5-on-5: Love a perfect fit with LBJ

LeBron James and Kevin LoveSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

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In our ongoing NBA Front Office series, Tom Penn (general manager), George Karl (coach), Amin Elhassan (scouting director) and Kevin Pelton (analytics director) are joined by NBA Front Office's senior consultant, David Thorpe. Today, the group weighs in on the agreed-to trade that will eventually send  Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Among the topics considered: how Love fits next to LeBron James.

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Tom Penn ( @1TomPenn):  How will Kevin Love fit with the Cavs when this is all finished?

George Karl ( @CoachKarl22) There's the idea that he hasn't produced wins, but LeBron's currently the greatest winner and the greatest player in the NBA. He makes other players winners. So I think the fit is perfect. You're probably going to have to find a big man to defend the rim a little better, or a defender, or a shot-blocker. Anderson Varejao -- if you keep him, he certainly helps that defensive problem. 

What you'll get in Love is a stretch-4 or 5 who can rebound, shoot, and add other aspects to the game. He's improved his passing immensely.

I just think this is a situation that -- I'll be honest with you -- I think LeBron probably talked about this before he decided on going to Cleveland. They said they could go and get Love. LeBron said, in so many words, if you get Love, I'll come.

David Thorpe ( @CoachThorpe) : Love's outlet passing might be the most important aspect of his game, from Cleveland's point of view. Corey Brewer led the league last season in transition buckets playing next to Love. Almost all of those scores came from Love's outlets, not Ricky Rubio's passing.

LeBron is obviously a far superior player to Brewer -- he's one of the fastest wings we've ever seen. He's going to score a ton, and in ways easier than he has in the past. This is an opportunity for LeBron to maybe not bang as much in the post, if they play fast, because of the opportunity in the outlet.

Also, I'm thinking about the different plays Love ran in Minnesota, with lesser players than LeBron, and how those plays become so much more effective now. The Wolves would throw it to Love, he would step out and they would screen in front of his man to let him shoot the 3. Or they'd run a handoff. That all becomes a lot more dangerous now. They'll also be able to get him involved in the pinch post in a way that very few players can. It'll look somewhat similar to what the Miami Heat were able to do with Chris Bosh. We all know how successful LeBron was playing next to him.  

This is an amazing fit. I do think they need help defending the rim -- above the rim, specifically, as Coach Karl talked about. But you can't not do the deal because you're afraid of not finding that guy. Varejao will work for the time being and they'll have a window to go find other pieces that complement those two, plus Kyrie Irving at the point. 

Love is an elite top-five, top-six, top-eight player. No one will remember his winning issues on this team, just as nobody remembers how Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki and other players couldn't win until they did. No one going forward will think of Love in a bad way when he's paired with LeBron.

Amin Elhassan  (@AminESPN) : You guys have pretty much hit on the major themes. If you look at LeBron's biggest gripe through the years, his biggest pet peeve has been having to shoulder too much of the burden offensively. It's been: "Everything falls upon me and if I don't do it, it doesn't get done." When you add a player like Love, it not only alleviates that scoring burden but also that play-creation burden that we talked about -- his passing from the high post, his outlet passing. Love generates points for others and makes the game easier for teammates.

Again, like Coach Karl and David said, the defense is a concern, but let's not get it twisted: The hard part is adding a player like Love. Getting defensive complementary pieces is a lot easier than getting a top-five, top-10 talent. The fit there is incredible.

Penn: Kevin, what about the analytics? I know you've studied this. What've you found on Love?

Kevin Pelton  (@KPelton) : There's no question he's a top-five talent in the league. He was third in the NBA in my WARP stat last season. And he comes out similarly well in ESPN's real plus-minus. It's not just him putting up a box score. He also had a significant effect on the Timberwolves. They were much better when he was on the court -- one of the largest differentials in the league last season. In terms of fit, I think we're all in agreement on this.

But he stands out to me as almost two players in a way. You've got this post player who scores inside and gets second-chance points. He gets to the free throw line. He's as good as almost anybody in the league at doing that. But you've also got the stretch-4/stretch-5 who had the second-best assist rate of any big last season outside of Joakim Noah; and he shoots the 3 really well. When you look at what Boris Diaw did in the NBA playoffs, giving the San Antonio Spurs spacing while still keeping them big at the other end of the floor, Love does those things just as well, if not better. That's why I think he fits with LeBron so well.

Penn: Is there any advanced analytic measure that raises a red flag?

Pelton: It goes back to the rim protection. He had one of the highest opponent field goal percentages on shots around the rim where he was in a position to defend, via NBA and STATS' SportVU tracking last season. But that's pretty much it.

Karl: The Wolves were the worst transition defending basketball team last season. They were awful at getting back defensively.

Penn: I'm with you guys on the defensive concerns. But Love's basketball IQ is just so impressive -- he's such a bright guy. And LeBron is a basketball genius versatile enough to play pretty much every position. With Love, as Kevin just pointed out, basically being two players in one, playing two positions in one, if you will -- when you put the synergy of their basketball IQs together, they'll be able to really pick defenses apart, I think. And with the complementary talent, including this guy Kyrie Irving, it seems like a complete no-brainer.

Karl: Kevin Love and LeBron are going to fit.

Karl: The guy I worry a little bit about is Kyrie.

Because he's third fiddle here. You have two guys who know how to produce efficient, offensive basketball in many different ways. Kyrie has not proven to be efficient. He has nights when he's explosive, but he also has nights where he looks lost and like a wet puppy out there. Of course, they have to figure it out.

