Is Kevin Love a Top 10 NBA Star?

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Is Kevin Love a Top 10 NBA Star?
Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Kevin Love has been both the victim and beneficiary of subjective analysis.

During different stages of his career, he's been many things. A superstar, overrated, video game stat-hoarder, helpless defender, unathletic, injury prone and so much more. Never has he been an unquestioned top-10 luminary.

How could he? Through five seasons, it's been impossible to identify him as one type of player. Injuries got in the way. Absence of playoff berths clouded our vision. Fluctuating stat lines baffled us.

Then came this season. Love has remained healthy and dominant, reassuring us of his superstar standing. Yet, his Minnesota Timberwolves are still falling short of a playoff berth, and his defense remains Carlos Boozer-ish, buttressing an inherent need to doubt him. 

But we're beyond skepticism.

The 'Wolves are who they are—flawed. And Love is who he is—someone who stands taller than many care to admit.

 

Offensive Value Like Whoa

David Sherman/Getty Images

One of Love's jobs this season was to do nothing.

Not in the sense that he should stand around, finger-mining his nose, hoping to watch his beard grow, but rather, to stand pat on the offensive end.

Last season saw Love shoot 35.2 percent from the field while averaging 18.3 points per game. But we knew that wasn't Love. Though prone to long stretches of inefficiency, he has never been an erratic scorer. Playing in only 18 games can also have that kind of impact.

What Love needed to do was just be Love. Score around 20 points per game while shooting a respectable clip from the field and jaw-dropping percentage from downtown. 

Check, check and check.

Absolute offensive dominance? Also check.

Love's offensive numbers are truly insane this season. He's putting up 25.9 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting overall and 38.1 percent shooting from deep. His offensive rating also comes in at an astounding 121.

Know how many players in NBA history have maintained such totals for an entire season? None. Love is on pace to become the first.

His success remains contagious too, like it has for most of his career.

Via infogr.am.

Save for his rookie season, the 'Wolves have routinely been noticeably better on offense with him on the floor. This season, it's especially true, with Minnesota averaging 19.7 points more per 100 possessions when he's in the game.

Those of the nothing-to-see-here persuasion will argue this is expected. Good offensive players make their teams better on offense. It's simple math. Blue's Clues target audiences could figure it out.

But that type of impact, that profound difference is only spurred by great players.

Consider more of the NBA's top talents. Plucked right from Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes' latest superstar rankings, here are offensive-rating differentials for the league's top-six players compared to Love's:

Via infogr.am.

Stars stand to have a greater impact on offense when their team is worse. We get that. Can we really dismiss Love's effect on Minny's, though, just because the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are better teams? Not when the difference is this stark.

Not when Love's individual production allows the 'Wolves to score at a rate (108.4 points per 100 possessions) of the league's third-best offense.

 

Playmaking Ways

Prior to this season, Love was called upon to expand his game.

As Zach Harper of CBS Sports wrote, that required he become more of a playmaker:

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.

Mission accomplished. Again.

Love is averaging a career-high 4.2 assists to go along with a career-best 20.8 assist percentage, which means he's assisting on more than a fifth of his made baskets when in the game.

For a player who has never dished out more than 2.5 assists per game or assisted on more than 12.9 percent of made baskets, that's absurd. He joins Kevin Durant as the only other player to be scoring at least 25 points per game while also averaging four assists and an assist percentage of 20.

Love is also the proud owner of 8.7 assist opportunities per game, according to NBA.com's player tracking data. That's more than Durant (8.6) and Paul George (7.6), two players often recognized as point forwards. Yes, you should be impressed.

Balanced talents traditionally receive the most attention. Fans love a player who can do almost everything. Space the floor, score, rebound—Love could already do so many things.

Now, he can pass; now, he can make his teammates better using more than just his shooting.

 

Still Doubling-Doubling

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Turns out, Love can still rebound.

He brings down 13.9 a night, which currently leads the league. He also leads the NBA in double-doubles, having posted 25 in 27 games. And since Love entered the Association in 2008, he's secured 216 double-doubles, third most during that time, behind only David Lee (254) and Dwight Howard (302).

Don't try to discredit his board-crashing efforts, either. Love ranks second in contested rebounds per game (5.4), defined as boards grabbed when an opponent is within 3.5 feet.

This essentially means Love doesn't share some kind of special connection with the ball. It isn't drawn to him like a moth to a flame or turnover to James Harden. Love is fighting for his rebounds, working his tail off under the basket.

Love is a rebounding fiend, perhaps the most dangerous keeper of 'bounds the NBA currently has.

 

Stop Playing Devil's Advocate

Dan Lippitt/Getty Images

Let's put many of the questions surrounding Love to bed, shall we?

Sure, he's not perfect. Far from it. But no one's perfect. Knocks on Love are gripes we could have with any other player, defensive execution included.

Ah yes, defense. The dreaded "D" word. Love's downfall. Personally, I'm sick of hearing about it.

Synergy Sports (subscription required) 264th in points allowed per possession. The Timberwolves are allowing fewer points with him off the floor. He's not a good defender. Deal with it. Just like we do with other players.

Love's current defensive rating (102) ties a career best. Let's see how that matches up against players who, at one time or another, have been considered top-10 stars:

Via infogr.am.

Now, let's look at the net gains between their defensive and offensive ratings:

Via infogr.am.

Can we really split hairs over Love's defense now? When the differential between his defensive and offensive ratings (19) exceeds that of everyone on that list except Chris Paul?

Rank guys like Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Harden where you must. At some point, they've all hit the top 10, despite being less-than-staunch defenders. Love isn't better than all of them, but he's done enough offensively to ensure he's just as valuable.

Speaking of which, let's toss the whole "no playoff" argument to the curb. It's not enough anymore. 

We don't judge players solely upon win shares and rings. If we did, players like 'Melo could never be considered a superstar, even if they make the playoffs.

The NBA is no longer a league where you can do it all on your own. We're seeing that now more than ever. Anthony, who has taken his teams to the playoffs in 10 straight seasons largely by himself, hasn't been enough this year to keep his New York Knicks in the playoff conversation.

Superstar pairings are cropping up like cake lovers at a bakery fire sale. Howard flocked to Harden's side with the Houston Rockets. Westbrook has been with Durant his entire career. The Heat's Big Three are working on a third consecutive title.

Given the league's power structure, and how superteams have become standard fixtures, it's impressive that Love has his 'Wolves within striking distance at all.

 

So, Top 10 or Not?

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Top 10. All "or nots" can be forwarded to youarewrong@KevinLoveIsATop10Star.com.

All right, that's a little extreme.

Cases against Love can be made, and I'll even listen to them. But finding 10 NBA players presently better than Love is becoming a more difficult task by the day, especially as we realize the 'Wolves are not his fault.

Where does Kevin Love rank among the NBA's superstars?

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It's not his fault 45 points weren't enough to lead Minny to victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. It's not his fault the Timberwolves are two games off the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.

It's not his fault he's the lone superstar on a team discovering its not star-rific enough to contend.

"Awesome," Ricky Rubio said of his teammate's performance this season, per the Associated Press (via USA Today). "There's no words to describe. He's doing a great job leading this team in scoring, rebounding, even assisting. He's taking my job."

Awesome. Spectacular. Video game-esque. Sensational. 

All of those are words or phrases worthy of describing a top-10 superstar.

All of those accurately depict Love's current performance.

 


*All stats in this article used come courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com (subscription required) and Synergy Sports (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.

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