How Kevin Love Rejuvenated His Career with the Miami Heat

Insight5 months ago20 min readJohn Jablonka

Who would’ve thought that a buyout player was going to be this important for the Miami Heat?

Kevin Love showed his impact both on and off the court last year for the Heat. He came in and quickly became a starter in both the regular season and the playoffs, which gave them an option to size up. He gave them a viable option at the five to save those non-Adebayo minutes. He was important in the locker room and with the vibes of the team in general — Duncan Robinson talked about this on the JJ Redick podcast. Five Reason Sports also tweeted that Love announced that Robinson’s life turned around when both started to sit next to each other.

There are plenty of other stories and quotes around Love, but all it shows is the impact he’s had on the team as a whole. Chemistry matters. Vibe matters. Having veterans matters.

Love did have key stretches and gave them what they needed on the court in limited minutes in the right role, but I don’t think anyone expecting anything more than what he did last year. Even heading into this season, I liked bringing back Love and thought it was necessary but that was also more to do with the off-court stuff than what he brought as a basketball player.

Now, man, was I not expecting this from him? I don’t think anyone was because the season he’s having is elite for what his role is and what’s being asked of him — he even made improvements!

These are his impact metrics this year and over the years:

He’s having:

  • The third highest EPM in his career(highest since 2014)
  • Career high in D-EPM
  • Highest O-EPM since 2018
  • The second highest LEBRON
  • The third highest O-LEBRON
  • Career high in D-LEBRON
  • Highest 2PT%
  • Career high rim FG%
  • Career high paint FG%
  • Highest eFG%
  • Highest TS%
  • The third highest DRB%
  • Highest ASTs per 100 possessions
  • The second highest AST%
  • Lowest TOV%

Yes. A long list of career highs or close to it. Love has completely rejuvenated his career. He has bounced back to being a great role player, one that the Miami Heat really needed.

In 557 minutes, the Heat have a +9.5 net rating with him on and have a 122.4 offensive rating(38% 3pt) and a 112.5 defensive rating(33% opponent 3pt). With him off, that number drops -3.1; in 1171 minutes.

The most important thing that he’s solved for the Heat is what to do when Bam Adebayo sits. That’s been their biggest issue each year, unable to find a solid backup for the regular season. Well, with Love on and no Adebayo, the Heat have a +12.1 net rating in 387 minutes with a 126.4(!) offensive rating(38% 3pt).

More recently, Love has been having himself a year! Since December 1st(16 games), Love is averaging 12.5 points per game on 64.0% eFG and 67.0% TS, shooting 77% from 2pt and 38% from 3pt on over 5 attempts. And it’s in this stretch where Love has shown his impact in a number of different ways — ways that show up on the stat sheet and beyond that where he makes life easier for everyone else:

  • Being a shooter, spacer, and providing gravity
  • Taking advantages on cuts and beating closeouts
  • Keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounding
  • Becoming a better, more active driver
  • Great passing with his good vision and quick decision-making
  • Stopping possessions with defensive rebounding and boxing out
  • Hedging and recover in PnRs
  • Playing drop
  • Providing “some” rim protection

Making 3s & Being a Spacer

Let’s start with what he was brought here to do and what he became known for in the later years in Cleveland. After being a force inside the arc and at the rim in his early years, he transitioned into being a great 3-point shooter. Since entering his 30s, he became a shooter before anything else — attempting more 3s than 2s where he shot 38% on over 6 3s from 2019 to 2022 and only 49% on 5 2s. Now, his 3pt rate is in the high 60s and 70s. That’s what the Heat needed from him, a bigger guy that can also stretch the floor.

So far with the Heat that has been kind of disappointing for the most part:

  • 2023: 29.7% on 4.8 attempts
  • 2023 playoffs: 37.5% on 4.4
  • 2024: 35.7% on 4.9
  • 2024 pre December 1st: 30.9% on 4.2
  • 2024 post December 1st: 38.6% on 5.5

So far this season, he’s also in the 64th percentile as a spot-up guy scoring 1.11 points per possession on 3.1 possessions(34.6% frequency). It’s been a bit up and down, but for the most part, the gravity is still there and as of recently, he’s been making his shots.

