Cavs’ Korver lights up league with historic February

The most impactful trade made in the NBA in 2017 didn’t take place on deadline day. Or during the week of the deadline. Or even in the same month.

Kyle Korver became a Cavalier just a week into January, joining Cleveland for the 1-3 conclusion of a .500 West Coast trip in a month that seemed to see the NBA champions transition from slight hangover to full-on malaise. The Cavs’ 7-8 mark in the first 31 days of 2017 was LeBron James’ first losing month as an NBA player since February 2006.

Korver arrived three weeks after J.R. Smith went down with a fractured thumb, but the beginning of his 2017 looked a lot like the end of Smith’s 2016 – underwhelming. He shot 40.7 percent from 3 in his first 11 games with Cleveland after shooting 40.9 percent in his last 32 with Atlanta, and suddenly a guy who was a 45-percent marksman from downtown over the previous seven seasons seemed to be looking very much like a 35-year-old on the decline. Remember how mediocre the Cavs were in January? They were still plus-3.8 per 100 possessions when Korver sat. They were a minus-9.5 when he played.

Shooters go through slumps all the time, but we seemed to be heading toward enough of a sample to see that Korver’s best days were, in fact, behind him. So, naturally, he responded with one of the best months for a shooter since the 3-point line was introduced. And the man who was largely responsible for it had one of the best months of his illustrious career.

Korver had four 20-point games in February, exactly twice as many as he’d put up over his previous season and a half combined, but a few big nights only tell the beginning of the story. Korver shot 58.9 percent from 3-point range in February on 73 attempts, a connection rate no player to take that many 3s has topped in a single month since 1985-86. If we lower our minimum standard to 50 attempts, it’s still a 3-point percentage no one has topped in one month in 15 years.

Mar 2002 Eric Piatkowski, LAC 33 55 .600
Kyle Korver, Cle
Mar 2016 Josh Richardson, Mia 33 56 .589
Nov 1988 Trent Tucker, NY 30 51 .588
Feb 1990 Craig Hodges, Chi 31 53 .585

So, what caused Korver to suddenly remember he’s one of the best 3-point shooters who’s ever played basketball? It’s hard to say. Korver played 187 minutes with James in January and Cleveland was outscored by 66 points – the worst two-man combination on the team (Korver was plus-8 in 79 minutes without James). Let’s flip to February. James and Korver together? Plus-68 in 190 minutes, the best two-man unit on the team (Korver was minus-5 in 114 minutes without James).

That’s a pretty stark difference. But consider this: the Cavs rarely had time to practice after acquiring Korver. He spent four and a half seasons as a major focal point in an Atlanta motion offense that worked to get him open looks off of screens. When you think of those first 11 games as his indoctrination into a new system, it starts to make more sense. As teammate Channing Frye – himself a Cavaliers deadline acquisition a year ago – told Fansided just before February began, joining a new team isn’t just an adjustment for the player but for his teammates as well.

“That just takes time, man,” Frye said. “Whenever someone goes out or comes in, it’s weird to kind of get your rhythm. What works? How much do I work out? Who am I going in with? When am I going in? What are the plays I’m going to play?”

Korver immediately got more open looks in Cleveland than he did in Atlanta. With the Hawks this season, 67.1 percent of his 3-point attempts were deemed either open (nearest defender 4-6 feet) or wide open (6+ feet). That percentage ticked up to 74.1 with the Cavs in January, when Korver shot 16 of 40 (40 percent) on those looks. Almost all (87 percent) of his 3s were of the catch-and-shoot variety.

He got slightly more open/wide open looks in February (75.3 percent), and he rarely missed. Korver was 34 of 55 (61.9 percent) on those shots, and when you single out the wide-open looks he shot a startling 72.0 percent. What changed? For one, he wasn’t catching and firing all the time. This time, one in five of his 3-point attempts came after taking a dribble, perhaps an indicator of being more comfortable in his new surroundings and not feeling the need to let it fly upon the catch.

That’s not to say Korver isn’t still happy to come off a screen and unload. Darting right off a brush screen to drill a 3 from the top of the left wing remains Korver’s most common shot.

His most, effective, though, comes from the left corner. Korver’s 17 of 25 from that spot since joining the Cavs.

Let’s get back to James for a second. Fifty-eight of Korver’s 61 field goals in February were assisted, and a team-high 26 of those were off feeds from James. Korver went 19 of 28 from 3 on passes he received from James last month, and you better believe that’s a combination that will terrorize opposing coaches come playoff time – particularly because most of those Korver/James minutes comes against second units. You can see below where James expects Korver to be, and it’s a safe bet that wherever Korver sets up, James can be found on the opposite side of the floor.


Playing on a team with a player who sees the floor the way James does is almost certainly a dream for Korver, but that can go both ways. James has played with some terrific shooters in his career – Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Damon Jones, and at least for a time, Mo Williams and Boobie Gibson – but statistically Korver is by far the best.

And that was reflected in James’ play in February. The 25.9/10.6/7.2 line for a month is good but hardly spectacular by James standards, but the efficiency with which he got there is something the league has almost never seen. Prior to February, there were three players since ’85-’86 to shoot 60 percent overall and 55 percent from 3 (min. 20 attempts) in a single month. Now, there are five after James posted the only month in his career in which he topped 50 percent from long distance (perhaps we should have seen this coming after this shot went in).

NBA, .600+ FG Pct and .550+ 3PT Pct in a Single Month – Since 1985-86 (minimum 100 FGA)

Kyle Korver, Atl-Cle
LeBron James, Cle
Nov 1995 Arvydas Sabonis, Por 68 105 .648 15 26 .577
Jan 1995 John Stockton, Uta 80 126 .635 20 36 .556
Mar 1986 Brad Davis, Dal 68 113 .602 14 24 .583

The Cavs have won 11 of 15 since James’ Jan. 23 plea for help to Cleveland’s front office, imploring GM David Griffin that the team needs a playmaker. There’s assistance on the way in the form of Deron Williams, enforcement in the form of Andrew Bogut, and the eventual returns of J.R. Smith and Kevin Love should serve as a pre-playoff boost to an already impressive array of shooters.

But James already had been given the piece that could make a difference between a successful title defense and being outmatched by the Warriors come June. He just needed some time to find out.

Brett Huston is a Senior Editor at STATS LLC. Contact him at bhuston@stats.comor on Twitter @BHuston_STATS.

Photo By: AP Photo/Nick Wass
Illustration By: STATS/Andrew Skweres