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Is Kevin Love a True Franchise-Changing Superstar?

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love  reacts after a foul call during the second half of the Timberwolves' NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 120-113 despite Love's 43 points and 19 rebounds. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press
Jim CavanContributor IFebruary 7, 2014

If Kevin Love dominates in Minnesota, and the national media doesn’t bother to put it in the lead segment, is he a superstar?

Leading up to the back-to-back free-agent smorgasbords of 2015 and 2016, this could wind up being the most vexing koan of all.

Despite a disappointing overall season for his Minnesota Timberwolves, Love’s consistently stellar play has begged speculation as to what his long-term plans might be.

Few doubt Love’s promise as a perennial All-Star. The more pressing question, particularly for the teams most believe will be hot on Love’s trail, is this: Can he be the kind of player to take a franchise over the top?

If you’re looking strictly at the numbers, Love’s superstar pedigree is hard to discount.

That’s some pretty heady company, to say the least. At the same time, such isolated superlatives only scratch the surface of what has been Love’s best season to date.

Consider: Through his team’s first 49 games, Love has cobbled together a statistical resume on par with his most lauded superiors. To take just a few examples:

A Higher Love
StatisticNumberRank
Points per game25.64th
Rebounds per game13.22nd
Player efficiency rating27.43rd
Win shares per 48 minutes.2664th
Basketball-Reference.com

Regarding the win shares per-48 in particular: Of the top 20 players in that category not named Kevin Love, and who have tallied at least 1500 minutes, only three play on teams with below-.500 records: Anthony Davis (5th at .214), Nikola Pekovic (12th at .181) and Andre Drummond (13th at .179).

The idea that Love’s numbers are somehow discounted by virtue of where he plays is, of course, patently absurd; this isn’t college basketball, where stats can be padded by virtue of playing against inferior talent.

If anything, the fact that Love is putting up these numbers in a loaded Western Conference and on a team that—while by no means a contender—is still playing .500 basketball, should prove positive of his universal bona fides.

That’s not to say Love doesn’t have his weaknesses, of course. His defensive rating (102), while improved, remains middling at best. More crucially for his prospects, Love’s leadership has long been the subject of some skepticism. From ESPN’s Bill Simmons:

Still, it’s impossible not to view Love’s occasionally crabby demeanor in the context of his current situation: stuck on a team which, while laden with youth and upside, hasn’t quite managed to take the next step.

In a famously cryptic interview given to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski in December 2012, Love—fresh rookie-max contract to his name—vented his frustration over what he saw as a lack of direction within the Timberwolves organization.

"You walk into the locker room every year, and it's completely turned over," Love says. "There's new guys everywhere. And then it happens again and again. You start to wonder: Is there really a plan here? Is there really any kind of a … plan?"

Love doesn't want to sound "bitter over it," he says, because he understands that no one wants to hear him unhappy over a four-year, $62 million contract. In so many ways, the contract is beyond his wildest dreams. Yet the five-year, $80 million maximum designation the franchise could have given him represented the commitment he wanted to make to Minnesota, the way with which a first-team All-NBA player and Olympian should stand shoulder to shoulder with a city, an organization.

Wojnarowski’s article touches, at a number of points, on what has been the chief criticism of Love’s career thus far: For all his undeniable talent, he hasn’t once managed to take the Timberwolves to the playoffs.

At this point, whether or not you believe Minnesota’s middling recent history falls on Love’s shoulders or that of his management is almost beside the greater point: that his days with the Wolves might be numbered.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first mention of such. Last week, our very own Matt Fitzgerald dug deep into the most prevalent Love rumor: that he’ll eventually sign with his Los Angeles Lakers.

ESPN.com's Chris Broussard (subscription required) reports on Thursday, Jan. 30 that "most executives" are of the belief that Love will rock the purple and gold as a member of the Lake Show when he's free to flee.

"That's a 100 percent certainty,'' said one GM to Broussard.

While Fitzgerald does well to temper the notion that Love need not consider any other alternatives, it’s only understandable that the pull of the purple and gold—combined with returning to the city where he made his name as a collegiate standout at UCLA—will ultimately lure him west.

Which of course invites the question: Would Love be willing to play second fiddle, if more in name than box score, to an aging Kobe Bryant?

If the principal criticism of Love holds true—that his is not the demeanor of a true leader—then perhaps playing with someone like a Kobe or Chris Paul would be exactly what he needs.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Then again, it might be wise to bank on Love doing what we expect out of just about every 25-year-old still searching for his paramount niche: continue to grow.

Regardless of where he ends up, Love’s unique combination of size, rebounding and scoring makes for a cornerstone around which any team—be they on the championship cusp or with the means to get there quickly—would kill to build around.

The Lakers are one possibility, of course. As are a number of other big-name locales: The New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers being the glitzy examples.

Wherever he lands, Love’s professional credentials speak for themselves: as a testament to one superstar’s potentially franchise-altering talent. 

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