132-98. 70-40 at halftime. Just three short weeks ago, the Warriors went into Cleveland and eviscerated the Cavs behind a ruthlessly efficient offensive attack. The two headed monster of the Steph-Draymond pick and roll headlined the Warriors’ scheme, while at the same time exposed the Cavs’ crippling weakness. Despite not playing the entire fourth quarter, Steph and Draymond still dominated the Warriors’ touch and pass numbers, a strong indicator of whom the offense is being run through.
Draymond had 72 touches and 54 passes, while Steph had 68 and 44, respectively. Third place for each of those categories was Harrison Barnes, with a mere 40 touches and 32 passes. While it is facile to say the Warriors are a pick-and-roll team (they run the set on just 10.3% of their offensive possessions, 29th in the league), they went back to the well several times against the Cavs. In so doing, they revealed a willingness to continually attack one weakness on the opposition.
For a team with a seemingly limitless ceiling on offense due to their league leading pace, passing genius, and unprecedented shooting, Golden State can just as easily accrue points by repeatedly attacking the same defensive weakness.
Against the Spurs, it was the overmatched Tony Parker who could not keep up with Steph in transition, nor on the ball (and was lifted from Steph duties early in the second quarter). Just last night, they took advantage of Enes Kanter’s glacially slow rotations in the final minutes, until he was taken out at the 1:31 mark of the game. And when facing the Cavs this season, the Warriors have run a myriad of back-cuts and pick-and-rolls against Kevin Love.
In building their 30 point first half lead, Steph’s offensive mastery was on full display. He ran off screens to the tune of 9 uncontested FGA (making 6), and whipped the ball around at a dizzying pace. Though only accredited with 4 assists, he also tallied 4 hockey assists, helping the Warriors hit 10-17 threes in the first half. He had an awe-inspiring +56.6 net rating for the game. Perhaps most impressively, he did this while playing at a markedly slower pace than normal. While the Warriors typically get 102 possessions/48 minutes, Steph played at the equivalent of 95 poss/48. That ~7 pace value difference is the gap between fastest team in the league, and the 28th fastest (interestingly, the Cavs).
If a deeper dive into the Warriors’ box score unearths gems like ‘+56.6 net rating’ and ‘10-17 from 3,’ sifting through the Cavs’ box score is the complete opposite. Every starter had a net rating that might cause one to mistake them for a Sixers’ player, lowlighted by a ghastly -68.1 mark from Timofey Mozgov (albeit in just 14:42 of playing time). Worse, the Cavs no longer had their favorite scapegoat to blame – health. Cleveland had their entire 10 man rotation available against the Warriors, including a fully healed Kyrie Irving.
After their Finals loss, media openly wondered whether the Cavs could have won the series with a healthy Kyrie + Love. Following an ugly 89-83 Warriors triumph on Christmas Day, a Kyrie-sized asterisk was placed alongside the result, as the star point guard played just 26 injury-plagued minutes. But there was nowhere to hide after the 132-98 humiliation, and it was finally time to evaluate a team that is simply not good enough in its current state to defeat a Warriors squad at full health. And after Kevin Love’s grisly defensive performance, the onus was finally on him – or so we thought. For the week following the game, fake trades for Love were thrown out from several media outlets, with one of my favorites coming from Grantland’s Zach Lowe (we’ll get there).
It seemed like GM David Griffin was ready to cut bait with the high-priced Love, who had cost the Cavs a first overall pick in the summer of 2014, and had garnered a max contract in the summer of 2015. Yet on Friday (January 22nd), four days after the Warriors loss, it was David Blatt who was cut loose, not Kevin Love. And while I have no qualms letting go of a coach who had purportedly alienated his players and clashed with LeBron James, it was odd to see the dissipation of trade talks for Love.
While a re-invigorated Cavs team has gone 6-3 under interim coach Tyronn Lue (notably beating the Spurs 117-103), they are not ready to compete with the Warriors. Cleveland ought to have ambitions of winning now, rather than attempt to wait out a Golden State dynasty that could outlast Lebron’s prime. And if they truly endeavor to win in 2016, it is imperative that Love be traded. There is no doubt that Love is a premier defensive rebounder, an elite perimeter shooter, and one of the great outlet passers of all time. Yet Love’s diverse offensive game has often floundered on the Cavs, especially alongside both Lebron and Irving.
