Kevin Love is back.
And as relayed by the Associated Press via ESPN, he's raring to go:
The beauty of this world is you get fresh starts, you live to fight another day and you just continue to move forward. I've never been so excited to play some basketball and stop hearing about last year.
The question is, will he be playing at a high enough level in 2013-14 that he can regain a spot as one of the-10 best basketball players in the world?
Going into the season, I have Love checking in at No. 14. Here you can see the entire top 15:
- LeBron James
- Kevin Durant
- Chris Paul
- Derrick Rose
- Tony Parker
- Kobe Bryant
- Carmelo Anthony
- Russell Westbrook
- James Harden
- Dwyane Wade
- Dwight Howard
- Rajon Rondo
- Tim Duncan
- Kevin Love
- Marc Gasol
Love has been in the top 10 before, but a lackluster 2012-13 (I'm trying to be nice here) depressed his stock and allowed questions about his overall impact to surface. Does his inability to make the postseason matter? How much of an impact does his defense have on his overall level of play? Does he put up empty stats?
The UCLA product absolutely has the talent necessary to prove that he's a top-10 NBA star once more, but he'll have to do exactly that throughout the upcoming campaign: Prove it.
Continue putting up the same type of numbers
This past season may have given Love a bad name, but he's been nothing short of statistically dominant before the 2012-13 campaign filled his life with seemingly never-ending struggles. And it's hard to remember, but Love is only 25 years old. There's still plenty of resiliency left in the tank.
Remember the 2010-11 season when he averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds per game, leading the league on the glass? Remember 2011-12 when he put up 26 points and 13.3 rebounds on a nightly basis?
Those are truly dominant numbers.
Over the last five seasons, there have been 109 games in which a player has recorded 20 points and 20 boards. Love accounted for 16 of them, including the only 30-30 game in the past three decades.
Few players possess his level of superiority both on the glass and in the scoring column, and that's not going to change anytime soon.
According to Basketball-Reference, Love earned 11.42 win shares in 2010-11 and then another 9.98 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Only LeBron James, Chris Paul, Pau Gasol and Kevin Durant joined him in the top 10 each season.
As long as Love can resume his quest to throw up 20-20s each and every time he steps foot onto the hardwood, he'll be in great shape. But that's not all he needs to do given the ever-changing and ever-improving nature of the NBA landscape.
It's time for him to fill in some holes in his game and leave even more of a lasting impression.
Start playing defense
Throughout his career, Love has been a rather porous defender.
It's strange considering the lower-body strength he displays when setting up for a rebound, but he doesn't hold his position in the post particularly well. Additionally, he's displayed poor instincts and a notable lack of effort on the less glamorous end of the court.
As a result, Minnesota has tended to be much less effective at stopping the opposition when he's on the court:
This last season was an anomaly, one created by small sample size as Love played only 18 games. But he needs to prove me wrong and start exerting himself a little a lot more on the defensive end. Stopping the other team is half the battle, after all.
It's not only disconcerting that Love struggles to make the 'Wolves defense better, but also that the defense as a whole struggles when he's on the court. Hovering around 110 points allowed per 100 possessions is not a positive.
In fact, it's hard to put it any better than B/R's Matthew Schmidt did during his article about Love's training-camp checklist: "Love can put up 25 and 15 on a nightly basis, so the fact that he is not considered to be hands down the league's top power forward is an indictment of how poor he really is on that end of the floor."
I don't need Love to start blocking shots like he's an amalgamation of Larry Sanders and Serge Ibaka. We're living in an era in which Marc Gasol can win Defensive Player of the Year while only averaging 1.7 rejections per game, after all.
I just need him to stop displaying such unfortunate porosity.
Small, sample-size warnings are in effect here, but according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Love allowed opponents to score 1.03 points per possession against him last year over the course of 117 plays. That's a mark that 440 qualified players beat.
Four hundred and forty.
Love was just tortured whenever players could establish post position against him, allowing them to shoot nearly 56 percent from the field when starting with their backs to the basket.
And nothing looked good.
At the start of this play against Paul Millsap, Love appears to be in solid guarding position. He's in an athletic stance and properly spaced, after all.
However, he's not forcing Millsap in any one direction, and that leaves him a little bit more vulnerable. That won't come into effect here, but it's still worth noting.
Millsap faces up, and Love literally does nothing. Compare the positioning of his feet in the image up above to the first picture of the sequence. It hasn't changed even a little bit.
One jab step sends Love backpedaling, and it's an easy step back for Millsap.
Look at how much space the undersized forward has opened up with one simple move. Love might as well not even be on the court.
That said, my favorite part of the sequence is Jamaal Tinsley, who slowly drifts away until he's almost off of the screen. He knows that Millsap is about to do mean things to Love and that he no longer needs to be involved in the play.
