Where does Kevin Love rank in the NBA’s elite class?
Confidently, I’d say he’s a top-12 player. In case you haven’t done this exercise in a while, it is indeed very difficult to rank NBA players. We know pretty well that the top three are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. From there … there are lots of possible directions one could go, both anecdotally and statistically.
ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton ($) recently argued that Love is a current top-five player. For me, that seems a bit too high too soon. Love is only 25 years old, after all1. He’s only a three-time All-Star. He missed most of 2012-13 and was inefficient when he played that season. He’s at best a purely average defensive player. Is he that concretely better and more dominant than Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard AND Anthony Davis? He’s maybe better than some, but not likely all. That’s why I prefer to say top-12 with confidence. And I hope to explain why in this post.
What are Kevin Love’s elite talents?
This is where the conversation gets more interesting. Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow ranted during the site’s launch week against the all-in-one type of statistical evaluations. I whole-heartedly agree: PER, RPM, win shares and the alphabet soup are all somewhat interesting, but not actually all that useful in player evaluations. I prefer looking at individual skills and the statistics we have to evaluate them.
Love’s main skill in basketball is his elite scoring ability. I’ve talked before about the usual tradeoff between usage and scoring efficiency. For the UCLA product, this hasn’t really been a factor.
During the 2011-12 season, he had a 56.8 true shooting percentage with a 28.8 usage rate. This past season, he had 59.1 true shooting on the exact same usage. This is crazy, near LeBron-esque production. NBA average true shooting is about 54 percent. The average usage is by definition 20 percent. The chart to the right from ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton ($) tells the tale of Love’s impressive stats.
Love’s effective field goal percentage isn’t particularly impressive. But he is a diverse shooter, especially from the left wing three, and draws a ton of free throws. That all adds up into extra points. And most importantly, it’s the sheer volume of his scoring at solid levels of efficiency that makes him a star.
He’s also a darn good rebounder. Since Love’s rookie season, only Dwight Howard has a higher defensive rebound rate. Love has a 29.8 percent mark for his career and 30.7 percent in the past four seasons. For context, teams only grab about 70-78 percent of available defensive rebounds; Love nearly grabs half of those by himself. Is it just because he dominates in rebounding chances? Perhaps and more on that in the section on defense. He also led the league in offensive rebound rate his first two years, but that has since dropped with his increase in three-point shooting attempts.
Finally, he upped his passing last year over my usual 20 percent assist rate demarcation line for big man distributors. He was only at 10.5 percent entering last season, then jumped all the way to 21.4 percent in 2013-14. He’s gained a notorious reputation for his crazy full-court transition passes, especially to his athletic teammate Corey Brewer. This is a really impressive development that makes him one of the most potent offensive talents in the league.
So how good was Minnesota’s offense when Love was on the court?
The difference was staggering: Minnesota’s offensive rating was +10.5 points per 100 possessions better in 2013-14 and +8.2 in 2011-12, his previous last full season. How it happened in both of those seasons differed somewhat. Those net offensive differences resemble the marks of a former departed star from the same team.
Last year, the Wolves ran like mad with the combination of Brewer and Love. Together, in their 2,307 minutes shared on the court, the team had a 109.7 offensive rating and 102.3 pace. Both of those marks would have led the NBA. Brewer’s transition stats are mind-boggling. With Love, Minnesota took very few mid-range shot attempts and shot much better from beyond the arc. The free throw rate improvement was staggering.
But in 2011-12, there was hardly any difference in pace with or without Love. The mid-range shot proportions were equal. The free throw rate gap was lesser. And the effective field goal percentages were actually quite similar. The main difference was the 6.6 percent increase in team offensive rebound rate. Again, Love later traded away his league-leading work on the offensive glass for more long-distance attempts.
But if he was this good, why didn’t the Timberwolves make the playoffs?
It is an oddity: The 2013-14 Timberwolves at +2.6 posted the best scoring margin for a non-playoff team in NBA history. Blame it on the hyper-competitive Western Conference, which went 284-166 (.631) against the East. Blame it on the team’s terrible fourth quarters (more on that later). Blame it on youth. But to call Love’s most recent Wolves a bad team is wholly inaccurate.
Want a perfect example? Look at the Nov. 13, 2013 game between Minnesota and Cleveland. It even made Ben Cox’s #seasonofhuh post as one of the season’s many low points. The final score, 125-94, actually made the game seem closer than it was. The Wolves held a 15-point lead within 10 minutes and never looked back. Kevin Love had 33-8-6, Ricky Rubio had 16-16, Corey Brewer scored 27 and Dante Cunningham was a +26 in 21:33 off the bench.
Last season, the team’s net margin was +4.4 with Love and -6.1 without him. They couldn’t find a sustainable way to achieve success without relying too much on their All-Star. Only a select few stars can deliver year-to-year success single-handedly. It was just too much, as we could see in clutch situations.
