Q&A: Sharpshooter Korver refocuses after Cavs' rough start to season
Veteran seeks to 'retrain' his on-court brain in Cleveland's post-LeBron world
Nobody puts Baby in the corner, but Kyle Korver heads there constantly and happily. That real estate — the extreme corners of courts throughout the NBA — is like Park Place and Boardwalk in this league, and Korver keeps his office there, with the best views and loftiest percentages.
Korver’s ability to space the floor from pretty much any point around the 3-point arc has made him one of the game’s prized and best-known specialists. His accuracy from long distance, and often merely the threat of it, helped the teams on which he played — the Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and now, Cleveland Cavaliers — reach the postseason 12 times in his 15 seasons.
The No. 51 pick overall in 2003, Korver was mostly a reserve in his first nine seasons. He became a starter in 2012 in Atlanta, however, and was an All-Star in 2014-15 with the Hawks.
Korver’s trade to the Cavaliers in January 2017 perked up the then-defending champs and got him to The Finals the past two years. And from 2009-10 to last season, Korver made 45 percent of his 3-pointers.
This season? It’s been different. His minutes are down (from 21.6 to 15.3), his 3-point percentage is down (38.7) and, of course, LeBron James is gone to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers head into their home game Tuesday against Charlotte (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV) with a 1-11 mark. They rank near the bottom statistically both offensively and defensively as they try to blend young players — notably, rookie point guard Collin Sexton — and veterans who have known better times into a new mix of styles and roles.
That was just one of the topics Korver talked about with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner on Cleveland’s weekend stop in Chicago:
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Steve Aschburner: As this season began, you said you were excited to be back. With so many changes even since then — injuries to Kevin Love and others, a coaching change from Tyronn Lue to Larry Drew after only six games — do you still feel that way?
Kyle Korver: Yeah, I think you go into every season trying to be hopeful and optimistic. The part I was excited about, and still am excited about, is you’re building a whole, brand new culture here. The last few years was kind of top-heavy with how we operated and how we played, and there has to be a new mindset. I like the building process — that’s not the part that’s hard. Losing’s hard. And the injuries we’ve had. It’s hard to build the kind of culture you want when you’re not healthy. It’s hard to play. So we’re losing. We’re down bodies. There’s been a coaching change. We’re, what,  games in? A lot has happened.
SA: Quite a lot.
KK: We’re all adjusting to going from the last few years to this new mindset. There’s challenge to that, there’s excitement to that and we’re kind of caught in the middle trying to figure it all out.
SA: Not to quibble, but what do you know about building a new culture? You’ve been to the playoffs 12 times, including the past 11 years in a row.
KK: Yeah, I haven’t been on a lot of rebuilding teams, for sure. The only thing I can compare it to was when I went to Atlanta. Danny Ferry was the new GM and the whole “Atlanta Hawks” kind of got rebranded and rebuilt. they brought in coach [Mike Budenholzer], who brought in his staff, his philosophies and a ton of new players. I really liked those years. Building the culture — I enjoy that. But there’s a lot that goes into that. You’ve got to have a lot of pieces, not just on the team but throughout the organization. I think the Cavs are serious about that and working on it.
SA: In training camp, Lue said you were “in heaven” in the revamped offense, given the movement and use of five men as opposed to the previous heavy reliance on isolation. Still heaven?
KK: The last few games, we’ve made progress in that. … The NBA, offensively and defensively, there’s a shift in the league right now and we’re trying to find our way. It’s one thing to say, “Here’s our offense! This is how we’re gonna play. Go out there and run it!” But when you’re going to make a lot of passes and a lot of cuts, and set a lot of screens and make a lot of reads, chemistry is a huge part of that. It’s easy to draw up isolation basketball — it’s not easy to draw up great motion offense with passing and cutting. There’s a lot of feel to that and it takes time. We’re at the beginning stages of it.
SA: It would seem to allow less margin for error, with each pass or cut a potential turnover or mistake.
KK: And we relied, the way we played the last few years, on LeBron to be the primary playmaker. So a lot of us have to kind of re-train our brain to be playmakers and not just get the ball and charge the basket or shoot right away.