Tinsley isn't as confident on this next play, but Al Jefferson is.
Once more, Love begins the play properly. That's just about all he does right, though.
A simple drive to Jefferson's right frees him up, and Love doesn't even bother to contest the shot.
His feet are still planted on the ground when Jefferson is at the top of his limited leap, and this becomes a de facto layup for Big Al. It's understandably hard to stop Jefferson from his sweet spot on that left block, but a little effort would be nice.
This is the last post-up sequence I'll show you. I don't want the depression to sink in too much.
At first glance, Love appears to have Luis Scola suffocated. You can't tell from the still image, but the long-haired member of the Phoenix Suns (now with the Indiana Pacers) has already picked up his dribble.
Except he isn't.
Some fancy footwork allows him to get Love to over commit, and he's quick enough that he gets around the opposing power forward for an easy underhanded finish at the basket that isn't truly contested.
Things don't get much better in pick-and-roll sets (h/t Schmidt):
It's a sight that T'Wolves fans are all too familiar with. Love has very much been a defensive liability throughout his career, and that needs to change if he's actually going to assert himself as a bona fide top-10 star.
Make his teammates better
Love's outlet passes are beautiful, reminding basketball fans of Bill Walton, even. And that's where his ability to help out teammates both starts and stops.
His assist totals make it appear as though he's a solid facilitator, but those numbers are more of a mirage than anything else. Love must make a more concentrated effort to involve his teammates, as he's proven in the past that while he can put up sensational numbers, he can't shoulder the offensive burden alone.
It's an area that CBS Sports' Zach Harper has honed in on as well:
Expanding his game means getting more players involved. A player with his passing prowess should average more than the 2.2 assists he has for his career. With the weapons on the floor capable of knocking down shots when he swings it from the post or drops a bounce pass to a cutter on the baseline, the facilitator role should become a natural progression that will make him just short of unstoppable on the offensive end of the floor.
During Love's last healthy season (2011-12), his Minnesota teammates had an effective field goal percentage of 49.2 when he was on the court, and that number dropped to 47.2 when he was on the bench or injured.
At first glance, that appears to be a positive, but when you factor in the level of involvement (something I did in a metric called "teammate boost"), it's more irrelevant than anything else. During 2011-12, Love's teammate boost was just 0.008, the No. 69 mark out of the 102 qualified players I looked at.
That's obviously not going to cut it, as superstars should make the players around them better.
In 2013-14, Love must look to involve everyone with significantly more frequency, even it comes with a decline in points per game.
Advance to the postseason
I hate using team success to talk about individual prowess, but it's something that needs to happen because we're dealing with overall public perception.
To use an inter-sport comparison, just think about what's happening with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in the AL MVP "race."
Trout is absolutely the better, more complete player. His offense is slightly less valuable than Cabrera's (and even that can be argued), but his defense and base-running abilities blow the Detroit Tiger out of the water.
Working against Trout are Cabrera's impressive (and, in some cases, antiquated) Triple Crown stats, as well as the fact that Detroit is in the postseason. So, as an individual, Trout is being punished for the Los Angeles Angels front office's inability to put together a competitive club.
If you replaced Trout with Cabrera, LA would be even worse. But the lack of team success hurts the individual reputation for whatever inexplicable reason.
Now basketball is admittedly a little bit different.
The rosters are smaller, and one player can have more of an impact on the team's success due to an increased opportunity for involvement. But the point still stands: Postseason appearances shouldn't be a basis for evaluation, even if they inevitably are.
Will Minnesota make the playoffs?
Despite spending five years in the NBA and making two All-Star teams, Love still hasn't advanced past the 82nd game of the season. The 'Wolves were expected to do so last year until a rash of injuries ended their dreams before they became realities, and now the 2013-14 campaign carries along similar expectations.
More so than anything else, Love has to keep Minnesota in contention for one of the eight coveted spots in the Western Conference if he wants to be universally perceived as a top-10 player in the Association.
There's no way around that.
Kyrie Irving is currently the only other player even close to sniffing the top 10 who hasn't played a playoff game, and he's spent significantly less time in the ranks of professional basketball. Plus the Cleveland Cavaliers are widely expected to be competitive in the weaker Eastern Conference.
Will Love finish the season as a top-10 player?
This is a make-or-break season for Love, especially after last year's go-around was a break in multiple ways. The phrase "playoffs or bust" will be used multiple times, and—while I maintain it isn't particularly fair—Love's reputation will depend on how far he advances.
I had the 'Wolves projected as the No. 7 seed before Chase Budinger injured his knee again. Without the improving young swingman, the playoff chances have been lessened, but Minnesota should still finish in that No. 8 spot.
And if Love helps his team do that while making his teammates better, maintaining his statistical excellence and actually playing a little defense, it will be foolhardy to keep him out of the top 10.