We’re proud to present this guest post from Ben Dowsett, a regular contributor to Nylon Calculus here at the HP Basketball Network, as well as Salt City Hoops of the TrueHoop Network. You can also find Ben on Twitter, @Ben_Dowsett.
Though the process has been badly convoluted and stretched out, the NBA world appears to finally have a handle on what will become official right around August 23rd: Kevin Love will join the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade involving principles Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett along with a future first-round pick. The deal isn’t “official” until then given Wiggins’ recent contract signing and a (ridiculous) rule preventing rookie signees from being traded within 30 days of giving their autograph, but confirmation from Woj himself and a lack of any reported talks with other potential Love suitors in the days since appear to paint such a deal as a foregone conclusion.
The trade will leave Cleveland in need of several filled roster spots (they’ve been in discussions with Shawn Marion and have signed free agent center Alex Kirk), but outside a potential Matrix signing, the major pieces appear to be in place. A James-Love-Irving-Waiters offensive foundation is, on paper, a menacing force; that said, by now we all know the pitfalls of crowning a newly-minted superteam before seeing them together (ask the 2012-13 Lakers). Will the Cavs live up to the lofty offensive standards we’ve collectively set for them? Answering definitively here is obviously impossible in August, but mapping out how they’ll get there is a task we can begin now that the key players are mostly locked down.
The legend to this proverbial map? The pick-and-roll. With apologies to those expecting something more revolutionary given coach David Blatt’s international roots and the way LeBron’s skill set lends itself to historically unique styles of basketball, this team will succeed offensively by doing the same thing everyone else is doing, just better. The above numbers from last season are courtesy of mySynergySports – “PPP” stands for points-per-possession (finished possessions, meaning any ending in a shot attempt, turnover or shooting foul), plus their league-wide rank in the next column. The numbers are frightening enough individually; three elite pick-and-roll operators, one of whom is a devastating force in both roles within the set. What’s more, each of these three accumulated such lofty figures as clear focal points within their respective schemes, a situation that will only remain for LeBron. In short, a “whole greater than the sum of its parts” scenario seems highly likely.
LeBron will of course be the fulcrum, and his versatility will empower Blatt to throw a variety of pick-and-roll sets at confused opponents. Picking which duo (and in which role, in LeBron’s case) will be most successful is like guessing which Iggy Azalea song will suck most on her next album – just too many good choices. For my money, though, James-Love starts with pole position. LeBron hovered around the 50 percent shooting mark as a ball-handler in such sets for the entirety of his time in Miami, never vacating the league’s top 20 for per-possession efficiency. And in case that wasn’t enough, in 2013-14 he shot 46.7 percent on 3’s as the P&R handler, a large jump from previous seasons. Seriously, the guy was unguardable, even within an offense that became increasingly reliant on him and only him to initiate any sort of dangerous action. Love will insert an element into the equation that has never been present for LeBron thus far in his career.
Watch the attention James draws on a pick-and-roll set from the Finals:
Specifically, note how far Tim Duncan lags off screen-setter Udonis Haslem to protect against a drive with speed from LeBron:
This simply won’t be a tenable strategy when inserting Love as the screener. Defenses will be forced to choose between two ugly options: keep Love’s man closer to him to prevent easy pick-and-pop triples, or continue dropping the big man but instead yield a switch that will allow LeBron to either attack a slower big or back out, re-position the offense and post up Love in what will nearly always be a serious mismatch. Love’s three-point percentage as the roll man last season (28.1 percent) is slightly worrisome, but is on a small-ish 64-shot sample and, again, comes with the large contextual caveat that he was the only Wolves player capable of hurting defenses consistently (he also shot over 39 percent on all other three-point attempts on a far larger 440-shot sample, so some amount of variability within his roll-man percentage seems fair to account for).
And of course, Love isn’t just a tall person who can shoot – he’s among the league’s headiest big men, with spatial awareness and timing that confounds defenders who over-pursue when expecting the long bomb:
Throw in a couple ancillary benefits – Waiters (a 42 percent 3-point shooter on spot-up attempts last season, per Synergy) lurking beyond the arc to punish defenses for over-helping, plus Love removing rim protectors from the paint for LeBron, particularly during small-ball periods where Love plays center – and this may well be the most lethal pick-and-roll combination in the league from day one.
And it’s far from the Cavs’ only scary option in such sets. LeBron’s silly near-70-percent field-goal mark as the roll-man from the earlier table was the apex of a trend that has slowly built (both in frequency and efficiency) over the latter half of his career, and certainly not an aberration – since the 09-10 season, the first where mySynergySports began their tracking, he’s shot just over 60 percent as the roll man. He did so mostly with Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Mo Williams passing him the ball (Dwyane Wade had his share as well, to be fair), and it feels safe to say Kyrie Irving will be an upgrade here.
An Irving-James pick-and-roll set will induce many of the same impossible decisions for defenses: a) stick to the league’s most dangerous close-in finisher and leave a lethal off-the-bounce shooter in Irving more space than he’s ever had, b) leave LeBron with space on rolls to the basket (equivalent to high treason for defenses, and something that will never happen), or c) send extra help and open up Love and Waiters on the perimeter. Irving shot 43.2 percent on 3’s as the P&R ball-handler last year, and his 40.9 percent mark on all “Pull-Up” triples was fourth of 65 rotation guys attempting at least one such shot a game, per SportVU data on NBA.com.
Irving-Love sets will be just as problematic, both within their initial action and on the weak side; LeBron shot a ludicrous 48.8 percent on “Catch and Shoot” 3’s last year, second of 188 rotation guys attempting at least one per game, trailing only Kyle Korver and topping Steph freaking Curry by nearly a full point, and losing track of him for even an instant on an off-ball cut will lead to…well, you know:
Cleveland still has work to do in filling out its roster at a championship-caliber level, but the foundation is firmly in place for a pick-and-roll attack that could easily become one of the most dangerous and versatile the league has ever seen. The addition of Marion would only open more doors; an Irving-Waiters-Marion-James-Love unit might struggle with size defensively, but would boast all five lineup members as legitimate three-point threats and would probably break the Internet regularly, along with some scoring records. Is it possible for a lineup featuring LeBron James and Kevin Love to somehow be potentially underrated offensively? Don’t rule it out. It needs to just be November already.