Five years from now, when we're all bowing before the altar of Anthony Davis, the NBA's greatest defender and first human being to block 30 shots in a quarter, we'll look back at the comparison between him and Kevin Love and wonder how we ever mentioned both players in the same sentence.
But that won't happen until we reach a somewhat distant and largely made-up future.
Besides, it's far more interesting to compare Love and Davis—two of the best forwards in the game—as they exist right now.
There's no gimmick here. This is a simple "who ya got?" situation based on what these two studs bring to the court at this very moment in time.
Ultimately, you'll have to make your own decision as to who's got the upper hand. Here's some information that should help in your deliberations.
The Case for Love
Love stuffs the stat sheet to the point of discomfort. When he's through with them, box scores push themselves laboriously back from the table, loosen their belts a notch or two and slip into gluttony-induced comas.
Rick Carlisle on Kevin Love: "He’s a statistical machine. He scores a ton of points, gets a ton of rebounds and he’s getting more assists."— Eddie Sefko (@ESefko) December 31, 2013
And Love's incredibly prolific production doesn't just put him in elite company among today's players; it slots him comfortably alongside some of the game's all-time greats.
If his current averages hold, Love will become the first player to finish a season with averages of at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and four assists since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in the 1975-76 season. Only Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Billy Cunningham can claim membership in that fraternity, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Even among his historically elite peers, Love brings a little something extra.
Capable of scoring inside thanks to great hands, body control and a knack for finishing through contact, Love is an effective weapon in the mid and low post. But his perimeter game makes him a truly unique offensive force.
Kevin Love has tallied at least 25 points, 10 rebounds & two 3-pointers in 7 straight games – the longest such streak in NBA history.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) December 31, 2013
Love has already attempted 285 threes this season, while the other four greats mentioned a moment ago combined to try precisely zero in their 25-13-4 seasons. OK, that's because the three-point line didn't exist until the 1979-80 season. But the point is Love does damage from a much wider variety of areas than any of his historical peers.
Anyone who's watched the Minnesota Timberwolves sprint up and down the floor knows that Love's phenomenal outlet passing is the fuel for their fast breaks. That talent—in addition to the anomaly of watching a 6'10" power forward fire off more than six triples per game—makes Love a genuinely entertaining player to watch.
And for what it's worth, Love's advanced stats validate his incredible conventional numbers. He ranks third in the NBA in player efficiency—behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
There are knocks aplenty on Love's game, though, largely because he's a somewhat disinterested defender. His mobility and anticipation aren't great, and there's a lot of credence to the whispered theory that he deliberately sacrifices defensive position in the interest of setting up for a rebound. There's no James Harden gag reel of Love's curious apathy on D just yet, but the material is certainly out there if anyone wants to get started.
Going to keep harping on Kevin Love's awful transition D until he makes an effort to fix it. http://t.co/ODjpiXqC6X— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) February 2, 2014
It's not just anecdotal criticisms that condemn Love's defense, either. The numbers show him to be an atrocious rim-protector. According to data from SportVU provided to NBA.com, Love allows opponents to convert 58 percent of their shots at the rim, which is a complete joke for a high-minute power forward.
For reference, the wispy, defensively invisible Kevin Martin permits a figure of 61.1 percent that is only marginally worse than his teammate's. When you're Love's size, that's unacceptable.
Overall, though, it's tough to find a more effective, versatile offensive hub than Love. He's good enough on that end to make almost any defensive shortcoming worth it on balance.
The Case for Davis
Any argument in favor of Davis has to begin with the acknowledgment that he's just 20 years old. That in itself is an enormous factor because Davis is a sure bet to improve drastically in the future. And even though we're only measuring Love and Davis against one another right now, it's important to note that Davis could iron out one of his flaws over a weekend.
He's growing that quickly.
Anyhow, Davis is still pretty raw on the offensive end and doesn't do much to create his own shots. He relies on athleticism to score on the offensive boards, on cuts and on dives to the basket. Davis is also an elite threat in the pick-and-roll, mostly because he can cover the distance from the foul line to the basket without taking a dribble.
Plus, Davis' development as a guard in high school has left him with a smooth, fundamentally sound jumper he can rely on out to 20 feet.
In addition, Davis probably runs the floor better than any big man in the game and is a deft finisher.
As his range increases and the New Orleans Pelicans figure out exactly how to use him on the block, he'll become an even more devastating offensive weapon. That he's scoring over 20 points per game and hitting more than half of his shots while still finding his way as an offensive player is kind of absurd when you think about it.
But even if Davis is a somewhat limited offensive player, he more than makes up for it on the other end.
Anthony Davis has 3 games with at least 8 blocked shots this season. The rest of the NBA has 3 such games this season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 29, 2014
He's a beast defensively, though it takes a somewhat nuanced look at his overall profile to really see Davis' brilliance.
The New Orleans defense is horrible—one of the five worst outfits in the NBA. But most of that failing derives from Monty Williams' clunky, inconsistent scheming and a general lack of capable individual defenders (other than Davis, of course).
On his own, Davis is an elite rim defender. He leads the league in blocks per game by a comfortable margin and holds opponents to an accuracy rate of just 44.6 percent at the rim, per NBA.com. That's right in line with reputable defensive studs like Andrew Bogut and Serge Ibaka, and it's just a hair below reigning restricted-area king Roy Hibbert.
Watching Davis defend requires a recalibration of what we think is possible from a player of his size. He's insanely long, bothers shots from miles away and has quick enough feet to be a terror when blitzing pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
Anthony Davis now sometimes pretends he's about to leap for a block, just to scare the shooter.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) February 4, 2014
Put simply, Davis is the kind of player around whom you can build a great defense. From a physical standpoint, there's nothing he can't do, no position he can't capably guard. As he gets more comfortable with rotational subtleties and eventually gets a coach who understands how to engineer a decent scheme, he'll become one of the greatest defensive players the NBA has ever seen.
Even now, he's on the short list of the league's very best stoppers.
To reiterate, there's really no question Davis is the better long-term option. He's five years younger than Love and has the raw, unteachable skills that make him an ideal franchise building block.
Rating Love and Davis right now, though, is a closer question. And one that depends on what you value in a basketball player.
The conventional stats favor Love, and based on his PER, shooting numbers and general offensive value, he's the better pick. But Davis is a bigger two-way threat, and if he were on a team with a decent scheme, he'd be the centerpiece of an elite defense.
In a vacuum, I think it's much harder to field a good team when the franchise big man doesn't play defense, no matter how great his contributions are elsewhere. It sets a bad tone for the supporting cast. The fact is, elite defensive bigs are much harder to find and much more important to winning games than guys who pile up points and rebounds.
Love is an incredible player, truly a once-in-a-generation producer who's ridiculously fun to watch. But Davis already does more things that actually contribute to winning games.
It's an extremely close call, but based on a combination of statistics, film study and a heaping helping of personal preference, I think Davis is a better player than Kevin Love right now.