The biggest asset in building LeBron James' presence in Cleveland into a title-contending Cavaliers team might not be the playmaking of the King or Kyrie Irving. That honor might actually be the court vision of the final piece of the Big Three, Kevin Love, who has now officially become a member of the Cavaliers, as NBA.com reports.
Love is one of the league's most gifted outlet passers. And with the speed, ball-handling and finishing skills of James and Irving, Love's ability to quickly translate defense into offense isn't to be underestimated, say a handful of NBA talent evaluators, who analyzed what the league's newest terrifying trio might look like on the court next season with Bleacher Report.
"Some players are rebounding just to get possession of [the ball], but [Love] is rebounding to get it out, which is the difference," a Northwest Division scout said. "He's seeing guys as he's getting that rebound. That's why he gets [the ball] out so quickly. He's got a high basketball IQ, and he's physically strong. There are some guys in the NBA who can throw the ball a far distance, but the problem is they don't see their teammates. He's aware of people on the court."
Next season, the Cavaliers could create their own version of the "three-man weave" on breakaways: a Love outlet pass to an Irving dribble attack to a James alley-oop. This kind of sequence could be No. 1 on their opponents' whiteboard to stop. Athletic up-and-comers Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson will also facilitate and finish, respectively, along with mobile veterans Shawn Marion and Anderson Varejao.
These are the tools that new head coach David Blatt, considered by many in basketball as one of the game's most gifted offensive minds, will likely look to leverage from the start.
"He's totally committed like a Navy SEAL," an Atlantic Division scout said. "Throughout his career, from coaching the Russian national team to Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, he's successfully played to the strengths of his players without preaching a specific system."
"I'm sure that he's going to want to create numbers offensively [in transition]," the Northwest scout said. "I'm sure they're going to be getting up and going, and they're going to want to play full-court attacking."
The Cavaliers could also be masters of the secondary fast break, which fuels three-pointers in a quick-hitting pick-and-roll. Irving, for one, fed off these last season. And Love, who's become one of the NBA's best-conditioned athletes since coming in heavy from college, figures to be a major threat as a trailing big man, playing off James or Irving in the two-man game.
Love shot 37.6 percent from three-point range last season. Then, add in seasoned sharpshooters Mike Miller, James Jones and potentially Ray Allen, who is still undecided about his future, according to a source.
Those are the shooting assets the Cavaliers didn't have last season, when they ranked in the bottom half in three-point percentage (.356).
Once the Cavaliers settle down in a half-court set, it's unlikely that Blatt will call for a clear-out to initiate the offense, especially with the diverse talent on the roster.
"[We have] versatility at different positions," Irving said this week after a recent Team USA practice. "There are so many different spots that can be filled, 1 through 5. We have a young core, and we have guys coming in that can play the game of basketball and have championship caliber."
Two Eastern Conference scouts think that Blatt will only have around four offensive sets he uses the most, because he'll put trust in James' and Irving's playmaking, as well as in their experienced teammates to make reads on their own within the flow of the offense.
"They're not going to be ball-stopping in David Blatt's offense, I can tell you that for sure, especially the way that Miami lost last year and LeBron being the intelligent player he is," the Atlantic scout said. "[Blatt] can flat-out coach. The ball is going to move, there's going to be great spacing, that free-throw-lane area is going to be open, and Kevin Love will spread the floor as a stretch 4 and play the 5 in a small lineup with a lot of shooters. It's going to be fun to watch."
So who will be option Nos. 1, 2 and 3? A Southwest Division scout believes James will want to play position-less basketball based on his Finals experience losing to the Mavericks in 2011 and the Spurs this year.
"He's seen the recipe; we all saw it," the scout said. "In 2011, [Dallas] picked [Miami] apart by swinging the basketball. The ball kept moving, players kept moving. They demolished them that way, and the Spurs made them look like a junior high team. It was wild, so everybody should take a page out of the Spurs' playbook."
But there is still intrigue over how the NBA's newest Big Three will make sacrifices. That consumed some of the league talk this past week in Las Vegas at Tim Grgurich's annual coaches camp, where every NBA team's front office was represented.
"[Irving and Love] are not going to have a problem with LeBron leading the team, but are they going to have problems being a deputy?" an Eastern Conference executive wondered. "If Kyrie is the second leader, how is that going to affect Kevin? Or if Kevin is, how is that going to affect Kyrie? I talked to everybody that was out here—scouts, refs, coaches and GMs—and everybody is curious to see who's going to submit for the good of the team."
"I think winning will take care of everything," the Atlantic scout added. "Kevin Love wants to win. He's now six years without going to the playoffs. Kyrie, the same thing since he's been in the league. You're going to win with LeBron. I think that when you win, that definitely helps things and relationships."
Regardless of the hierarchy, a Central Division scout noted that opponents can't game-plan against the Cavaliers thinking that way. What could be stressed from the opposing side is getting the ball out of Irving's hands quickly, making sure Love is jumped all the time and playing physical with both of them. That approach could carry some bite considering the injury history of both.
Above all, though, preparation against the Cavaliers will come down to their offensive patterns.
"Once they get into the thick of the season, they're probably going to have three, four sets that they use the most," the Central scout said. "Then you go on player tendencies—what they do when they catch it on this side of the floor or this area on the floor, and all your players have got to know it."
It's a strong possibility that the Cavaliers' half-court offense will start with multiple pick-and-roll options among James, Irving and Love. The most lethal could be a pick-and-pop with James and Love, in order for Love to further spread the court. As the Southwest scout said, "That's pretty damn scary. It's just like, 'What do you do on defense?'"
