Love Against the World

Benjamin Polk —  September 1, 2010 — 11 Comments

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Kevin Love is bright white and a little lumpy. His steps are plodding and thick. He does not really look like an NBA basketball player. And he certainly seems a little bit out of place among his fellow world-class North Americans with their lithe, elastic bodies and their liquid skills. He does resemble, however, quite a few of his opponents in these FIBA World Championships; perhaps its no accident, then, that, as Sebastian Pruiti has pointed out at NBA Playbook, Love appears to be a natural at the international game:

Kevin Love is a very good rebounder in the NBA, and we shouldn’t be surprised that this skill carried over to the FIBA Worlds, but at this pace?  Love has grabbed 21 rebounds in his 26 minutes of play, which comes out to an insane 31.5 rebounds per 40 minutes (h/t J.E. Skeets via John Schuhmann). How is Love able to grab so many rebounds? By simply outworking and outsmarting his opponents.

Love tends to draw the kind of praise that we’ve come to understand as racially coded cliches. In the Worlds, Fran Fraschilla (who I should say right out front is a terrific analyst who understands the hell out of international basketball) busted out the full complement: Love is “your perfect teammate,” he is “smart” and “hardworking” and “unselfish”. These make him sound just like an unathletic, Big Ten white dude and I confess that they are part of the reason that I was a little disappointed when the Wolves picked him up. I mean, weren’t you just sick to death of hearing about how great an outlet passer this guy was?

As it happens, Love actually is an unselfish, hardworking, intelligent player who throws a seriously wicked outlet pass (this one is pretty ill too). Pruiti aptly points out that all of these hallmarks–the clever, nasty rebounding, the passing, the off-ball movement, the long-range shooting–have been on full display in this tournament (although he does leave out one of my favorite highlights, in which Love singlehandedly boxed out two Croatians, allowing Rudy Gay to coast in for a putback dunk).

Clearly, Love has taken to the international game. His lack of size for a power forward and “two-inch vertical” (another Fraschilla quip) are less exposed by the relatively less athletic competition; the extra spacing in the half-court suit his heady passing and movement; his shooting ability creates space and passing angles.

But, and this is where things start to get interesting for Wolves fans, he’s also aided immensely by the fact that he’s surrounded by more obviously gifted players. Let the Kevin Durants and Derrick Roses of the world create the shots with their quickness and ballhandling. Leave the soaring finishes to the likes of Rudy Gay. Love is at his best when roaming the lane and moving the ball, putting in yeoman’s work, hiding in plain sight.

Love’s play in this tournament supports the idea that he is currently the Wolves best player. But it’s also begun to validate  David Kahn’s statement that the Oswego boy should be no more than third-best on a contending team, that in order to really flourish, he needs to be on a team of his betters. The remark bears Kahn’s trademark wrong-footed honesty, but it contains a rather large grain of truth.

Take, for instance, Team USA’s squeaker against Brazil this Monday. Thanks to his inspired play in the first two games, Love was among the first reserves to come off the bench. But it quickly became clear that this wasn’t his game. A 22% rebounding rate is great, but it doesn’t mean much when your opponent is shooting 63% from the field. Love’s defense has improved dramatically since his first season (although Zach does have some choice words), but his lack of quickness showed in his struggles to cover ground while defending Brazil’s spread pick-and-roll (a nice assessment from Tony Ronzone, both of Brazil’s tactics and Love’s development, is right here).  And the deck was stacked against Love in his one-on-one matchup with Tiago Splitter, Brazil’s  nimble seven-footer. Too much height and too much skill for the little big man.

Kevin Love, in other words, is a role player. A dude with the potential to be even more forcefully, life-affirmingly entertaining and effective than the other great glue guys (Varejao, Battier, Birdman and their ilk) but because of those limitations, those holes in his game, a role player nonetheless. This leaves us wondering: Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, how good are you really gonna be?