One of the best ways he gets his 3s is a trailer:

This has worked in a couple of different ways. It could be in transition or early offense and he’s simply the last guy on the fastbreak where he can walk into an open three. It could also be when guys attack the rim, put the defense in rotations and he’s the last release valve. Or it could be as a way to counter an action when teams are ready to defend a double drag screen, but instead of setting a screen, he’s running further away to pull up.

That’s a little sprinkle that can get the Heat open looks.

The second way is as a pick-and-pop threat. This is one of the most effective ways to get him 3s. It’s important to have that kind of threat that’s able to screen right and pop for 3. It just gives the Heat another option whenever anyone sets a screen. If the defense is packing the paint where the roll would be unavailable, it’s no issue to flow into a pop instead.

It’s also tougher to defend such action at times too because most often he’s popping into space where there’s no defender nearby. Whereas, had he rolled, he’s rolling into defenders that can easily tag. If someone wants to make sure that Love isn’t going to get an open 3 on the pop, they’d have to cover more ground. That’s a great action to run when pushing the pace with those early drag screens.

This is just him finishing and simply making shots. It gives the counter another option as a scorer, but shooters don’t just help themselves, their gravity helps everyone else.

There’s a reason why the offense works so well when it’s Love without Adebayo, especially if you also have Butler. Love gives them the option to play five out. It gives them so much space inside. It takes defenders out of the paint. It prevents being helped off.

In the last two years, with both Butler and Love on and no Adebayo, the Heat have a 128.9 offensive rating shooting 61.3% from 2pt and 38.2% from 3pt. They’re shooting 68.9% at the rim with 26.8% frequency and 56.3% from the short mid-range with 21.0% frequency.

This. This is the impact that he has without ever touching the ball or something that won’t show up in the stat sheet. In all of those clips, he’s taking Myles Turner, Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, and Jakob Poeltl. He’s taking the 7fters that would otherwise camp in the paint and make life more difficult for Butler. All this does is create the 5-out offense and force teams to defend the paint with smaller guys, essentially making the big guys useless

Here are Butler’s rim and paint stats with and without Love on to show some of that gravity impact:

  • Rim FGA per 100 possessions: 8.8 → 7.6
  • Rim frequency: 43.7% → 35.9%
  • Rim FG%: 67.8% → 65.6%
  • Short mid-range FGA: 7.6 → 8.5
  • Short mid-range frequency: 38.1% → 40.4%
  • Short midrange FG%: 42.7% → 47.6%
  • FTA: 13.4 → 12.5

Better percentages at the rim. Getting to the rim more. Having higher frequency. Giving more space to Butler to get deeper and draw more fouls.

All this will do is force the defense to adjust and send help then, but what happens when defenses send help?

With Love shooting much better in the last month, he’s been able to punish the defenses for helping off of him by simply making those 3s where he’s one pass away. If the defense takes a step closer to help, it’s a wrap.

The Little Things – Drives, Cuts, Rebounding, Beating Closeouts & OUTLETS!

Staying on the whole impact as a spacer, he’s also added a few counters to be a more dangerous shooter. He has that gravity as a shooter. He draws very hard closeouts at times. That’s what the defense should do, as you’ll take the chances of running a 50-year-old off the run. But, Love has been making them pay, too.

These last few games have caught me and the defense off guard. Since when is Love attacking closeouts that way? Since when is he able to take guys off the dribble all the way to the rim? This is where his impact as an off-ball player is even better.

He’s showing that his shot isn’t a 3pt or bust. Having this kind of option is needed for every shooter(it’s just surprising to see this be so regular now at this stage of his career). Watch the last clip! When’s the last time you saw Love rip through that quickly and beat Anthony Davis?

Love also isn’t restricted to only making a shot for himself. This is another advantage of being able to beat a closeout, keep the advantage going, keep the ball moving, and force the defense to constantly be in rotations. That’s what he does here by being able to attack the closeouts and make the pass on the kickout. He’s out here creating shots and opportunities for others.

