The Whiteboard: Kevin Love has rediscovered his basketball magic

Cleveland Cavaliers, The Whiteboard

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The Cavaliers kept rolling Monday night with a 95-93 win over the New York Knicks. It was a typical Cavs’ win — suffocating defense paired with well-rounded offense and five players scoring in double-figures. Leading the charge was Kevin Love, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds on 6-of-12 from beyond the arc.

Love’s contributions have been largely overshadowed this season by the rookie brilliance of Evan Mobley, the emergence of Darius Garland and a fascination with the Twin Tower synergy of Mobley and Jarrett Allen. But Love, at 33, is healthy and enjoying what is arguably his most effective season since joining the Cavs.

He is playing almost exclusively off the bench this season, with just two starts in his 39 games. But per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 23.3 points, the most he ever has in a Cavs’ uniform, with a 61.0 true shooting percentage, his second-best mark with the Cavs. His 12.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes are also the second-best marks of his Cavs’ tenure.

Love helped deliver a championship to the Cavaliers while paired with LeBron James but he was consistently the scapegoat for the team’s shortcomings during that era and was often featured in trade rumors as a way to facilitate other hypothetical upgrades. After LeBron’s departure, he signed a huge new extension in Cleveland and promptly spent the next three seasons struggling to stay healthy, appearing in just 103 of a possible 219 games, and somehow facing even more criticism and trade rumors.

For a player who has so long been defined by what he isn’t, rather than what he is, it’s been an absolute delight to see Love thriving this season.

Kevin Love is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year

Love has helped anchor Cleveland second-units — they’re outscoring opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, scoring at a rate of 112.0 points per 100 possessions. He’s shooting 39.7 percent on 3-pointers, the third-best mark of his career, and a lot of his offensive value is still derived from his role as a frontcourt floor-spacer — more than half his shot-attempts have been catch-and-shoot 3s. But Cleveland has also found smart ways to use him and with more offensive weapons around him his versatility has provided greater value.

Love has been much more involved in the pick-and-roll than at any point in his Cleveland tenure and Garland, Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio at the beginning of the season all did a great job of leveraging his catch-radius and finishing ability around the basket.

This year, Love is using 15.2 percent of his offensive possessions on post-ups. That’s a significant low compared to the past few seasons but he’s ranked in the 73rd percentile in scoring efficiency, his most efficient season since LeBron left Cleveland. He’s also shooting 71.8 percent within three feet of the basket, by far the highest mark of his career.

Love is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year but that honor seems destined to go to Tyler Herro who is averaging 20.7 points per game off the bench for the Miami Heat, who currently have the best record in the East and will likely finish ahead of the Cavs’ in the standings. Still, it’s so fun to see Love playing healthy, effective basketball again, unencumbered by the weight of needing to be THE guy for these Cavaliers.

Other NBA stories:

A new episode of the Over and Back NBA podcast looks back at some of the biggest blowouts in NBA history.

Nothing is happening for the Clippers if they don’t get Paul George and Kawhi Leonard back for the playoffs but of the two, George may be more important.

The Bucks’ starting lineup has championship upside, but they’ll need George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo and the rest of the backup backcourt to keep stepping up.

Kevin O’Connor is rounding up the latest NBA trade rumors, including all the scuttlebutt on the Lakers exploring Russell Westbrook trades.

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