In previous years, David Kahn led the franchise to ruins. The names of Wesley Johnson, Jonny Flynn and Derrick Williams, all top-six picks after Love in 2008, are recited by Minnesota fans like the names of Browns quarterbacks. The franchise has now missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in the NBA. A rebuild is now in process on the back of rookie Andrew Wiggins.
So how bad is Kevin Love’s defense?
Yes, you’ll notice nothing about defense has come up so far. It’s not breaking news that he is usually regarded as a net negative on the defensive end. But there are some caveats, such as this chart, that can still be added to the usual discussion of his defense.
Minnesota’s Defensive Rating has been about the same with him on the court and off the court in his last two full seasons. In 2013-14, it was 104.1 on and 104.2 off. In 2011-12, it was 103.7 on and 103.5 off. Love’s overall on-court defensive impact was minimal. The team wasn’t much better or worse.
It’s vital to note that all of those marks were essentially average, despite the common narrative. The Timberwolves finished tied for 14th in defense last season and tied for 20th three years ago. That’s not too shabby overall. Love still made a significant change in the stats with his tremendous rebounding talents.
But were those rebounds as a result of lackluster defensive effort or skill? It’s possible. Last season, teams shot 4.3% better in the paint with Love on the court than without. The rim protection stats from Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow do paint the picture of him as one of the league’s worst interior defenders – Partnow has criticized Love repeatedly. He really has not shown any glimpses of rim protection at all.
That’s not necessarily just to pile it on Love. The team adopted a conservative scheme as chronicled by Grantland’s Zach Lowe. They forced a large number of turnovers. They hardly fouled. They couldn’t defend inside and thus, they actually urged for more foul calls as opposed to free inside baskets. Was Love’s lack of rim protection a wash with his excellent rebounding positioning?
Love never committed fouls and racked up the boards. Did he disengage too often? When he actually engaged in individual one-on-one defense, his stats weren’t too terrible, per mySynergySports. Opponents scored only 0.65 points per isolation possession against Love in 2011-12 and 0.77 last year. On post-ups, 0.69 and 0.72 in those two seasons.
Defensive stats are still the next frontier in basketball analytics, so the door remains open for even further discussion on this topic. A final quote from Ian Levy at Bleacher Report epitomizes the ongoing debate: “Saying Kevin Love is playing ineffective defense is much more accurate than saying Kevin Love is an ineffective defender.”
But what happened in the fourth quarters last year?
Now this is perhaps the most fascinating topic about last year’s Timberwolves team. This chart breaks down the team’s efficiency and four factors statistics through all four quarters … and the results are brutal.
Minnesota had the third-best first quarter net efficiency at +10.0. The discrepancies in free throws, turnovers and rebounds were massive. In the second and third quarters, this was still a very solid team. As mentioned before, their +2.6 scoring margin was the best for a non-playoff team in NBA history. Their efficiency in the middle periods looked the part of a typical playoff team.
And then there was the fourth quarter. Their net efficiency of -9.7 was third-worst in the league. The pace was still fourth-fastest – a result of how the typical NBA game slows down progressively – but the team couldn’t contend. The dividing line is with Ricky Rubio’s -3.4 on-court net in his 434 minutes and JJ Barea’s -14.0 on-court net in his 564 minutes. They played only 145 minutes together with a -5.5 net.
MinnPost’s Britt Robson and Hickory-High’s Zachary Bennett had two of the most detailed articles about the fourth quarter malaise. This is what led the Timberwolves to being 9-22 in games decided by seven points or less, a usual indicator of flukey behavior.
Bennett’s point: The team lacked a central leader that could create offense and lead the charge down the stretch. Love is a unique high-volume scorer, one that actually doesn’t create too much himself. Rubio is known for his offensive deficiencies. No one else in the supporting cast was a consistent enough threat to make a difference.
Was this roster composition just not sustainable in a slowed fourth quarter environment? Can Love himself even succeed when the game isn’t wide open? These are all some pretty serious indictments based on the drastic numbers divide.
Let’s talk more about his shooting. What are his shooting charts like? Should he keep shooting from deep?
As mentioned earlier, Kevin Love loves, loves, loves the left wing three. Per Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, his 229 shots from that area led the NBA last season and no one was even close. His past two full seasons of shot charts, via Nylon Calculus’ Austin Clemens, have been pretty similar.
Big men often shoot more frequently and/or are more efficient from the left side. That’s a natural flow of the offense following pick-and-rolls, putting the receiver in a position to attack with their dominant (often, right) hand. So the left-side dominance isn’t too surprising. But the threes certainly are for a 6-foot-10 rebounding machine like him.