In the absence of Kyrie earlier this season, Love was spectacular at times leading the Cavs offense while he spelled Lebron. He posted a 20-12 line in November with 25.4% USG, and a 60.6% TS. Those numbers have plummeted with Irving in the lineup. Love scored just 14.8 ppg in January on 55.2% TS, and 21.5% USG. While his net ratings remain consistent from month to month (+10.6 in November compared to + 11.6 in January), he is not used as often nor as effectively in the offense alongside Irving. Most notably, his 3PA fell from 6.9 per game in November to just 5.1 per game in January.
Considering Love’s trade value to a middling team and Cleveland’s desperate need for wings and pick-and-roll defense, they should at least be heavily exploring Love trades (which I believe they are). He is under contract through 2020, and his max contract will appear far less onerous as he ages and the cap spikes. Bearing in mind all the preamble, here are my two favorite trades:
Love to Denver
Cleveland Receives: Will Barton, Danilo Gallinari, JJ Hickson (expiring), Randy Foye (expiring)
Denver Receives: Kevin Love, Anderson Varejão, Sasha Kaun, 2016 2nd-round pick from LA Clippers via Cleveland, less favorable 2019 2nd-round pick from Minnesota or LA Lakers via Cleveland
Acquiring two elite perimeter scorers including Barton who is on a truly great contract ($3.53 million/year through 2018), Cleveland would bolster its offensive ceiling while adding tremendous versatility to their lineup possibilities. Danilo is hardly the defensive stopper one may envision replacing Love, but he is an elite shooter and does not need the ball on offense to provide value. His gravity as a shooter will open up lanes for Lebron and Kyrie, and he is proficient as a catch-and-shoot player from 3, converting at a 41.3% clip while making 1.4 catch-and-shoot 3's per game. Barton would provide defensive value alongside starters, and offensive firepower in bench units, giving Cleveland the option to rest Kyrie + Lebron together, even if only sparingly so.
In December this season, Barton was given a chance to showcase his offensive talent with a spike in minutes (going from 26.8 MPG in Oct/Nov to 32.8 in December). He responded with a 21-7-3 line on 39% 3PT shooting, on 26.4% USG. He shouldered the load when Gallinari was injured for a 7 game stretch late in the month, hiking his totals to 24.1 ppg on 46.8% 3PT shooting. With these new acquisitions, the Cavs could go ultra small with Kyrie–JR–Shumpert–Barton–Lebron lineups, or play an elite offensive unit reminiscent of OKC’s ‘Killer Five’ which would include Kyrie–JR–Barton–Gallinari–Lebron. While any lineup that includes Lebron at the five will not (and should not) be played for more than 3-4 minute stretches in any game, this trade would provide Cleveland with much needed flexibility.
For Denver, this trade would provide an immediate boost in offensive efficiency, with Love given free reign over an offense for the first time since the 2013-2014 season in Minnesota. In his final season with the Wolves, Love posted a staggering 26.1-12.5-4.4 line with a 59.1% TS, and a high 27.7% USG. Most impressive were his on/off numbers. Love had a +4.4 net rating despite playing on a sub-.500 team, including an offensive rating of 108.5 which would rival any star player in the league today.
While he is not on the same timetable as Mudiay, Jokic, or Nurkic, Love would be under contract through the next four seasons, and would assuredly remediate the growing pains felt by Denver’s young core of players. Denver is owed several first rounders in the coming drafts, including a top 5 protected pick from Memphis that rolls over until 2019 when it is unprotected. It would be a huge boon to the Nuggets to get a franchise-controlled star such as Love, and only for the cost of two players who cannot save Denver’s season in the present, nor assist in the development of Mudiay in the future.
