Roster Review: Kevin Love

How should a superstar be? Should he be a grudge-carrying sociopath like Michael Jordan? A mercurial loner, a la Kareem? An ebulliant cheerleader like Magic? Or a Duncan-esque Buddha? Should he be a high-volume one-on-one scorer or a group-first facilitator? We tend to talk as if there is one way to be great in the NBA, a set template that every elite player must follow. We measure success in championships and then retrofit our champions such that they suddenly, upon winning, fit that very template. Dirk, for instance, miraculously transformed himself overnight from a beta-male into lionhearted champ, without changing an ounce of his game or personality. Kobe went from bratty wunderkind to Jordan’s heir to petulant ball-hog and back to Jordan’s heir again, all in one career. For some reason, we seem more comfortable molding superstars–and all players, really–into templates that are familiar-unto-cliche than in appreciating the overflows of wild identity that make them so fascinating to begin with.

So: Kevin Love. When the collective mind attempts to process the idea of Love as a superstar, said mind melts. Love crashes the computer. First of all, as Ricky Rubio, in his perfectly plainspoken way, put it last month, Love is not a leader. He is a little sulky on the court and tends to retreat into his own bad mood when things go wrong. He’s not a primary ball-handler and so doesn’t drive the offense in the way that the league’s other elite players do. He leads the Wolves’ simply through the force of his production, but he doesn’t project gravitas like LeBron and Durant and Chris Paul. What’s more, he doesn’t really look like an elite player (and I don’t mean what you think I mean). Love is among the first wave of superstars to fully exploit the margins of the most high efficiency spots on the floor: the three-point line; the paint; the free-throw line. And while Kevin Durant gets a similarly high yield from those spots, Durant comes by that yield in more recognizably superstar-ish ways (if a 6’10” human bird with an impeccable handle could ever be called recognizable). He slashes to the hoop out of isolations; he takes leaning, Jordan-esque, off-the-bounce jumpers.

Love’s game seems, at first, more commonplace. He draws fouls and gets easy buckets on the offensive glass. He takes pick-and-pop threes. He scores off of backscreens and backdoor cuts. He can’t jump and he looks slow; he seems opportunistic rather than dominant.

And then there is the matter of his mediocre defense.  As an un-explosive, undersized four he is at a physical disadvantage as a rim protector and a one-on-one defender, particularly when forced to play center, as he frequently was this season. He often declines to challenge shots, opting instead to establish rebounding position.  As the year wore on and Love became visibly worn down, his defensive effort became inconsistent. (One thing to realize about Love: he is forced to expend more effort on the floor than almost any of the other top players in the league. Of the top 10 players in usage rate, only Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge could even approach Love’s rebounding proficiency. And Cousins plays six fewer minutes per game than Love.)

But Love is nowhere near the terrible defender he is portrayed as. According to Synergy, Love allowed .72 points per possession on post-ups and .94 ppp in defending roll men: nothing special, but not terrible either. (By comparison, Blake Griffin allowed .72 ppp on post-ups and .89 while guarding roll men. Aldridge allowed .89 and 1.03) Love was 11th among starting power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus. Per 82games.com, Love allowed his opponents a PER of 15.8. Again, not an elite defender, but not that bad–and far outweighed by Love’s own offensive production.

None of these stats are definitive; none tell the entire story.  But when you watch the footage, you see an average, but inconsistent, defender. On pick-and-roll, you see him doing a good job containing ballhandlers and, while sometimes getting beaten to the basket by quicker opponents, generally forcing roll men into long jumpers. On the block, you sometimes see him getting burned, but mostly you see him pushing his man away from the hoop and into a tough shot. Sometimes you see great effort; sometimes you see not-so-great effort. If nothing else, I hope you’ll be persuaded that Love’s defense is nothing like the abomination it’s been made out to be.

So Love is an average defender (or slightly worse than average). He’s not really a team’s spiritual leader. Finally, there is the Wolves’ record. Save for Demarcus Cousins, none of the league’s top players have endured the extended futility that Love has. All of this leads to the impression that Love is a stat-stuffer but not a leader, a guy who gets his but doesn’t make his teammates better.

