Kevin Love has a lot of impressive numbers on his resume.
This season, he's leading the league in rebounding while averaging well over 20 points per game. To call him anything less than an All-Star is foolish now that he's healthy and on the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the most important number of all is still a goose egg, and that's far from impressive.
That zero represents not only the number of championships that Love has helped win since leaving UCLA in 2008, but also the number of playoff appearances he's made since coming to Minnesota. And that's a problem.
He can produce all the video game numbers he wants, but until that zero becomes at least a one, they'll be all for naught.
It's almost inconceivable that Kevin Love has never made the playoffs despite extreme statistical dominance throughout his professional career. What's even more inconceivable is the fact that his Timberwolves have never been even remotely close.
Take a look at the winning percentage his team has "enjoyed" over the years, compared to that of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference:
Lately, Minnesota has been narrowing the gap, but that's still not very impressive. This is the closest they've been to one of those coveted playoff spots, and they're still well shy of the surprising Phoenix Suns.
This inability to make the playoffs has given Love an unfortunate reputation. He's become one of those guys who can put up gaudy—but ultimately meaningless—stats during the regular season and then watch the playoffs from home year in and year out.
But the people who give him that tag are forgetting an important lesson, one that Zach Harper touched on quite some time ago for Hoopspeak.com:
I think sometimes we get too caught up in fantasy basketball and too caught up in this mythical folklore that a player should be able to carry any team to wins and the playoffs, instead of realizing how much of a team game the NBA has always been and will always be. There is no such thing as doing it all yourself.
Nothing could sum up Love's misguided reputation any better, even if that paragraph was describing Deron Williams in its original context.
Love posted 11.4 win shares in 2010-11 and another 10 during the following season, per Basketball-Reference. The very notion of win shares involves contributing to wins, so Love's stats can't possibly be meaningless or "empty."
In fact, he produced more win shares over that two-year stretch that all but a handful of players, finishing No. 9 and No. 4, respectively, among the league's best players. Again, how can those numbers be empty?
Just as you can't pull greatness from winning a bunch of titles, you can't crucify a player for the failure to carry his team into the postseason. Those are team-based goals, and it's foolish to make them into individual marks of accomplishment.
Yet it happens, and that's unfortunately one of the methods we must use to judge Love. Until he carries the 'Wolves to the playoffs, one way or another, he's not going to shake the reputation.
As stated earlier, the 'Wolves are still well shy of the Phoenix Suns, at least in terms of winning percentage. But since we're still so early in the 2013-14 campaign—the quarter-season mark is quickly approaching—all it takes for a quick turnaround is a couple of consecutive wins.
And with Love playing like he has, that shouldn't be too difficult.
During the 2013-14 season, the Minnesota power forward has been a sensational offensive player and rebounder, averaging 23.8 points, a league-high 13.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. While routinely dazzling everyone with his Wes Unseld-esque outlet passing, he's shot 43.7 percent from the field, 36.1 percent beyond the arc and 82.4 percent at the charity stripe.
Not too shabby, huh?
But it gets better, and that's not just in reference to the 26.2 PER he's posted thus far, a mark that is currently a career high. The better part comes courtesy of NBA.com's statistical databases:
Not only are the 'Wolves slightly better on the defensive end of the court when Love plays, but they're a completely different offensive team when he's on the floor.
Love's game inherently forces defenses to adjust.
They aren't used to a stretch 4 quite so dominant, simply because Dirk Nowitzki is the only other player in the league who qualifies as such. With Love spacing the court, everything opens up for Ricky Rubio's drive-and-kick game. Nikola Pekovic has time to work in the post. Kevin Martin is able to enjoy and capitalize upon defensive lapses.
Everything clicks, and that was never more evident than in a set of back-to-back games during the early portion of December.
While Love took a leave of absence to mourn the passing of his grandmother, his team was embarrassed by the two-time defending champions. During the 103-82 loss, Minnesota was forced to insert the offense-less Luc Richard Mbah a Moute into the starting lineup, and no one could score. In fact, the team shot only 29.3 percent from the field and went 5-of-22 from beyond the arc.
That changed the very next game, this time against the Detroit Pistons.
Now there's admittedly a downgrade in defensive play when going from Miami to Detroit, but Minnesota still managed to up its point total by 39 points when Love stepped back into the lineup with 26 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists.
He was creating offense, both for himself and his teammates, and he produced six second-chance opportunities. That's impressive enough during an average game, but even more impressive against a front line that includes Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith.