The Central scout chimed in: "If LeBron is at the 2 or at the 1, with Kevin at the 3, now teams are in trouble. But If LeBron and Kevin are used as the 3 and 4 in the pick-and-pop, that may be a switch opportunity depending on how big your 3 is, and then it's going to end up being a lot of post-up games for LeBron or Kevin."
Last season, James and Love were very effective in the post based on points per play, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Love actually got most of his touches on the block, but he'll likely see a decrease down there in Blatt's spread-out, movement-based offense. The Big Three will need to make adjustments—most likely for Love, whose scoring might dip not only because of Blatt's offense but also because of the facilitator-scorer roles James and Irving are likely to play—and that could mostly come off the ball.
"[Blatt] is a very creative coach (who played in legendary coach Pete Carril's Princeton offense), and I don't think he's going to stick to one thing," the Central scout said. "He's going to go with what works, and he's got a million different things he can do. Maybe he'll get out of Kyrie's hands initially, have him loop through and have him get it on the second or third catch, and then have him run a ball screen."
Not only could Irving run off screens like a 2-guard—he shot nearly 40 percent from mid-range last season—but James could also be an option on the move, spotting up and receiving feeds inside off curl cuts. With his improved outside jumper, he could also become a bigger three-point shooter in the corner—where he cleverly established himself last season at 55.6 percent—to boost the team's spacing.
"During Vegas Summer League, [Blatt] just ran some very nice sets—double-screen options for shooters, after-timeout plays," the Atlantic scout said. "Another way that I evaluate coaches is if he's going to run an out-of-bounds play that's not going to make you chuck a shot, but make you take a good shot. He did that in summer league."
There could also be some triangle action among James, Irving and Love, who can all pass, shoot and score out of the mid-post. With all the focus on the Big Three, the role players will need to set hard screens, rotate well to maintain floor balance, make smart cuts to the basket and, above all, knock down wide-open shots.
Already a product of scoring without the ball, Love should fit in well alongside Irving and James. Love is a smart cutter and gets strong position quickly in the paint, which helps make him unique as a scorer, explained two scouts.
"His small area of quickness is off the charts," the Central scout said. "You may be the slowest player from one end to the other, but from me to you away if we're standing close to each other, he's the quickest player in the NBA because his brain works at such a high level and his hands are so fast. Obviously that helps his rebounding."
The Northwest scout added: "He's a smart player. He understands angles, understands how to get shots off. He's not fast, but he's just fast enough to be effective. He's like a changeup in baseball. He's very good at the elbow facing the basket. He's got a great release. He's also physically strong, and he's able to move people with his hips, with his shoulders. And he's got tremendous hands."
On the flip side, Love's biggest Achilles' heel, as it is for Irving, is defense.
With Irving, who's only 22, scouts point to desire and effort being the reasons he hasn't been committed to making stops. In fact, he admitted this week that he hasn't been a leader for his team. "I have to be that much better, and I'm going to be," he said.
The Atlantic scout also suggested that Irving's new $90 million extension offers motivation as well.
As for Love, the Northwest scout said the power forward's flat-footed style and his lack of lateral quickness has affected him defensively. But the Central scout said he's noticed strides on that end in Minnesota, even as Love has maintained his focus as a do-it-all offensive player.
"Kevin's improved there," the scout said. "A lot of times as you get older, the game slows down to you and you read the game at a higher level. So defensively he's reading the game at a higher level, he's understanding body positioning and player tendencies a little bit better. That just goes with his IQ. He's becoming smarter defensively, and he's figuring out how to use his footwork defensively. That just takes a little time. You don't see teams isolating Kevin any more."
Regardless, the Cavaliers will likely not orchestrate their defensive system in the same aggressive manner James' former team, the Miami Heat, demonstrated guarding pick-and-rolls. Adding Marion, Dallas' best perimeter stopper last season, was a plus, but according to the Eastern Conference scouts, Cleveland doesn't have the same defensive speed and versatility as Miami did, nor has Blatt demonstrated as suffocating a defensive approach.
"I don't think Cleveland is going to be a consistent blitzing team like Miami. I think they're going to have a little more variety in their style," the Atlantic scout said. "Like in Chicago and San Antonio, I think in Cleveland you're going to see the big man sag off and play just coverage defense, as opposed to blitzing or hedging. It's a very smart defensive strategy. I think you're also going to see a mixture of zone defense against out-of-bounds plays. That's what David Blatt did in the Vegas Summer League."
New associate head coach Tyronn Lue and new assistant Larry Drew should also help plug a defense that ranked 17th last season in points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats. The Atlantic scout called them both "grinders." Lue made two title runs with the Lakers as a player and later worked for five years on Doc Rivers' tough-minded staff. And Drew, who was the head coach in Milwaukee last season, "mixed up zones and defended pick-and-rolls well," according to the scout.
According to a source, the Cavaliers could also sign Chauncey Billups, who's close with Lue and knows defense well from his Detroit days winning a championship in 2004.
"Chauncey is like a coach on the floor," the scout said. "He's going to be either a coach or GM in this league, it's only a matter of time. He's a leader, and he's a guy that players totally respect. And he was a pure professional as a player."
No matter the schemes, the scouts and Irving agreed that Cleveland's future relies on player camaraderie.
"Guys everywhere on every team are going to be gunning for us, and that's something you look forward to as a competitor," Irving said this week. "But the most important thing is just figuring out team chemistry and team roles, and go from there."
Can the young Cavaliers of last season blend in with many of the older players whom James has recruited this summer to get past the fierce competition? Winning should take care of everything. James knows what that's like, but Irving and Love have yet to taste it.
Once that happens, as the Southwest scout said, "they could the change the way basketball is played in the East."
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