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.