Is Kevin Love Capable of Carrying a Legit Playoff Team?

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Is Kevin Love Capable of Carrying a Legit Playoff Team?
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Kevin Love just wants to win.

More than All-Star selections, scoring titles, rebounding crowns or even Team USA trips. He wants to win as much as he can, as often as he can on the game's biggest stage.

It's a narrative that's so far haunted his NBA career, and one that casts an ominous cloud over his future.

Love can opt out of his current contract after the 2014-15 season. Conventional wisdom says the Minnesota Timberwolves will need to convince him of their postseason potential or Love will bolt for bigger, brighter and, most importantly, more successful things somewhere else.

But shouldn't Love have to do some convincing of his own? He's a superstar on the stat sheet, but do his talents lend themselves to postseason success? And if they do, why hasn't that happened yet?

 

Ups and Downs

Not unlike their face of the franchise, these Wolves are starved for success. Minnesota hasn't punched a playoff ticket since 2003-04, four years before trading for Love on draft night in 2008.

Ravaged by injury and unable to rally around the fallen troops, the Wolves have been a mix of bad luck and worse results.

Minnesota isn't exactly feasting this season, but given its recent history, a .500 mark in January might feel like it. Surrounded by the best supporting cast he's had as a pro, Love's thrown his team into the playoff hunt with nothing short of MVP-caliber production: 26.3 points, 13.5 assists, 4.1 assists and a .466/.374/.828 shooting slash.

David Sherman/Getty Images

"His stat line is a fantasy basketball fantasy," ESPN.com's Danny Chau wrote. "On a team full of zip and panache, Love (more specifically, his old-school outlet passing) is somehow the most exhilarating element of the team's offense."

Love is gorging on box scores.

He's the only player with top-five rankings in both scoring (No. 2) and rebounding (No. 1). He's one of two true power forwards sitting inside the top-40 in assists (tied for No. 34).

The problem for Minnesota is that these feasts haven't freed it from some famine performances. Love has been a steady source of brilliance. But the players around him have flickered throughout the season.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Wolves are the league's only team owning victories over both the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. But they're also 3-3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics—the only Western Conference team to have suffered a loss to each of these clubs.

"It’s been our problem when we don’t feel good, we start taking shots that don’t make sense," Ricky Rubio said after Minnesota's 124-112 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, via ESPN.com's Zach Harper. "We don’t get to the free throw line and that allows them to get fast break [opportunities] too."

Rubio was lauding the fact that Minnesota earned 35 trips to the foul line. He was also shining a light on the fact that this same aggressiveness isn't present every night. That's why this team has cracked 120 points in regulation five different times and failed to reach 95 in five others.

Good players have a way of stabilizing their franchise. But can Love possibly do anything more? Is this inconsistency a reflection on him?

 

Finding Balance

There's a tendency to place team expectations on the shoulders of individual stars in all sports, but those hopes seem to weigh the heaviest in basketball.

One player can change the outcome of the organization. At least, that's the script we've always followed.

So when a team fortunate enough to land an elite talent struggles as much as Minnesota has, those critical fingers eventually start pointing at that player. No one's asking Love to lead a championship push, but continually coming up short in the regular season is more than a bit concerning.

When a 30-team league sends out 16 playoff invitations, eventually people wonder what's wrong with the teams that are consistently left out of the picture.

So, what's (been) wrong with the Wolves? Instead of looking at the two-time All-Star, try poring over the pieces around him:

Love is one of the greatest players of this generation. He actually makes his teammates better, a trait shared only by the game's true elites.

But he's not a miracle worker. He at least needs to have teammates that are capable of being lifted up:

Love is the reason Minnesota is now sitting in the playoff picture. Not one of the reasons—the only one.

That isn't me talking. That's what the numbers are saying.

When Love is on the floor, Minnesota averages 110.1 points per 100 possessions and allows just 102.8 per 100 trips. If the Wolves always performed at these levels, they'd be tied for No. 1 in offensive efficiency and have the No. 17-rated defense. That plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions differential would stand as the league's No. 5 net rating.

Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

When Love checks out of the game, the Wolves' offense collapses. Minnesota has just a 90.6 offensive rating during the time he's sat this season. Not only would that stand as the league's worst, it would be the only one under 96.0.

Love knows how to maximize the players around him.

His ability to space the floor gives Rubio and Nikola Pekovic room to operate. He's the defensive distraction that Kevin Martin needs to free himself and the willing passer that helps the long-range specialist maintain effectiveness. His outlet passing has given Corey Brewer new life as a deep threat. 

The team might battle with split personalities, but Love's the same player every time he hits the hardwood. He's made 31 appearances so far this season. In all but eight of them, he's left with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

He's doing everything in his power to exorcise the playoff demons haunting him and his franchise. But will that be enough to keep the Wolves off their couches when the second season tips off?

 

Surveying the Field

There are short-term and long-term meanings for that phrase.

For now, it's about looking at where Love has the Wolves and just how much farther he can carry them. A .500 record might come with a banner out East, but in the fully-loaded West it still leaves Minnesota three games back of a playoff berth.

It's tough to find any vulnerable teams currently inside the postseason picture.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the Phoenix Suns' youth finally catches up with them at some point. Or the Golden State Warriors find out why its risky to build around injury-prone players. Or even the Dallas Mavericks draw the wrath of the basketball gods for neglecting one end of the floor.

Could these things happen? It's possible. Are any of them likely? Absolutely not.

If the Wolves are dancing into May, they will have earned that invite. Love can take this team that far, but only if it's willing to follow his lead.

Can Love be the primary option on a championship contender?

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Which leads us to the long-term significance at hand.

If Love holds up his end of the bargain and the Wolves still come up empty, is he as good as gone in 2015?

He's an elite-level talent, one of the best offensive players in the game today. He's the type of star other top-shelf talents would like to play alongside, but that extra help isn't coming to Minnesota if this doesn't look like a championship team.

Love could absolutely anchor a legitimate playoff team. The question is whether he'll need to leave Minnesota to find that team.

He can do some amazing things on the basketball court, but he can't do everything by himself.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

 

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