Love to Detroit in Three Team Trade with Portland
Cleveland Receives: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ersan Ilyasova, Anthony Tolliver (expiring), 2016 1st-round pick from Detroit (which it will send to Portland)
Detroit Receives: Kevin Love, Cliff Alexander
Portland Receives: Anderson Varejão, Joel Anthony, Steve Blake (expiring), 2016 1st-round pick from Detroit via Cleveland, 2018 2nd-round pick from Detroit, less favorable 2019 2nd-round pick from Minnesota or Los Angeles Lakers via Cleveland
Slightly adapting a trade first proposed by Zach Lowe, Portland would serve as a salary landfill similar to Utah’s role in a 2013 trade with Golden State which allowed the Warriors to sign Andre Iguodala. While it is unclear whether David Griffin would deal Love within the division, that seems like periphery in the grand scheme. Cleveland should be worried about Golden State in the present, not a possible Love-Drummond duo that might overtake the Cavaliers by 2018.
Cleveland would get famed Curry stopper Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had also been coming on as an offensive threat (16.7 ppg in January) before suffering a groin injury which will keep him out until the All-Star Break. That could throw in a wrench in this deal, but it should not preclude Griffin from acquiring the third-year wing. In the Finals, Cleveland was able to take two games off a vastly superior Golden State team by slowing the game down and disrupting Curry’s offensive flow. They stuck Matthew Dellavedova to Curry, who surprisingly slowed down the MVP in Game 2, and most of Game 3 of the series.
Adding KCP to the mix would give Cleveland a heightened defensive ceiling, and would especially aid in their matchups against the Warriors. With KCP, the Cavs would be able to guard Curry effectively while not sacrificing offensive by leaving Irving on the bench. They could play a 5 man unit of Kyrie–KCP–Shumpert–Lebron–Thompson, which would serve as an ideal counter to the ‘Death Lineup’ employed by the Warriors. Cleveland must be cognizant of their ability to switch in the pick-and-roll against Golden State when considering lineups, and the 5 man unit above would be able to switch on nearly everything.
It is difficult to hide anyone against the Warriors, but Kyrie’s negative value defensively would be mitigated guarding someone other than Curry. As for Ersan, he would provide floor-spacing and rebounding, albeit less effectively than Love. The Turkish forward has regressed from his ~120 game run in Milwaukee as a 44% 3PT shooter, but still maintains a 36% mark at reasonable volume. He takes 83% of his 3's in catch-and-shoot situations, converting them at a 38% clip. Though the effect would be somewhat dampened, Ilyasova would still have some gravity as a floor spacer.
While the Pistons would be forced to part with two starters, the introduction of Love to their offense ought to allay those fears. Love would handle playmaking duties alongside Reggie Jackson. His fit would be seamless alongside the interior force of Drummond, and the slashing presence of Jackson. In Minnesota, many questioned whether Love ought to be shooting 6.6 3PA, considering it dragged him away from the basket, and limited his value as an offensive rebounder. This would not be an issue with Drummond, who has led the NBA in offensive boards per game for the past three seasons.
Love’s spacing would also open up driving lanes for Jackson, who is third in the NBA with 11.3 drives per game. While Jackson is a high volume driver, he is also the most frequent user of the pick-and-roll, serving as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll on 606 possessions this season (second place is Russell Westbrook with 484 possessions as ball handler). Love can serve as the roll man, or a spot-up shooter in the slash-and-kick game. Similar to how Golden State uses Draymond Green as a screener, catch-and-shoot man, and ball-handler, Detroit could employ Love in a variegated manner within their offense.
Both of these trades would give Cleveland the defensive firepower needed to match up with Golden State in a seven game series. While the current iteration of the Cavaliers is good enough to win 60 games (FiveThirtyEight has them projected for 60-22), they have lost the last 5 games against the Warriors, several of which were not competitive in the waning minutes.
Cavs management may believe that a supposed pace increase under Tyronn Lue may be the adjustment needed to challenge the Warriors. But anyone who has watched Golden State’s marquee games can see the obvious truth. It will take a much more seismic change in Cleveland if they truly care about winning the Finals this season, as opposed to just making it there.