Kyle Korver didn’t have the smoothest of starts with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over his first seven games he averaged 7.6 points in 25.2 minutes while shooting an uncharacteristic 42.6 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from the perimeter. It didn’t help that the Cavaliers went 2-5 in that stretch, losing to the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Korver has since found his groove. He’s bumped his scoring average to 12.8 points in his last 10 games and his shooting numbers have climbed to 54.9 percent overall and 56.4 percent from the perimeter. The Cavaliers also won seven of those 10 games to maintain a slight lead over the Boston Celtics at the top of the Eastern Conference.
As expected when they first acquired him from the Atlanta Hawks, Kover’s role with the Cavaliers has been clearly defined. With LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love dominating the ball the way they do, he’s playing a similar role to Channing Frye as a spot-up shooter off the bench. It’s certainly not a bad way of using him considering 69 of the 88 3-pointers he’s attempted since joining the Cavaliers have been either open or wide open, and he’s made 50.7 percent of those attempts.
It was only a matter of time until Korver capitalized on those opportunities seeing as he’s currently the eighth most accurate shooter in NBA history. The only difference between this version of Korver compared to the past is he’s never been on the receiving end of this many open shots. When he was named an All-Star with the Hawks in 2014-15, 68 percent of his total 3-point attempts were open or wide open. As you can see in the table below, that number increased to 70.3 percent last season and is up to 78.4 percent as a member of the Cavaliers.
It hasn’t taken long for Korver to catch on that running the floor with James in transition is one of the best ways to get open shots in Tyronn Lue’s offense. These sorts of sequences have become the second most common way for him to get his points in a Cavaliers uniform:
Paul George trying to sneak in for an offensive rebound puts the Indiana Pacers at a huge disadvantage because there’s nobody who can guard James 1-on-1. Knowing this, James picks up the pace to blow past Kevin Seraphin at half court and attacks Myles Turner underneath the basket. Glenn Robinson III then has to make the tough decision between preventing Korver from getting an open 3-pointer or Tristan Thompson from getting an open dunk, of which he chooses the latter.
It’s almost identical to this possession against the Washington Wizards. Bradley Beal has to pick up James in transition as the first defender back and he desperately tries to contest Korver’s shot once James makes a pass to the corner. Korver gets Beal in the air with a timely shot fake and he knocks down the clutch 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers a three-point lead.
The other way Korver has the bulk of his damage since joining the Cavaliers is by waiting for kick-outs from James, Irving or Love.
Korver has never played with someone capable of making those sorts of reads on a regular basis. A more disciplined team might’ve been able to prevent an open 3-pointer — C.J. Miles could’ve handled Love himself and left Monta Ellis covering Korver — but planting Korver and Love on the weak side puts the defense in an incredibly delicate situation. Take away Love’s look and Korver will be left alone, but stick with Korver and Love will be the one reaping the benefits of the dribble penetration.
It also gives some insight on why Korver’s best days in Cleveland are likely ahead of him. A lot of what he’s doing right now is second nature, and the Cavaliers will eventually find ways to maximize his talent once he is more comfortable in his new surroundings. We caught a glimpse of what that might look like against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the Cavaliers ran the same play for Korver on back-to-back possessions to begin the fourth quarter.
Korver popped to the 3-point line for a jumper over Joffrey Lauvergne on the first.
Then he cut to the basket for a wide open layup when the Thunder overplayed on the second.
With all the shooters and playmakers the Cavaliers have on the floor, the Thunder have to give up something. Dropping Lauverge back to prevent the layup frees Korver or Frye for a 3-pointer and playing them man-to-man means they’re vulnerable to a backdoor cut. There’s also the option of James taking his defender 1-on-1, which usually ends up with an open 3-pointer anyway when teams crash the paint.
None of this is much different to what James and the Cavaliers are used to dealing with, but Korver gives them another shooter who can keep defenses honest. It should therefore come as no surprise that adding Korver to the core of James, Irving, Love and Thompson has been unstoppable offensively to the tune of 121.5 points per 100 possessions — basically seven points better than the Warriors at the No. 1 spot — in 41 minutes together.
The Cavaliers have struggled defensively with that unit, but Korver looking like his old self offensively means they can now shift their focus towards figuring out how to make it work on both ends of the court. Because if they do, there won’t be anything teams can do to slow them down.