Related to that, he’s been upping his drives.

That just makes sense. Having the highest amount of drives per 36 minutes at 35 years old since when you were 30 makes sense. These drives off the dribble or on the catch have been a fun surprise. They’re rare and happen occasionally, but when they happen it’s great to see. He’s 12-for-17 on those drives and also passes it out on 34.3% of them.

Another key thing to remember as a spacer is to know when to take advantage of the defense not paying attention. Even as a great shooter, there will be times when defenses aren’t aware of where you are. That is a good time to move.

He is a really high IQ guy when it comes to knowing when to cut whether it’s behind the defense, in the dunker spot or just relocating. That’s one of the reasons why he’s been able to go 26-for-34 at the rim.

Part of that has been his offensive rebounding. We know how good of a rebounder he’s been. There were days early in his career when he had a double-digit offensive-rebounding percentage(15.1% is his career high). He’s at 6.7% this year, which is the highest since 2018. He’s been getting to the glass. Per PBP Stats, he’s averaging 4.1 points off second-chance points, whilst shooting 71.4% from 2pt(the highest in his career).

All of that is also tied to him having the highest free throw rate since 2018 — I’ve been saying a lot since[insert date over 5 years ago], he’s really been having a bounce-back year. Right now, he has a 0.362 free throw rate and attempts 6.6 per 100 possessions, both numbers are third on the team behind Butler and Adebayo.

Finally, we have this. We have his signature outlet passes. Honestly, these passes made his role on the team worth it. He could check in, give me 3-5 outlets a game and that would be good enough for me. These passes can be AND were game-shifting plays. He alone changed the momentum with this. He swung games with this(and if I remember correctly, that happened in the playoffs). Such a simple skill, but this has been a game-changer for the Heat.

These are all the little things that Love has mastered on offense in the right role. He’s playing his role to perfection as a spacer, shooter, cutter, rebounder, and passer. All of this ties into his offensive impact. It’s nothing flashy. It won’t pop out in the stat sheet but it’s there.

Delay Actions & Post Ups

I also wanted to talk about how he’s used in a different way with the ball, primarily in Delay actions and post-ups. Before, it was all about being off-ball and providing impact in that way as a secondary option. But as the backup five, he also been filling the usual role that Adebayo would do.

The Heat love to run things with a big at the top of the key and make reads out of that. They couldn’t have picked a better option than Love. He’s quite literally perfect for this role and setup.

Before anything else, to get into Delay actions, it’s the trailing big. What can he do as a trailing big? Take that pull-up three. If that’s not there, you can flow right into the Delay sets with him up top and everyone else screening and cutting. What makes Love perfect for this is his vision, decision-making, and processing speed — three of his strengths that make these actions fit.

Take that first clip. He already was ready to make the pass to Butler cutting, but at the same time, immediately recognized two defenders going with him and in a snap decision made a pass to Richardson instead. That was fast.

In the second clip, he’s again showing those quick decisions on the passes. That’s needed with all of the movement and screening going on both sides. You need to be able to scan the floor quickly. But he’s also providing that needed shooting here when the defense was ready to help on Lowry.

This is the thing with Love being a 3pt threat. Defenders can’t help off even slightly when he has the ball. That’s not the case with Adebayo — we’ve seen that against the Memphis Grizzlies where they countered by having defenders sink in the paint to take cutters away. With Love, that big is dragged out to the perimeter completely with all the cutters having space. Again, GRAVITY and SPACING matter.

Then you also have him be able to make these passes. The Heat have lost momentum and stretches in the game because of bad entry passes. Love, on the other hand, is able to quickly recognize those passes and just throw a dart right where the post or cutter needs it. Again, very simple thing, but effective.

Outside of Delay actions, they also had his post up.

He’s in the 78th percentile, scoring 1.17 points per possession on 0.6 possessions with 7% frequency. Not a lot, but in bursts that has been effective and a good counter to have. They even have a signature play for him with Robinson setting a backscreen to force a switch and have Love get an easy post-up. That’s what Love has been able to do — punish mismatches. He’s too big, too strong, and too smart to get defended by anyone smaller than him. Even with guys his size or strength, he has that old-man game and IQ to know how and when to draw fouls. He did that against the Houston Rockets well.

And he’s also smart enough to punish help vs mismatches by making reads in the post. This gives the Heat another option with him running post-split actions!

This is where he’s been thriving as a backup five. This is why the Heat have been so successful with him running the show and how he’s been able to give them what Adebayo does.

Defensive Impact

Finally, you have his defense. Defense and Love doesn’t feel like it goes together and yet he’s been a positive defender according to multiple impact metrics.

Similar to his offense, there’s not one thing he does great. I don’t know if he does a lot of things well either. When it comes to looking at specific skills, schemes, and what he can do, I wouldn’t say that’s great. But he does a lot of little things right. He’s smart. He won’t make big mistakes. He won’t hurt you by being out of place or committing stupid fouls. He won’t have defensive breakdowns or miscommunications.

Sure, he won’t be a guy that you’d have an above defense with or won’t have someone that gets hunted. But this is also a backup five spot in spot minutes as a 35-year-old. You’re not getting anyone better than that in these circumstances. There’s a reason advanced metrics love him.

The first little thing is his defensive rebounding. The Heat have a 73.9 defensive rebounding percentage with him on. Even when you take away Adebayo’s minutes with him, you get 73.6%. Both numbers would be top-6 in the league. Defensive rebounding is huge to be a good defensive team.

Also, in that video, you have his big body boxing out and defending in the post. That’s what you have with Love. Someone who won’t be easy in the paint and who will just fight his way through with other physical guys. He’s in the 92nd percentile defending post-ups! Allowing only 0.63 points per possession on 19 post-ups where they shoot 4-for-13.

Then you have his help and rotations. That’s been hit or miss. Sometimes, he is quite late or doesn’t even realize it. At times, he tries to take charge far too many times instead of going up to contest and it allows an easier look. But as a whole that hasn’t been the end of the world where the negatives completely outweigh the good.

He’s defending 3.5 shots within 6ft and opponents are shooting 0.1% worse than expected. He’s not a rim protector but that’s also not hurting the team as much. That could certainly be worse where some guys allow opponents to shoot over 5% better! That would be actively hurting the team.

When it comes to pick-and-rolls, he’s been average. We know what you’ll get from him on that end. Most of the time it’s him showing, hedging, and recovering or playing around the level. That’s what you’re going to get

For the most part, that’s been a positive with him. It definitely feels like he’s been better in this area. He’s had some very, very good plays at stopping the ball handler and rotating perfectly in time. There have been multiple possessions where he saved a defensive possession.

But there are times like these too where better teams will exploit that coverage easily. That’s where his impact comes down to me. It’s less about Love himself, but what his skillset at this stage of his career requires him to do. As a team, you don’t want to have this aggressive scheme to be your base. Even if Love has been better at this, it still puts a lot of pressure on your defense and there’s less margin of error when executing.

He’s been used in drop too. That’s been very hit or miss. It works against lower-tier guards, ones that don’t have that burst to get downhill. He’s had good possessions keeping guys in front, backpedal, not being stuck in no man’s land, and contesting well. But again, that’s not something to rely on against better competition.

As a whole, you won’t have a great defense with Love, especially when running him out with guys like Robinson and Herro. There’s just too many defenders like that together. But considering his impact as a rebounder, boxing out, doing the little things, and being smart, I don’t see the defense falling off completely.

So, to conclude, it’s been wild to see Love having this kind of a year. This was 100% unexpected for me. I thought he was going to be better as a shooter and spacer considering his low percentages after an injury, but I wasn’t expecting him to add all the other things on offense. I wasn’t expecting him to fit perfectly as an option on offense in place of Bam. I for sure wasn’t expecting to look better on defense — old guys, especially bigs, don’t get better with age!

Now, I can honestly say getting Love on the buyout has been one of the best Heat acquisitions in a long, long while.