Despite the immense talent that surrounded LeBron James during his first few years in Miami, he's never played with a true stretch 4. Though Chris Bosh developed a three-point shot in his more recent Miami seasons, it wasn't a weapon that teams totally feared.
The addition of Kevin Love to the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers along with James, however, gives him a type of pick-and-pop threat that he's never had the luxury of playing with. Bosh has always been more of a spot-up shooter: Feet set, hands at the ready, catch-and-shoot.
The art of the pick-and-pop is a bit more nuanced and requires more than pure, stand-still shooting ability. Because a good pick is set at or just below the three-point line, the big who pops instead of rolls usually has to drift backwards to the three-point line and slightly sideways to get out of the fray created by the screen.
If the ball-handler takes one dribble and throws it back to the popping big, the big is not usually totally set—he's catching the ball, adjusting his positioning and shooting all at the same time.
Bosh is talented as a pick-and-pop player to 17 feet, but not all the way out to the three-point line. Love, meanwhile, can stretch it all the way out and has the rare ability among bigs to shoot off-balance, with the ball off-seam or any other pitfall associated with an off-rhythm shot.
Love attempted 48 three-pointers from the corners all season—areas of pure spot-up shooting because pick-and-pop plays never occur that deep in the corner—and Bosh attempted 54. Not much difference, it would seem.
But the key separator is looking at their shot locations as a function of their three-point totals, which is to say that Love's corner threes only accounted for 9.6 percent of his total attempts. Bosh, on the other hand, shot 24.8 percent of his threes from the corner.
Look at Love's totals from above the breaks and the top of the key: 266 threes from the left wing, 103 from the top of the key and 83 from the right wing.
In most offenses, bigs don't find themselves lifted near the middle of the floor unless they're picking and popping. Yet that's where he did the majority of his work, shooting a ridiculous 452 three-pointers from those spots and an even more impressive 37.8 percent on such shots.
That's utter domination of Bosh, whose 164 non-corners attempts only yielded a 33.5 shooting percentage. Simply put, Love was a higher volume and higher percentage shooter on a vastly more difficult yet more frequent subset of shot, like the example below:
Notice how he's on the move while he's making the catch, making sure his feet are behind the line while simultaneously preparing himself to shoot—all within a limited time frame due to a defender closing in fast.
One of the major advantages that Love brings is his ability to hit shots from the left wing. That particular area of the floor usually represents a specific pick-and-roll—one in which the ball-handler starts on the left wing and receives a pick on the defender's left side.
This allows him to drive downhill on his right hand toward the middle of the floor, which is the easiest type of drive for most NBA guards. It's this type of screen that we saw in the play above.
Love shot 38.35 percent on the left wing last year on 266 attempts. Bosh was far less prolific and efficient: 49 attempts, 22.45 percent.
For the right-handed Ricky Rubio, the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting point guard last season, this gave him a very significant advantage when attacking the rim. Love was so good in this type of pick-and-pop role that defenders would often scurry away from Rubio and back to Love. The mere threat of Love shooting a three was one of the main reasons Rubio found himself in the lane as frequently as he did.
LeBron was similarly right-handed, yet his driving lanes weren't as spacious. This was obviously due to his stature as the league's premier player, but a contributor was certainly Bosh's inability to punish defenses with threes. When he wasn't popping to the three-point line and making a non-threatening percentage of shots, he was popping to his more comfortable 15-20 foot range.
Just a few steps in vastly improved his shooting numbers, but this type of mid-range shot was one teams happily permitted. The two-point value of a long jumper paired with the added bonus of getting the ball out of James' hands was always a win for the defense. The shorter distance of the actual pop meant that help defenders didn't have to recover all the way out to the three-point line.
In reality, Bosh's 17-foot jumpers off of a pick-and-pop weren't just of poor value statistically; they were contested as well.
The James-Love combination in the pick-and-roll will be a nightmare for all defenses. LeBron is an elite driver and passer, forcing defenses to pack the paint to prevent his drives. Love is an elite shooter, forcing defenses to abandon help responsibilities on drivers.
Because both players are so cerebral, they'll be able to use this defensive uncertainty against opponents. Whichever way the defense leans, James is smart enough to keep it or dish it off. And if defenses start overplaying the pick-and-pop, Love will simply roll right to the rim.
He's particularly adept at slipping picks, which means that he sprints in to set a pick only to dart to the rim instead. This keeps his defenders on their toes should they anticipate his popping to the three-point line.
Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis had a similar pick-and-pop dynamic last year, with Ellis' top-flight quickness off the dribble opening things up for Dirk at the three-point line (and vice versa). Love and James will share this type of relationship in pick-and-roll situations, except both players are even better at their particular roles.
It will take time for James and Love to learn each other's tendencies. Having a complete understanding of how a player prefers to catch the ball or where he likes to attack can make a huge difference in smoothing out the rhythm of the offense.
Luckily for Cleveland, the relatively weak Eastern Conference should give them plenty of time to sort out the kinks.
And when they do, we'll be looking at the most dangerous pick-and-roll combination in the NBA.