But did you happen to notice how unbelievably dominant this dude was this year? He was third in PER, fourth in Win Shares, sixth in Win Against Replacement.  He had the highest assist rate of any of the league’s top 15 power forwards. He was fifth in True Shooting percentage among players with usage rates of at least 25 (which means that even if he did hunt shots, he wasn’t soaking up empty possessions). He has improved his PER every year he has not played with a broken hand. Every year, he has added an element to his game. His second year it was three-point range. His fourth it was a face-up game. Over the last two season’s its been his low-post game and his passing from the elbow. He can do this:

Finally, when Kevin Love was on the floor this season, the Wolves were really, really good, 6.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent, in fact. That number that would have been fourth in the league if it could have held team-wide. (That is to say: if the Wolves’ bench had not been so very terrible.) You might criticize Love for not “making his teammates better,” as many have done. But it would have been a pretty neat trick if he could have improved his teammates’ play while sitting on the bench.

Now, bearing all of this in mind, look at the Wolves’ options for trading Love, as painstakingly explored by our own Zach Harper and then consider the fix that the Wolves are in. It is essentially common knowledge that the only way to enter the NBA’s elite is to somehow land a superstar player. The Wolves already have a superstar player. Do any of those potential trades give them an even somewhat reasonable chance of getting back to where they are right now? (If you ask me, only getting the first pick in the draft from Cleveland gives them even odds. And good luck getting Love to agree to commit longterm to the Cavs.) And yet, the odds for convincing Love to stay some awfully long too. That this is almost entirely a problem of their own making only makes it more galling.


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15 thoughts on “Roster Review: Kevin Love

  1. Fickle. In all of KLove’s glory of becoming a superstar that is what I’ve viewed him as a person since he’s been in a Wolves uniform. In the beginning it was all the public complaining via social media and it seemed it was gone once the Wolves clearly suppressed that outlet but it truly never went “away”. I always thought we could keep him with a good season until his latest Boston “visit”. Even if he were vacationing there, he knew exactly what he was doing which only adds to the fickle impression in my eyes. I appreciated his effort and rise to high-end star status but being so fickle he is probably at best a 50/50 at re-signing long term. Even a sign-and-trade would most likely yield 20 cents on the dollar I’m guessing. Good luck Flip! You’re definitely earning your money with this gig.

  2. This gets more depressing by the day. Let’s just send the franchise to some other town. Really, I’ve lived with this for I don’t know how many years. I can’t wait until some optimistic moron comments “The usual sad sack Minnesota sports fan…”, yeah you’d be right. So tired, it’s Minneapolis, my home town, and I love it, but nobody not from the area wants to live in the Twin Cities.

    We finally have a player that can turn a game around almost without help (not since KG) and we’re mad at him for not wanting to live in the cold and play for a team with a bench that could almost always be counted on to lose a game. Our franchise is pretty sad and as far as I can tell , barring a miracle like ‘Bazz becoming LeBron II, will be at best middling and most likely finish between 9 and 12 in the West for the foreseeable future.

    There is no trade that will save this team and the current way of structuring rookie contracts means that just as one of our picks develops, he’ll be gone. Why don’t we just declare ourselves in the D-league and be done. As far as our picks go, we can’t possibly do as badly this year as we’ve done historically. But our record in drafts is miserable, Dieng is a pleasant surprise and maybe he’ll turn into something, but he won’t turn into The Brow, he won’t even turn into Chris Bosh.

    There is no hope here, not at all. I don’t begrudge Love going somewhere else. Outside of Milwaukee, you can quote the Replacements “Anywhere is better than here” If he stays we should name some streets after him, throw him a parade, and give him use of Taylor,s private jet. We should hire his high school coach if that’s what he wants. But I think what he wants is to not freeze his ass off, and to not have his nightly work destroyed by Lexi and JJ.

  3. To win a championship you need fantastic defense.Frankly, pointing out that Love is an average defender does not support the argument that the team is better off keeping him. And to win it all you need more than a superstar (maybe two). But at least a superstar and other star players and/or players that are the best at what they do, if what they do is imperative for winning a championship (Tyson Chandler for example). Add in the fact that Minnesota is not going to be attracting the top free agents (not that we could afford them with the signings of last summer) and it’s clear that building a championship caliber team will be done through the draft (a la OKC). So, any argument for keeping rests on the shoulders of the claim that the team can compete for a championship with it’s current roster construction. This team does not fit the mold of prior champions (Lack of elite defense, stars etc…) So it’s clear that building the team through the draft is the next logical step and trading Kevin Love is the best way to do that. Why be satisfied with keeping Love and struggling to make the playoffs and/or exiting early once in?

