What's Holding Kevin Love Back from Earning Respect as Top NBA Superstar?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

Kevin Love needs a campaign strategist, a PR representative, a brand manager—anything, really. Despite putting up numbers no other NBA player has touched this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves' stat-stuffing power forward can't seem to get the kind of league-wide recognition other superstars enjoy.

What gives?

Figuring out why he's not viewed as being on the same level as the game's true top-tier players is tricky. Part of the difficulty has to do with the inherently fuzzy definition of the term "superstar." The other complicating factor arises out of the sheer breadth of opinions that go into bestowing that label.

Some fans and writers care about stats. Others prize the eye test. All of them, though, have their own individual preferences that Love might or might not satisfy.

So, it's complicated. What's clear, though, is that Love needs some love. Maybe a look at the factors holding him back from superstar status will help him get some.


Location, Location, Location

Perhaps Love doesn't get the recognition he deserves because of his small-market team. That's an odd case to make because the NBA is on televisions across the world at all hours of the day. At this point, good players from every market get better exposure than ever before.

Domestically, though, the Western Conference still doesn't get quite the national attention the East does. And the Timberwolves are about as anonymous a franchise as there is in the league.

In that sense, Love's lack of respect might be due to something as simple as a lack of recognition. If fans see him play once for every five times they watch LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, it's understandable that Love doesn't carry the same cache as the bigger, more ubiquitous names.

In addition, the Timberwolves' historical lack of success is problematic for Love's superstar case. The Wolves had a brief streak of relevance when Kevin Garnett was a young pup, but even that era ended with only one trip past the first round of the playoffs.

Since KG left, the Wolves have been awful. Casual fans haven't had much cause (or opportunity) to appreciate what Love does. At the same time, it's possible that Minnesota's consistent futility works as yet another strike against Love.


Team Success

If he were actually any good, the thinking goes, the Timberwolves would have made a little noise by now.

That's an admittedly broad (and, frankly, wrongheaded) way to look at Love. There are plenty of other factors that have contributed more to the Wolves' struggles than any shortcomings from their best player. Injuries, bad personnel moves and a coaching carousel that featured Randy Wittman, Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis have all played bigger parts in Minny's poor play than Love has.


Brand Recognition

The NBA hasn't made a particularly strong effort to market Love. He doesn't play for a marquee franchise and he doesn't routinely generate highlights, so that's understandable. But Love doesn't really market himself much, either. In that sense, his relative anonymity might be by his own design.

Plenty of guys clamor to create a brand and show up in commercials. Maybe he's satisfied with just playing hoops. Then again, he's a regular in Kyrie Irving's "Uncle Drew" ads, so it seems like Love is game for a little TV time.

The Numbers

Statistically, Love certainly profiles as a superstar.

On the season, he's averaging 23.9 points, 13.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Superficial numbers like those usually get the attention of casual fans—and those fans are the ones who have a significant role in determining which players earn the elusive "superstar" designation.

The advanced statistics are also kind to Love. His 26.3 PER ranks seventh in the league, he's fifth in win shares and actually checks in at No. 20 in defensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Granted, he allows opponents to post above-average PER figures, per 82games.com, but he probably deserves a bit of a break on D because of the offensive load he carries for the Wolves.

Stats don't seem to be the issue. So maybe Love just isn't catching the eye of viewers.


Highlight Deficient

That's actually a stronger possibility than you might think. Much of what Love does well is subtle. He scores from various spots on the floor and adds value by doing a lot of little things. Many viewers don't appreciate how consistently he beats opponents to spots and cleverly positions himself for rebounds.

Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated described the quiet excellence of Love's work on the court in an article chronicling the 32-point, 15-rebound, eight-assist effort he posted against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 8:

This is the essence of Love's greatness: a relentless commitment to making the right play. In the grand sweep of his game against Dallas, Love enjoyed no dunks, no killer crossovers, no trash talk, nothing that meets our definition of a highlight, warped as it is by braying SportsCenter hosts and YouTube mixtapes. He just did the little things over and over, until they added up to something big.

Maybe it's just too much work to appreciate how Love impacts the game. Windmill dunks and high-flying blocks are a lot easier to notice.

Among his teammates, though, Love's understated skills get plenty of notice—if not understanding. J.J. Barea told Shipnuck:

I love how he fights for a rebound against five people and comes up with it. I don't know how, but he does. Then he pump-fakes, misses the shot, gets it back, then he puts it in and screams a little. That's what it's all about. Most teams, it's a dunk or a blocked shot that gets guys pumped up. For us, Kevin's toughness and his fight, that's what this team is made of.

Love isn't a perfect player by any stretch. He's shooting just 43.7 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from long range, not exactly the efficiency you'd like to see from a 6'10" power forward. And there's no question that his defensive game leaves something to be desired.

He's not a terrific help defender, and he sometimes worries more about rebound positioning than rotating to bother penetrators. Nonetheless, Love has been pretty close to a break-even defender over his past three full seasons.

Remember, though; we're trying to figure out why Love isn't widely viewed as a superstar. If defense were a prerequisite to inclusion, guys like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Stephen Curry and even Kevin Durant might not have ever reached that level.


Maybe It's Fair

We also have to consider the possibility that for all of his many impressive skills, Love doesn't actually deserve to be viewed on the same plane as the league's top-tier studs. He's a great player, but he's not as impactful as Chris Paul, Paul George, LeBron James or Durant.

He's a notch below them in terms of both individual production and team success.

Maybe he's properly rated as a very good—but not great—player.

Then again, conversations like this have a way of ping-ponging. The mere act of questioning why he's not a superstar will almost certainly lead to a slew of reactionary arguments screaming he is. NBA discourse is predictable that way.

Ultimately, the criteria for superstardom are somewhat arbitrary because the term doesn't really have a fixed meaning. If we go by numbers alone, there's a case to be made that Love deserves the same respect as some of the game's greats.

But for casual fans, the dearth of big highlights and general lack of team success weigh in the opposite direction.

Maybe he needs to show he can lead his team to the playoffs before fans get on board. Maybe he'll have to nail two or three game-winners in a week for people to take notice.

Or maybe he should grow a Harden beard. Nothing else seems to have worked.


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