Kevin Love will rightfully be the story of the NBA this summer. The Timberwolves' disgruntled star big man reportedly wants out of Minnesota, sooner rather than later. Love is, depending on who you ask, anywhere from a sure-fire top-five player in the world and best power forward alive to a top-25 player and top-five power forward. He's a very valuable player, no matter how you slice it, but the difference between the most optimistic visions of Love's value to a team and more critical beliefs about his impact has potentially enormous implications regarding what Love's trade value will or should be.
Can Kevin Love be the best player on a championship team? How much blame for the Timberwolves' inability to muster a single winning season in his entire six year career can be placed at Love's feet? Does Love put up "empty stats," while not playing "winning basketball," as some have inevitably asked and will continue to ask? These questions, among others, must be answered by any team considering surrendering the king's ransom that Minnesota almost certainly will and should demand in any deal for Love.
When looking at Love's statistics, it's hard to view him as anything other than a superstar player. He's one of the league's very best rebounders, placing 7th in total rebounding percentage among players averaging 15 minutes per game over the last six seasons. Over the six year span of his career, he's 23rd in per-game scoring and this season he was fourth in the league, dropping 26.1 points per game on stellar efficiency. To top it all off, Love was also fourth in league in assist percentage amongst players 6'9" and over, marking him as one of the very best big man passers in the league. There's seemingly not a single statistical category in which Love does not excel. It should come as no surprise then that Love was third in the league this year in both Basketball Reference's Win Shares and John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating. Despite all of Love's statistical dominance, though, the Timberwolves simply have been unable to win much with him as their best player.
In Love's six seasons in the NBA, Minnesota has been unable to reach a .500 winning percentage even once, coming closest this season at 40 wins and 42 losses. More interestingly, in every season with Love on the roster, the Wolves have underperformed their expected wins and losses based on their point differential. As in baseball, point differential in basketball has proven to be more accurate at predicting the strength of NBA teams than win percentage alone. This is primarily a means of accounting for chance or luck, however you choose to view it, which can skew things in close games. If a team loses many close games in one season, it is generally viewed as likely that they were simply unlucky in those games and a progression towards something more closely resembling their actual strength should be expected. It's possible, though, that there are teams who have some extra ability to pull out close games, and if that's the case, we'd expect to see those teams consistently over-perform their expected wins totals year over year. On the other side, there may be teams which do not possess the skills to close out games for one reason or another. We would expect those teams to consistently struggle in close games and thus underperform relative to their point differential.
Love's Timberwolves have struggled to win close games every year, and this was especially true this season, as they fell eight wins shy of their expected win total. It's entirely possible that the Love-led Wolves' struggles in close games is a statistical anomaly, just random bad luck. It's possible to flip a coin six times and have it come up heads every time; it's just not particularly likely.
Even if it's true that there is something wrong with the Timberwolves over the last six years since Love joined the team which has caused them to struggle in close games, it may have nothing to do with Kevin Love. It could, instead, be all about his teammates. For instance, Love has played with uniformly terrible-shooting point guards: Sebastian Telfair, Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio are all guys who simply do not stretch the floor and also struggle to score in general. In the pressure cooker of a close game, having a primary ball-handler who can be largely left alone has all sorts of cascading negative effects on an offense's ability to score with anything resembling ease—spacing is a buzz-word around the NBA for good reason. If even one player on the floor for the offense is able to be left relatively unguarded, it makes ball movement and scoring much more difficult for the four other players on offense. For a team whose best player is Kevin Love, this is especially problematic, as Love is not a ball handler. He generally needs his guards and wings to get him the ball. In crunch time, if the point men are being left alone so their defender can play the passing lanes or double onto Love, it makes Love getting the ball in his spots more difficult.