  4. Even teams with great defenses don’t have 5 great defenders in the starting lineup. The problem is the pieces for the wolves do not fit. Rubio and Brewer are good defenders, but they are gamblers and don’t really prevent a player from reaching the paint, which is fine if you have a rim protecting big.

    They either need to go with lockdown perimeter defenders that prevent penetration, or with bigs that defend vertically. Replace Kevin Martin with Tony Allen and I bet both Love and Pek would get a better reputation for defense.

  5. Preemptively calling any challengers morons doesn’t make them wrong. Feel free to have an Eeyore mentality; the problem comes in when it’s attached to some larger narrative about “bad things always being around the corner” for MN sports teams or thinking that that mentality makes someone a more authentic MN sports fan. A sports team can’t inflict anything upon a fan they don’t want inflicted upon them, and whether someone is able to move on from past disappointments and see them clearly has more to do with the individual fan than with any specific event or series of events.

    The only real doom to worry about with this franchise is whether the owner knows how to implement an infrastructure that leads to developing more talent and sustained success. After all, if David Kahn had done his job, Kevin Love would be a Wolf for at least 1-2 more years before we had to deal with all of this.

  6. Coming from an MN native who’s lived in a few other cities, I think people are too gloomy about the prospect of the Twin Cities as a destination. Literally 50% of the teams in the NBA are in the same boat – smallish markets, coldish winters, no real cache. And lots of the warmer markets are far from glamorous (Oklahoma City? Orlando?). The only cities that really have a leg up are NY, Boston, LA, Miami, Chicago, and maybe the Bay Area.

    Attracting free agents and retaining stars has never been as much of issue for the Twins (besides willingness to pay) or the Vikings. Granted, part of that is due to the NBA season falling during the winter, but I think the bigger issue is that the Wolves’ perception problem. They’re a newish franchise that’s never had real success (’03-’04 excluded), and the KG departure combined with the Kahn era has given them a stink of futility. Sadly, the Love situation will only make this worse. But it’s time to accept that the pieces didn’t quite come together for the Love era. If they can just get a good combination of young guys together at the same time, they can redefine their crappy image, and MN can become a respectable place to play.

    1. I agree. I really do not think that location is the problem. Kevin Love likes Minneapolis and he wanted to be a Timberwolf and to win with the Wolves. Remember, he wanted the longer deal but the Wolves wouldn’t give it to him. The reason players don’t want to come here is that its been a terribly run franchise for like at least 20 years now. If the Wolves had made better personnel decisions since Love arrived and if Kahn had not repeatedly slighted Love–every chance he got it seemed–we would not be in the situation we are in today. Since McHale’s last draft, in 2008 (which was a great draft by the way–they traded down to get Love and then picked up Pek in the second round) the Wolves have had five top ten picks. They now have Ricky Rubio, Shabazz Muhammed, Luc Mbah a Moute and Gorgui Dieng to show for it. Plus they owe a first rounder for the privilege of getting rid of a guy they took with the fourth pick in the draft. What? That is why Kevin Love wants to leave Minnesota.

  7. Is Minneapolis colder than Boston? By how much? Have you ever been in Portland? It rains all the time. As in, ALL. And San Antonio is a swinging place with a lovely mountain climate and internationally-recognized museums. Oklahoma! Now that’s a swell place to inhabit. Give me a break. Minneapolis is toxic because the people who run the organization are idiots. I like Flip Saunders. But don’t tell me he’s a guy capable of making good, tough choices. I wouldn’t follow him into a subway no matter how hungry I was. All pro sports teams function as triangles of competence with the owner at the top. You can lose and lose and lose with a dumb owner and the best you can hope for is to become the Clippers after decades of being a doormat, and this path is what the Wolves walk. You want to bet your house that the Clippers win any championships any time soon? Anyone who does is a fool. We’ve got to get bad again, so bad we get the first pick three years in a row, AND we need a fox in charge who can out-think other teams starting from now until the Wolves are one of the best teams in the NBA in June, 2018. Everything else is pie-in-the-sky palookaville, a home for losers.