He attempted only 19 threes his entire first season. In his next two campaigns, he averaged still only 2.6 three-point attempts per 36 minutes. Last year, this had skyrocketed all the way up to 6.5, which again is staggering volume for an above-average 37.6% long-distance rate.
His mySynergySports stats show that he’s a diverse scorer in many facets of the game. He still maintains a frequent post-up presence, but he had far more possessions begin with a hand-off or off-screen this past year. In every single split related to shooting bar none, he improved upon his points per possession from 2011-12. The only efficiency regression was in isolation possessions.
Love then is a unique 26-point scorer. He was assisted on a higher percentage of two-point makes than the league average (57.2% v. 51.8%). That was also slightly the case with his three-point makes (85.8% v. 83.7%). And because he had such a high ratio of three-point shots, he was assisted on a very high rate of his buckets overall compared to the average (65.5% v. 58.3%).
Most high-end scorers have low assisted field goal rates because of their high ratio and success in isolation possessions. Just look at the overall marks for players like Kevin Durant (47.2%), LeBron James (41.6%), Carmelo Anthony (38.6%) and Kyrie Irving (31.0%).
Even among Love’s elite big man peers – players like Blake Griffin (65.2%), LaMarcus Aldridge (60.0%), Dirk Nowitzki (59.2%) and DeMarcus Cousins (53.3%) – his assisted field goal rates stand out. That’s because he succeeds in post-ups and threes, two of the categories more likely to be dependent on help from his teammates.
Despite Goldsberry’s comments, I think there is a value in still having Love as a perimeter threat. GotBuckets’ Justin Willard had a two-part series on the value of floor spacing from big man. This is how the NBA plays today with all players capable of stretching the floor, a la the San Antonio Spurs. To just stick Love down low would consolidate his skills. His rebounding might also not be as necessary as Goldsberry described.
Any other final statistics thoughts?
Compare the career rebounding numbers of Love (12.3% offense; 29.8% defense), Anderson Varejao (11.6% offense; 23.5% defense) and Tristan Thompson (12.7% offense; 20.7% defense). Yes, Love is the best even with his new love of three-point shooting, but to dismiss Varejao and Thompson is short-sighted. Both are very good rebounders and perfectly sufficient of grabbing a healthy number of offensive rebounds.
Goldsberry’s comments ignore the decreased emphasis on offensive rebounding in today’s NBA. After the 2012-13 season, Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote about the extraordinary methods of the Indiana Pacers, an elite defensive team, even in transition, that still dominated the offensive glass. They had the No. 4 offensive rebounding team that year.
Where did then Indiana rank in offensive rebound rate this past season? No. 21. San Antonio was No. 24 and Miami was No. 29. Yes, offensive rebounding is important, but not necessarily to the extent previously thought, as I mentioned in my four factors correlations earlier this year.
This is also to note that when two Love-Thompson-Varejao play together, obviously, their individual share of rebounding will decrease to some extent. Two of the best studies on the diminishing returns of rebounding (especially on the defensive end) are from Eli Witus and Jon Nichols. Witus is a new vice president of basketball operations with the Houston Rockets. Nichols is now the Cavs’ director of analytics. Yes, the effect exists.
On the topic of Love’s usage rate, that too will also decline playing alongside LeBron James (31.6 career usage) and Kyrie Irving (29.0 career usage). Nylon Calculus’ Ian Levy had a breakdown of how playing several high-usage players together will lead to higher offensive efficiency as a whole. It is expected Love’s true shooting will increase even past his 59.8 percent mark last season, perhaps as high as 62-64 percent. And the existence of very good offensive creators should ease Love’s clutch woes.
Kevin Love is an elite power forward in today’s NBA. He shoots and he rebounds. He does so with incredible volume and efficiency. In order to continue to be so successful, he should continue to do both. Building around Irving and James for many years to come, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have that opportunity.
Playing alongside Nikola Pekovic in Minnesota was not the ideal defensive frontcourt, but the team still managed to have an average defense overall. In Cleveland, Love is now set to play alongside Varejao and Thompson. Will it be better? Perhaps not much. Neither incumbent provides much rim protection either, although at least they’re more nimble of foot.
In an ideal world, Love could be paired with a tall rim protector, one who wouldn’t need to provide much scoring. Love can play center in small doses for an uber-fast team, sure, but that’s not at all a sustainable option. The Cavs should still be hunting for another quality rotation big if they want to put together a top-10 defense, a usual requirement for a true championship contender.
Nothing will be a shoo-in for the 2014-15 Cavaliers. They’re the heavy favorite, but have never played a minute together. David Blatt has an enormous task on his hand to determine the best offensive arrangement out of Irving-James-Love. And the task will be even harder on the defensive end, where Irving and Love have shown very little in previous years. All three are enormously talented. But there is always more nuance to basketball than star-accumulation alone.
Photo: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports