Last year, Kevin Love led the NBA in rebounds per game. He was a last-minute All-Star selection and was, deservedly, named the league’s most improved player. He has a World Championship gold medal that he can wear in the bathtub if he feels like it. You might remember that he once scored 31 points and grabbed 30 rebounds in one game. According to #NBARank, he is the 16th-best player in the game. He is, without question, the Timberwolves’ best player since Kevin Garnett.
But beyond these bare facts, it’s difficult to find consensus on Love’s place in the game. When it comes to the game’s newer school stats, metrics that seek to balance efficiency and volume, Love simply crushes. He finished fourth in the league in PER last year, just behind Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and King James himself. Oh, but what if you think, “that’s weak, K-Love is better than those chumps”? Well the Wages of Wins has got your back, having ranked our boy first in the whole NBA (!) in Wins Produced. (And please note that, max contracts notwithstanding, the folks at WoW claim that Love is worth no less than $45.6 million. Per year. Pass the hat, y’all.)
This is not as insane as it sounds. Love is not exactly what you might call a dynamic finisher, but thanks to his knock-down three point shooting, his mystical ability to draw fouls and all of those weakside putbacks, Love’s true shooting percentage was a stunning .593–seventh in the league among players with a usage rate over 20. He scored 20.4 points per 36 minutes on just 14.1 shots. That’s pretty effing good. Oh right, he’s also a nice little rebounder: first in the NBA in rebounds per game; seventh in offensive rebound rate (and fifth if you remove Joey Dorsey and Kevin Seraphin from the list, which you should); third in total rebound rate. In other words, any way you look at it, in ’10/’11, Kevin Love was incredibly productive and incredibly efficient.
But of course this is really weird. Love conforms to almost none of our notions about what a top-20 (much less a top-five or top-one) player looks like. For starters, he’s kinda squishy; he’s got big, heavy feet; he wears braces. (Although word is he’s shed 25 pounds since the end of last year. That’s a good thing.) More importantly: since MJ, we’ve expected our elite players to be high-volume ball dominators, one-on-one assassins who can create their own shot and carry their team in the clutch. K-Love is not that. He can be an awkward finisher. His post moves, though improving, are just a shade above rudimentary. What’s more, Love is an average defender on a good day. He is generally both smaller and slower than the opposing power forward and he often sacrifices timely help defense in order to maintain rebounding position. So then if, when times are tough, you can neither toss him the ball and get out of his way nor expect him to shut down an opponent, can he really be as valuable as the stat guys say he is?
Well that’s a pretty hard question. And part of the answer has to do with yet another hard question: what is the value of a rebound? Offensive rebounds are unquestionably great things. They are stolen possessions that often result in layups or free throws. But defensive rebounds are subject to no small amount of debate; it’s plainly obvious that they are not all created equal. Some defensive rebounds require an intense battle for position followed by a duel with one or more opponents for a caroming ball. Kevin Love, of course, gets lots of these. But then there are rebounds–let’s call them “Al Jefferson rebounds”– gained after your opponent has abandoned the paint (after, say, a missed free throw) and the only competition for the ball is between teammates. Well, Love gets his share of these too.
For this reason, it’s been shown that high volume defensive rebounding carries a diminishing return; at some point you’re just taking boards away from your teammates. And perhaps, particularly for a team as defensively hapless as the Wolves, some of the energy used battling for weakside position might be better spent protecting the rim. After all, there were more than a few defensive possessions last year in which Love had his man perfectly boxed out on the weak side while a guard sailed to the hoop for an easy layup.
I can’t tell you the exact point at which defensive rebounds begin to be less statistically significant, or exactly where rebounding sits in the hierarchy of NBA skills. And although everybody knows that a good team needs a player who can create his own shot, who can reliably score when the offense has broken down and the shot clock is expiring, I couldn’t tell you whether this kind of classical, Kobe-esque one-on-one scoring is more valuable to a team than Love’s efficient, but markedly less dynamic style of offensive production. Is Kevin Love the fourth-best player in the league or would he be, to paraphrase David Kahn, the third-best player on a championship team?
I don’t know the answer to that either. But I do know that our growing understanding of statistics, plus an increasing awareness and appreciation of the NBA’s great stylistic diversity has opened the way for heterodox oddballs like K-Love. The conversation about what constitutes value on the basketball court and about what is inspiring and beautiful to watch is now so broad that it is almost absurd to believe we can rank players at all (which is part of what makes it so much fun). Kevin Love is an earthbound grinder with supple hands and a deadly outside shot. He is an old-school workhorse with Euro stretch-four skills. He is a totally great, totally flawed, wonderfully strange basketball player. That’s good enough for me.
Update: Here is a good piece by Jerry Zgoda at the Strib, discussing just this issue. What is K-Love’s value and what kind of extension will the Wolves have to offer him in order to get him to stay?