Just to be clear, Kevin Love is really, really good at basketball
This Saturday, barring an unforeseen turn of events, Andrew Wiggins will be dealt as part of a pack to the Timberwolves, and Kevin Love will be shipped out to Cleveland to team up with LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and new head coach David “my life is awesome right now” Blatt.
Since the conclusion of draft night this past June, I’ve avoided covering the Kevin Love saga in detail (with the exception of Twitter). Part of it was because I wasn’t sure there was anything to say that hadn’t already been said. Also part of it: my disinterest in over-speculation. Another was my fear of jumping the gun on a deal that doesn’t necessarily end up happening.
But the thing that stopped me more than anything was the fear of saying something I’d regret later. We’re all bound to do it. Between being traded for OJ Mayo on draft night, the (overdone) “Love vs. Al bigman death match” narrative, the Woj interview, and the team’s decade of struggles, it’s easy to visualize a fan to looking back at Love’s past in Minnesota, only to utter “Sure, he was good, but good riddance.”
There’s nothing wrong with feeling like this. There is always going to be a group of fans, especially season ticket holders, who feel that their hard-earned money deserves more from the team’s highest paid player.
Even from a basketball standpoint, there are criticisms. For years, Love made a habit out of arguing with officials instead of getting back on defense. Even this year, when that habit started to subside, his defense wasn’t particularly great.
While it isn’t saying a ton, Flip Saunders did give Love the best playoff-ready roster he had seen. He had a pair of guys capable of consistently putting up over 17 points per game, a very good point guard fully willing to give Love the ball whenever he called for it, and a coach who finished with over 1,000 career wins. Even in a crowded Western Conference, this team had a chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
But they didn’t. They won 40 games and finished with the 10th best record in the West. He had gotten criticisms before, but they were amplified at the end of the 2013-14 season.
“A superstar elevates his team and gets them to the playoffs. He makes his team better.”
“His team knew he wanted to leave. They didn’t want to play for him.”
I’ve heard all the points as they apply to Love’s career, the bad and the good. I just can’t buy into it.
My biggest gripe with last year’s team (the only team with a real playoff shot Love has ever had), as I’ve said before, was the lack of bench production. Ronny Turiaf was out most of the year. Gorgui Dieng only played regular rotation minutes for the final 18 games. JJ Barea and Chase Budinger each had the worst year of their careers, and were supposed to be “the guys” off the bench.
You can even look at the starters. Kevin Martin started off hot, but couldn’t keep the consistency up all year. Nikola Pekovic only played 54 games. Ricky Rubio’s shooting…well, you know.
Meanwhile, Kevin Love was working to become the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 900 rebounds, and 100 three-pointers in a season. He finished fourth in points per game (26.1) and third in rebounds (12.5), and finished third in PER (behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James).
Still, he wasn’t stat-stuffing. To put the supporting cast (and Love’s impact) in perspective, when Love was on the floor during the year, the Wolves were +356. When he was on the bench, they were -137. In other words, the Wolves were usually beating the other team when Love was in, and usually losing to the other team when he was out.
Even in a world where, despite all this, Love was still to blame for the Wolves missing the playoffs, should it even matter? If Kevin Love was (hypothetically) traded to the Hawks, for example, and went to the playoffs as their team’s best player, would this still be a discussion? The “if the Wolves were in the East” talk has been beaten into the ground, but it needs to be brought up if Love’s lack of a playoff presence is going to be part of the discussion.
Still, maybe hypotheticals are unfair. The Timberwolves are in the Western Conference, and it was his job to lead his team into the playoffs in that conference. He didn’t do that. Whether his absence from the postseason (mainly) comes from his lack of leadership, or (mainly) because of what I said in the paragraphs above, is up for debate.
Either way, Love is almost definitely going to be a Cavalier this season. He’s going to team up with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and almost definitely notch a high seed in the playoffs. He won’t be the outright leader in Cleveland, but in the long-term, that isn’t going to matter. He’s going to fit in perfectly with LeBron James, in part because of his willingness to let LeBron run the show. Nobody is going to look back on Kevin Love’s career in 15 years and knock him for his “lack of leadership”.
Next year should be fun for Timberwolves fans. The Wiggins-featured haul they’re getting for Love is a great get for a superstar, and Flip Saunders deserves credit. But such a return of talent was also made possible because of how good Love is, and how important a piece he can and will be for a team’s run at a championship. It’s because he’s really, really good at basketball.