On the other side of the floor, the Wolves, in Love's time with the team, have not had strong rim protectors to prevent their opponents from getting easy shot opportunities near the basket. In Love's first and second season, he was paired with the slow-footed Al Jefferson, who blocked a fair number of shots, but was still basically a sieve at the center spot. Since Jefferson departed Minnesota, Love has been paired with Nikola Pekovic, who is, much like Jefferson, a plodding defender who likewise does little to protect the rim. Love isn't innocent on the defensive end. He's been a poor defender for most of his career, and even this season, he was one of the league's very worst interior defenders. He mitigates some of the damage by finishing defensive stops with his prodigious defensive rebounding and his ability to defend without fouling, but he still gave up a staggeringly high 57.4% field goal percentage against when he was defending the rim, surrendering 5.7 made baskets at the rim per game this season, according to SportsVU's Player Tracking numbers. Without a big man to competently man the backline of the defense over the last six seasons, the Wolves simply haven't had the tools to get defensive stops at the end of games at the level of an average team.
There's another factor that also may be at work as to why Love's Timberwolves teams have underperformed relative to what their point differential suggests is their true strength. Kevin Love is, without question, the league's best outlet passer. As a result, it seems likely that Love's teams have relied disproportionately on transition opportunities to score efficiently. Minnesota's pace over Love's career suggests this might be the case. Minnesota has been in the top four in pace in four of Love's last five seasons, with an 11th place finish coming last season when Love played just 18 games. If the reason the Timberwolves struggle relative to what they look like on paper, by point differential, is that they play at a faster pace to get easy baskets and struggle to score in the half court, this can hardly be pointed to as evidence against Love. What it instead probably shows is that Kevin Love is inflating the point differential of his teams through his excellent outlet passing into easy transition opportunities. Love is making his teammates better, but he's doing it in a way that doesn't necessarily translate near the end of closer games when transition opportunities are more scarce. What this would mean is that the Timberwolves are actually closer in talent to the team they end up being in wins and losses than the better version their point differential suggests. With better teammates who could execute in half-court as well as in transition, Love's outlet passing would shine as a boost to an already stellar offense, rather than falsely propping up an average offense into something that looks much better. Under this analysis, Minnesota's elevated point differential would be viewed as the result of Love's talents, rather than evidence to indict him for not being a "winner."
Ah yes, that "winner" label. Kevin Love has been accused of not being a winner over the course of his six seasons in the NBA because he's been unable to carry what have been pretty woeful teams to the playoffs. It was only until this past season where Minnesota looked like a possible fringe playoff team. (Note: In 2012, Love was injured, missing 64 games.) This year, Minnesota played like a 48-win team but only won 40 games. I've outlined some of the possible reasons for that dissonance, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. The Wolves didn't win because the roster around Love wasn't good enough, not to mention that the Western Conference is an absolute gauntlet to get through. The pieces in Minnesota simply don't quite fit the way you would like, and are largely just not good enough.
In the end, Love is certainly not the same type of player LeBron James was during his peak years, no matter how hysterical NBA talking heads may get during this year's inevitable Summer of Love. Still, at just 25, he's already one of the best and most skilled all around offensive players in the league. If an NBA executive is trading for Love with an eye towards winning big, he'd better have a very talented roster on hand, ideally with a rim protecting center to cover for Love's noted defensive deficiencies there.
Can Kevin Love be the best player on an NBA title contender? I believe he can be, it's just got to be the right fit. Ultimately, that's the difference between Love and the very top tier of superstars—basically a two-person tier containing LeBron and Kevin Durant, who are capable of winning anywhere. Kevin Love requires a more-tailored supporting cast. In that, Love is just like every other star player in the league, save for the aforementioned superstars. And since those two guys are unlikely to become available any time soon, teams would be wise to chase Love now. A talent this good and this young is almost impossible to come by, so teams should try their damndest to get him, while understanding they must retain pieces around him in order to win.
It's a delicate balance to strike, but that's why NBA GMs make the big bucks.
Statistics used in this piece, unless otherwise mentioned, via basketball-reference.com.