?)

He felt disrespected by the Wolves at times, so there is reason to wonder about his state of mind. However, while he’s suggested this is a tough transition – and why wouldn’t it be – he’s not complained. Love’s played good soldier, said the right things and tried to buy-in to varying degrees all season long, as have all the new arrivals, LeBron included.

The difficulty of going away from what made him great – his ability to score inside and out – is obviously frustrating. It’s like he suddenly acquired two brothers who were better than him at his claim-to-fame and was now faced with remaking his personality on-the-fly and in public.

He’s acknowledge that he’s never going to be a great defensive player, and this is obviously something that he’s had to work at, but is that something a great player runs from? Nobody gets this far and this good without working very hard and broadening their game at every level. He’s said he wants to win, and he’s not even had a sniff of it to date.

If you were him, would you be so quick to abandon the best player in the world and one of the five best scoring point guards on the planet so you can be the Big Man on Campus? Consider also that Love was raised by a basketball player, Stan Love, who was never a star but someone described as a “well-credentialed hippie and part-time powerless forward,” in one of Phil Jackson’s books.

If one wants to win there are sacrifices to be made. James Worthy could probably have made a bigger name for himself on another team, but knew that behind Magic and Kareem, he could make history. Of course, basketball isn’t the same sport it was then, and there’s a lot more money on the table.

But that’s also a point in favor for Love to stick it out. While he could certainly leave on a one-year contract, that wouldn’t secure the Bird rights that would allow for bigger, longer contracts. Further if he signs a multi-year contract next summer he forfeits the riches of the 2016 year when the cap jumps by maybe $20 million and max salaries take a similar leap.

Without the smoothing proposal that the owners pitched and the union rejected (some might say both sides got what they wanted) there was a chance Love could’ve left and recovered some of what he’d be leaving on the table. Now it just doesn’t make a lot of financial sense.

My feeling is that Love exercises his player option, sticks around next year and then bolts – or stays, depending on what Gilbert does and the outcome of the last two years. But at 28, Kevin Love will be looking at his last big contract in 2016 and there’s no way he won’t get max.

We’re not entirely convinced the Cavs will do that. But two years is a long-time down the road to be speculating. Better to just think about the fact that the team’s in good position for the next two years, can be pretty confident return all of their top nine players next year (at least, if they want them back). Another year of continuity will do wonders for this team and organization, whatever the outcome, and we’re pretty confident we’ll get it.

We’ll be tweeting with commentary and live video during Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my columns (nearly) every weekday and on weekends after a game in the Cleveland Scene blog. You can fine all my recent columns here, and all my work at chrisparker.contently.com.

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