The role players around them, though, are going to be better. If Varejao stays, he's going to be better. If Dion Waiters can somehow figure out how to be a sixth man off the bench, he's going to be better. Tom, you talked about having those two high-IQ guys -- they'll make sure that everything is done the right way once they start practicing. They are going to be demanding, obsessed with detail and with efficiency. I don't know coach David Blatt, but, man, he's got to be excited.

The only other thing I question is the offensive balance on the court. Offensively, anybody can coach them and they'll be great. Defensively, they need to figure out how to help LeBron rather than have him be the guy you deploy to stop everybody. Is there another defensive player on that team? I don't know that team very well but I don't see a great defensive team, even though they were good statistically last season. How do you decide to play the game? LeBron and Love will figure it out. 

Thorpe: The intriguing thing going forward is style. I'm good friends with Coach Blatt and spoke with him in Las Vegas for a couple of hours, and he happens to be -- I think -- one of the top coaches in the world. He'll prove it in the next couple of years. He's very pragmatic. I don't think he has any one style that he's married to. He wants to win. You don't just look at what style best suits your roster. You also look at what style suits to get us to play to a certain level that gives us a certain advantage over the majority -- or in Cleveland's case, all -- of the competition. It's no good to come up with a style to win you the East, and then get run off the court in five games by the Spurs or any of the other four or five really fast teams in the West.

It wasn't just the transition game that pulverized the Heat into submission; it was the play in their half-court sets. You can't suddenly play with that style in the Finals without having some serious practice with it. To me, Blatt has to find out which style to play with those guys. I think, based on what they currently have, they can play really fast. You have to add complementary pieces to that. I think their style needs to be fast, and I don't just mean in the full court. I mean in the half court -- get that ball moving. It also plays against LeBron's worst tendencies. The spacing they'll have, assuming they find a shooting guard, they'll have four 3-point shooters on the court. A spread floor and lots of movement in the half court -- I can't imagine any team being able to guard that team.

Pelton: I think the one thing that we really haven't touched on is how you manage the minutes for these guys.

It came up earlier that, in Miami, LeBron had to be the guy to do everything. If you pair him with Love and Irving, suddenly you're able to give him more rest and maybe max him out at 36 minutes a night, compared to 38 or 40. Tom Haberstroh has done a lot of research on how these long playoff runs and trips to the Finals have added up for LeBron. Getting him those extra minutes on the bench could be very valuable come playoff time.

Karl: My gut would say you play Kyrie and LeBron away from each other. For the rest periods of time, those seven to 10 minutes in the first half, and the seven to 10 minutes in the second half -- those 14-20 minutes you have to give the personality of the team to Kyrie. You've got to give him some love in those situations. The rest of the game, I think you have LeBron be the guy who is dictating how you play. It's tough to share a team psychologically, especially among three players. It's easier with two because when one of them goes off the court, the third fiddle becomes a dominating personality like an explosive sixth man.

When LeBron comes out, I'd put Kyrie back in with a team that fits him. The vast majority of your offensive structure is going to have to be based around him having the ball in his hands.

Pelton: But can you do that if Dion Waiters is playing next to him off the bench? I guess the question is if they keep Waiters, or if they deal him.

Elhassan: I'd keep Waiters. Getting those types of talents is the hard part. The easier part is figuring it out. You have to at least give him the opportunity.

We are assuming he'd have a problem finding his way, but I don't think that's fair at this point. I think you have to at least go into camp and give it a chance to be successful. If he's not on board, you can start exploring different deals. He's a really specific kind of talent when you look at it. He's not a 1, he's not a 2, he's not a pure shooter, he needs the ball in his hands. You look at a team like the Philadelphia 76ers as a fit. It makes sense for them because he's still on the rookie scale. He's not good enough to influence their wins or losses right now, but in a couple of years, he's a nice kind of secondary playmaker with Michael Carter-Williams and the big guys up front.

Phoenix is another place to consider. How long can it continue with the all-point guard backcourt? I think Eric Bledsoe is going to take the qualifying offer there. If he does, he'll be unrestricted next summer and I think he'll be gone. That relationship is somewhat strained between him and the Suns' front office. Goran Dragic is another unrestricted free agent next year as well. The Suns may be in a position to add talent.

Karl: You've got to trade Waiters. Here's what I know: What's between Kyrie and Waiters cannot be fixed. If I'm trying to play Kyrie with my bench, and Waiters is coming off the bench, that's not going to work. Yeah, they can kiss and make up. But I heard that locker room was cancerous, filled with a lot of bad rationalizing. If that's true, you've got to move Waiters before you start and not contaminate the psychology and momentum that you have. It's different on a veteran team. You have a brand new team, a brand new coach, brand new enthusiasm. To contaminate it with what happened last season in the locker room -- and I know Waiters and Irving are denying it happened -- would be wrong.

Penn: My feeling on Waiters is that it's the right time to move him. Because of everything Amin just said, it would be logical for people who don't know the warts, don't know the issues there to be intrigued by a deal. Waiters is so young and talented. I would agree with Coach Karl -- now that you're in the business of winning, any threat, any question needs to be removed and replaced with a sure thing. 

Pelton: I would add that I don't think Waiters is a great basketball fit, either. The Cavs have guys who can create their own offense, especially with Love. They need a 3-and-D type specialist playing next to LeBron, who can take the more difficult defensive matchups and continue to stretch the floor.

Penn: I think LeBron is going to be named the general manager of the year for the Association of Elderly Sharpshooters.

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