  8. No one can blame Love for wanting out as this franchise continues to be a laughingstock no matter who is coaching or running it — for how much it pains me to say it as a Wolves fan since Day 1. What’s done is done and you have to move on and KEEP TRYING. The team has to start over again and bottom out? So be it. You just keep trying and eventually hope to hit on your draft picks. I do agree with the poster above that Flip Saunders is questionable and also IMO is quite possibly the most overrated sports figure in this town of the last 20 years. Flip has won games in this league yes but because he treats the media well (check that – REALLY well) they return the favor and act like he is the King of basketball and he should be named to every local position – Minnesota Gophers head coach, Minnesota Gophers A.D., Timberwolves head coach, Timberwolves GM, Timberwolves owner, Timberwolves head coach again, etc. It’s so comical it borders on absurd, when in reality he is the same as most coaches in the NBA fraternity – he gets hired, gets fired, gets hired, gets fired – and is nothing special and hasn’t won anything nor shown anything to us yet in the President/GM role. Now he’s about to lose Love — when the sheep media was quick to say “Give Flip a year- he’ll get Love to stay!” and quite possibly could be naming himself as head coach — which would sound about right for the way this franchise operates. Ugh. Let Love go, try to get something in return, hit in a draft pick or two, and get a new coach in here who can mold Rubio and let’s go from there!!

  9. The tough part about this situation for the fans is that Taylor is a genuinely generous person. Target Center is the oldest arena in the NBA, and their expansion twins in Orlando got a new arena a few years ago. Steve Ballmer (and apparently other ownership groups) tried to buy the Wolves with the goal of moving them, and Taylor turned all of them down and then bought out some of his minority owners. This franchise is still here because of things many other owners wouldn’t be willing to do. He is much more loyal to the state than another local MN owner who pretended the Twins were moving to Charlotte and then offered to contract them (Carl Pohlad). Also, every media member loves him because of his candor and friendliness. It’s like Minnesota’s kindly grandfather owns the team.

    With that said, his instincts haven’t been good with hiring or keeping front-office personnel or with figuring out when to put his foot down (reportedly insisting that the new GM in ’09 get rid of Jefferson) and when not to (allowing Kahn to talk him into a 3 year deal for Love, allowing the KG deal to go through without getting Rondo in it). With how involved he is in owner committees, it’s astounding that his 20 years as owner haven’t led to a sound process beyond “a higher chance of success when we have a guy named Kevin who was the 5th overall pick.”

  10. I agree with you on the Taylor front gjk. I’ve often thought/felt that if he were to sell the team the Wolves would be in Vegas or some other location by now. Taylor has basically single-handedly held the team in Minnesota and I am grateful to him for that. He makes terrible personnel decisions sometimes but overall I’d rather have a team here and an owner that doesn’t turn his back on his fanbase…basically the opposite of Norm Green.

  11. The running joke in the sports media world about Kevin Love is the fact he hasn’t made the playoffs in his 6 years with the T-Wolves. They act as though he has been this “All NBA – franchise player” since we traded for him draft night. His first two years in MN he wasn’t even the best player on the team (Al Jefferson). Then he plays a great 2010-2011 season averaging 20-15 with a rebuilding team. The next year there is a shortened season and he doesn’t even play his 5th season due to injury. This past season would be the only season that is really a disappointment because there weren’t many injuries and we couldn’t finish close games in the 4th quarter. He’s only been a stat-stuffing All-Star for 4 years and he has been hurt for nearly half of it. I know he was screwed over by Kahn, but he’s a professional and fans don’t care about the margins of making 16 million or 22 million per season. Maybe a team built around Rubio, Pek, and a high draft pick this year will create a positive atmosphere for the franchise. Like the Vikings, the Wolves only have a short window to contend for playoffs/championships then we just watch them for the love of the game.

  12. The running joke in the sports media world about Kevin Love is the fact he hasn’t made the playoffs in his 6 years with the T-Wolves. They act as though he has been this “All NBA – franchise player” since we traded for him draft night. His first two years in MN he wasn’t even the best player on the team (Al Jefferson). Then he plays a great 2010-2011 season averaging 20-15 with a rebuilding team. The next year there is a shortened season and he doesn’t even play his 5th season due to injury. This past season would be the only season that is really a disappointment because there weren’t many injuries and we couldn’t finish close games in the 4th quarter. He’s only been a stat-stuffing All-Star for 4 years and he has been hurt for nearly half of it. I know he was screwed over by Kahn, but he’s a professional and fans don’t care about the margins of making 16 million or 20 million per season. Maybe a team built around Rubio, Pek, and a high draft pick this year will create a positive atmosphere for the franchise.

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