Benjamin Polk

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11 responses to Love Against the World

  1. It leaves me wondering: David Kahn, why didn’t you draft DeMarcus Cousins?

  2. Bleeping McHale.

  3. I heard Fran Fraschilla’s comments (Love is “your perfect teammate,” he is “smart” and “hardworking” and “unselfish”.) and it took me back to the days of Tommy Heinson and Jimmy the Greek (especially) equating smart play to white players and physical ability to black players as to say black players can’t have both attributes.

    I think some things will never change.

  4. This is bizarre. The guy is the best rebounder in the NBA. No matter what else he does, that puts him above just about every other role player right there. But the fact is he can also pass like a demon, shoot and score on the low block. He should be a future star if your fans and coaches can just stop kneecapping him for two seconds.

  5. He’s going to be so good on the Bucks when they’re defending their title in a few years.

  6. Have to side with Hayden on this one. Having holes in your game does not automatically turn you into a role player. Have you seen Steve Nash on defense? Did you ever see Dennis Rodman (or Ben Wallace in his prime) on offense? It’s true that Love’s weaknesses were exposed against Brazil, but I think it’s more accurate/apt to say that the Brazil game exposed Team USA’s current weaknesses. Kevin Love shouldn’t be guarding Tiago Splitter under any circumstances; that’s what a center is for. Unfortunately, Tyson Chandler is the best (and only) option for this team at center. Between Love’s rebounding, passing and ability to shoot mid-range jumpers, he is not a role player; he has the potential to be the third-best player on a good playoff team or the fourth-best player on a championship contender.

  7. Love is far from the perfect teammate. At UCLA he consistently complained about not getting enough touches; in Minnesota he gave up on the team at the end of last season. He’s far more selfish than most realize but he gets a pass because of cliches about white, unathletic players.

  8. The white/intelligent and black/athletic stereotype might still be prevalent, but that doesn’t mean that assessments of Love’s game are mindless repetitions of prejudices. Love’s outlet passes, for example, don’t map easily into racist preconceptions, since they reflect a combination of intelligence and strength that is uncommon in players of any color and don’t really reinforce any common stereotypes (the only two players really famous for outlet passes, I think, are Bill Walton and Wes Unseld). Most people widely considered great passers in the NBA are black or bi-racial, so I don’t see that are being code for “admirable white guy.”

    And aren’t labels like “smart,” “hard-working,” “unselfish” applied much more often to leaders like Jason Kidd or to role players like Shane Battier, Trenton Hassell or Udonis Haslem than to most white American players in the NBA? People pretty rarely discuss Wally Szczerbiack, J.J. Redick, Chris Kaman, Mike Miller, Mike Dunleavy, Kyle Korver, Troy Murphy, or Spencer Hawes in those terms. Lots of white guys are simply spot up shooters, like Brent Barry or Jason Kapono, which is fine but means that no one claims them are “hard-working.” And then there is the small handful of white players that are obviously against type, like Joe Alexander for example, who may not be typical but who go to show that we don’t live in a world where all observers mindlessly go around complimenting white players on their smarts and grit.

  9. Love seems like a perfect fit for the triangle so he should flourish in the system, His career to date is better then O.J Mayos he is the best rebounder in the league with an improving outside game and defense what more can you ask for. He is solid and improving in all areas in the game. He averaged 17-14-3 last year per 36mins . Name another guy under 25 who brings that sort of production

  10. Love is NOT the “perfect teammate” and he’s definitely NOT the best rebounder in the NBA.

  11. Can somebody explain to me why he couldn’t be the 2nd best player on a championship team? (think: Pau Gasol, to appeal to racial stereotypes). Better rebounding, more range, just as good of a passer… he just lacks the size to be a shot blocker like Gasol. But you would assume the rebounding and rage make up for that.

    Obviously I’m not claiming Love NOW is as good as Gasol. But in, say, four years I can see that Love in his prime could be better. This guy has more talent that anybody seems to want to admit.

    Further, the argument “Love needs better players around him to be effective” falls apart under closer inspection. How effective has Tyson Chandler or Odom been in their minutes on Team USA? Not any more effective than they have been on their respective teams.

    This dude could be a star if people just gave him a legit shot.

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