Yeah, I haven’t been on a lot of rebuilding teams, for sure. The only thing I can compare it to was when I went to Atlanta. … I really liked those years. Building the culture — I enjoy that. But there’s a lot that goes into that.”
Kyle Korver, on being on a rebuilding team
SA: Can you put into a few words, the Cavaliers with LeBron vs. the Cavaliers with LeBron?
KK: LeBron carries a certain weight. You feel him all the time. On the court, off the court, in the organization. I don’t say weight in a bad way, but his presence is always felt. He is striving for greatness at all times. Because he’s such a magnetic personality and such an incredible basketball player, people follow him. They look to him to lead the way. He was here for, how many years? So we have to create new leadership. Our own way. None of us is LeBron, on the court or off the court. There’s an adjustment period for us all, to find our way, to find our voice. That takes time, because he filled all the gaps.
SA: LeBron is gone but Kevin Love [foot surgery] has been, too, for all practical purposes. It’s probably not a coincidence that, last year, 66.3 percent of your shot attempts were considered “open” or “wide open,” according to NBA.com stats. This season so far? You’re down to 48.9 percent. How much do you also miss the two-man game that you and Love honed last season, full of screens and passes?
KK: [Sighs] I do miss it. Kevin is someone who, he and I had a nice little chemistry together. We could play off each other. Kevin is one of those guys where, a lot right now, the NBA is trying to switch everything and take away those threes, so you’ve got to have guys who — if there is going to be a switch, you can punish it. Kevin is one of those guys. He can shoot outside, he can score inside. We had a nice little feel for each other in the playoffs there. So we miss Kevin in a lot of ways.
The NBA is a beautiful job in a lot of ways. But for living stability, thinking you’re going to be somewhere for a long time, it’s not for that. This is what you signed up for. You knew it going in, so you can’t get mad about it.”
Kyle Korver, on trade rumors
SA: Already there have been trade rumors about some vets on this team, and they flared up again about you in particular with Jimmy Butler’s trade to Philadelphia. The Sixers need shooting and that’s where you began your career and still have deep roots. You’re a player whose value rises as a season goes on. Are you prepared to play somewhere else?
KK: You have to be. The NBA is a beautiful job in a lot of ways. But for living stability, thinking you’re going to be somewhere for a long time, it’s not for that. This is what you signed up for. You knew it going in, so you can’t get mad about it. I have no idea what the future holds, to be honest.
SA: This summer was different from previous ones. After another long playoff run and another loss in The Finals, you considered calling it quits. How did you make your decision to return?
KK: That was a good four-to-six week process. I think after last year, my tank was just empty. If I can’t put in the time to prepare in the offseason, I wouldn’t feel good about just showing up and trying to “just hoop.” I want to feel prepared, mentally and emotionally engaged with what I’m doing. if I don’t have those things, I’m not going to be a very good player. And after everything that happened last year, with my family [Korver’s youngest brother, Kirk, died unexpectedly in March] and the playoffs and The Finals … I had to figure out first if my family was ready to do this again. It’s not just about me.
SA: You’ve got three little ones — Knox, Koen and Kyra — and your wife Juliet to consider.
KK: My wife and I had to explore that — if we play another year, would we be OK in our marriage? Our kids are 6, 4 and 2, would they be OK? How many years are left? After giving it some time and letting the dust settle, and pulling yourself back up in the summertime, we were like, “Yeah, we’re OK. We can keep going.”
SA: Had LeBron already made his decision to leave?
I came in and shot one really quick, like in a few seconds. I missed it, but the whole place stood up and cheered. It was like, someone had come along to shoot some threes for them.”
Kyle Korver, recalling his first 3-point attempt in his career
KK: Oh yeah, he’d already gone. My career’s not based on LeBron. I like basketball. So it was like, “Do you want to do this again?” And I still love it. I went into the gym by myself — no rebounders, no friends, no family — and spent like two hours by myself thinking about it all. Dribbling and shooting. And I thought, “I still love doing this, I really do. And my family’s OK. Just keep going.”
SA: You’re known for your offseason conditioning and a lot of varied, innovative workouts. But this sounds a lot more mental than physical.
KK: It was definitely more that. My body, I’m not too worried. But this is a big part of how I play — you have to be engaged 100 percent of the time. If I’m not, I’m not that good.