Oh, and he did all that without even playing in the fourth quarter.
As a whole, Minnesota shot 48.2 percent from the field and drilled 11 triples on 24 attempts. How's that for an improvement?
After the game, Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks said the following about Love to the Associate Press via ESPN:
He's a unique player, because he can sit down on the block and score against you, and then he can step out and hit 3-pointers. On the other end, he's grabbing rebounds and hitting those passes over the top on the break. He hit a few of those against us, and that's an easy basket.
A unique player indeed. In fact, uniquely talented enough to keep Minnesota in playoff contention.
Playoff contention isn't good enough.
If the Timberwolves don't make the postseason this year, Love's reputation won't change. Especially because he's playing alongside more talent than he's ever suited up with, thanks to the growth of Rubio and the presence of Pekovic, Martin and the host of wings.
So is it possible for the 'Wolves to earn one of the eight coveted spots? To answer that question, let's take a quite look at the eight teams currently holding down the fort:
- Portland Trail Blazers: Unsustainable place, but still a playoff lock.
- San Antonio Spurs: Playoff lock, just like always.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Any team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is a playoff lock.
- Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul + Blake Griffin = Playoff Lock. It's simple math.
- Houston Rockets: Don't bet against James Harden and Dwight Howard. Playoff lock No. 5.
- Denver Nuggets: A deep and talented team, but not enough star power to earn lock status.
- Dallas Mavericks: Age and defense could still catch up to them.
- Phoenix Suns: Every win earns them legitimacy, but this is still a team that was supposed to be tanking.
Based on that extremely scientific analysis, there are three spots up for grabs (barring any unforeseen injuries to key players on the five playoff locks). But there are far more than three teams competing for them.
The Nuggets, Mavs and Suns may hold them down at the moment, but the 'Wolves, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans are all in the mix as well. Sorry, Sacramento Kings fans, but the Rudy Gay trade doesn't push you into that next tier.
It's impossible to guarantee which teams will make it, but if push came to shove, I'd bet on the Warriors, 'Wolves and Nuggets emerging with the final three spots. The Mavericks and Lakers would come up just shy.
Instead of diving down the rabbit hole and examining the other teams, I'll just focus on Minnesota. The rationale is the same as it has been throughout this article: Love is really, really good.
You saw his history during "The Past," and you saw the on-court/off-court splits during "The Present." It's indisputable that he's one of the top power forwards in basketball, though how you rank him, Dirk, LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis is up to personal interpretation.
With Love in the lineup, Minnesota is 10-10, and the team is only going to get better now that LRMBAM is on the roster and ready to team up with Corey Brewer to form a pair of shutdown wings. There are stellar offensive lineups—anything with Love on the court—and excellent defensive lineups at Rick Adelman's disposal.
On top of that, the 'Wolves have been underperforming.
According to Basketball-Reference, their Pythagorean record (based not on wins and losses, but rather points scored and allowed) is 13-8, which gives them the No. 8 mark in the entire NBA and the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference. Additionally, they've played the sixth-hardest schedule in the NBA, so things are only going to get better.
Basketball-Reference also gives a stat called Simple Rating System, or SRS. It's "a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule." Now, let's take a look at those contenders for the final three playoff spots, this time based on SRS:
- Minnesota Timberwolves: 4.85 (No. 8 in the NBA)
- Golden State Warriors: 3.75 (No. 9)
- Denver Nuggets: 2.70 (No. 10)
- Phoenix Suns: 2.21 (No. 11)
- Dallas Mavericks: 1.66 (No. 12)
- New Orleans Pelicans: minus-0.19 (No. 13)
- Los Angeles Lakers: minus-0.81 (No. 16)
- Memphis Grizzlies: minus-1.02 (No. 18)
As reference points, the Milwaukee Bucks are dead last at minus-9.24, and the San Antonio Spurs lead the field at 8.73. In fact, the Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers are the only teams beating Minnesota.
Again, why is that?
Because Love is really, really good. He's an offensive juggernaut due to his unique combination of interior moves, shooting ability and passing skills (both in transition and half-court sets), and he's emerged as the best rebounder in basketball, bar none.
So long as he's in the lineup, this is a competitive team. But unfortunately, that'll go overlooked if the 'Wolves fall even a game shy of the playoffs.
It's postseason or bust in Minnesota.
Love's reputation, for better or for worse, depends on it.