SA: Has your family made sense yet of Kirk’s death, which seized up on you all and was largely unexplained besides the shutting down of his internal organs? [Korver’s parents, Kevin and Laine, had driven from their home in Iowa to the Cavs-Bulls game at United Center, and were joined by one brother and Korver’s wife and kids.]
KK: We haven’t made sense of it. We didn’t get a ton of answers. That’s the hard thing. As we’ve gone through this process, you hear story after story. So many people deal with this. Early death, and you’re not sure why. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it definitely it means there’s this terrible club full of people that we can kind of lean on. But … yeah.
SA: You rank fourth all time in 3-pointers made with 2,225. At least, you do as we talk, because Steph Curry is 34 behind you. But among the top 25 on that all-time list, you and Rashard Lewis are the only ones who weren’t first-round picks, and at No. 32 in 1998, he was drafted way earlier than you. Any special satisfaction from that?
KK: I’ve purposely tried not to go down that path that much. I don’t want to take away my focus. So I haven’t given it any time. I try to see what’s in front of me and keep on going forward, know that there are guys coming up quickly behind me [laughs].
SA: What do you remember about your first one?
KK: I don’t remember it. I do remember my first 3-point attempt. I missed it. In Philly, they had just come off the Larry Brown years [as coach] and they hadn’t shot a lot of threes. I came in and shot one really quick, like in a few seconds. I missed it, but the whole place stood up and cheered. It was like, someone had come along to shoot some threes for them.
SA: Any memorable threes?
KK: Some. The toughest one I ever hit, I don’t even know if they have footage of it, it was so long ago. There were 24 seconds left in the game at New Orleans, and on an out-of-bounds play, I was running toward the corner when I caught it and shot it. Made it to force overtime. That’s my memory, the hardest one I ever shot and made, and it tied the game at the buzzer.
SA: What do you consider to be the biggest change in NBA game since you’ve been in the league?
KK: It’s the offensive freedom that guys are allowed to have. Obviously, players’ skill sets have expanded with offensive philosophies. When I came in the league, you only shot a three if the ball went inside first — inside-out threes. The plays we had for threes, we only ran them if it was the end of the game and we needed a three. So it’s really changed a lot, especially in the last five years.
SA: How about changes off the court?
KK: I think technology has changed everything. Everyone sees themselves as a business, as a brand. There are a lot more opportunities out there. How you conduct yourself, how you work — we don’t really have offseasons anymore. Guys are constantly in the gym, constantly trying to get better, constantly improving their game. It’s an all-year thing now. On the court, off the court. It’s not just about playing in a nationally televised game. Everyone sees everything every night now.
SA: Analytics, it would seem, has been a friend to you. Focusing on your specialty, the average team when you were a rookie took 1,224 3-pointers, taking about 18.7 percent of its shots from there. So far this season, coaches have shifted twice that portion of their attack to the arc — 35.3 percent — and the average team will shoot nearly 2,500 threes.
KK: For sure, for sure. It’s been fun to have my career coincide with how the game has gone. To be a part of it in the beginning when things were just starting to change — my second year was when Steve Nash in Phoenix and [coach] Mike D’Antoni really kind of came on — it was like, “Whoa, this whole new style of basketball!” And then it kind of became the norm. You saw different players come along and change the game — and change the way people see the game. What’s a “good shot” now is so different than back then. Then, it was “How do we get the ball in the paint? How do we get a good mid-range two?” Now it’s “How do you get a good corner three? How do you get shooters open? How do you space the floor better? How do you play faster?” It’s been fun to be a part of this whole … revolution, I guess? Evolution, revolution.
SA: When you’re in the car alone, are you music, talk radio or deep thoughts?
KK: It depends. I’ll do podcasts, a lot of spiritual things. I’ll do music some times. Other times I like just quiet. Think and pray and get myself ready for the day. It’s good to have — I need those 20 minutes, 30 minutes every day. So sometimes that car time is when I get my mind into it.
SA: Last one. If you had NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s job for one day, what would you do?
KK: Hmm. I don’t know. Our commissioner does a great job. I think he’s on it. I’d take his salary for a day, though.
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