Having only recently become recognized as a universal superstar, Love's reputation continues to precede him—in a bad way.
Stigmas have been created over the last half-decade, many of which he has shed and destroyed, some of which still remain. The most prominent of faults continues to be postseason inexperience. Love has yet to make a playoff appearance, an absence that is constantly used to downplay and discredit his talent.
Almost six years into his NBA career, the good has thumped the bad. The numbers and accolades have officially toppled the failures.
The Love we see now, absence of postseason berths and all, has finally assumed his rightful spot atop everyone else at his position.
Thinning Out the Field
Power forward is easily the second-deepest position in the NBA, behind only point guard. Arguments that assert it's the deepest position must even be entertained, because there's credibility in such takes.
Unlike the point guard position, though, the pecking order doesn't stretch quite as far. Where the top four or five point guards take into account roughly 10 different names, the power forward position is more exclusive at the top.
Excluding those small forwards who often play out of position—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, etc.—four names come to mind: LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Love. Everyone else is a near afterthought, from Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki to David Lee and Chris Bosh, all of whom are supremely talented but fall shy of top-four consideration.
Aldridge, Davis and Griffin—they're Love's competition, the players he must usurp if we're to believe he's the NBA's absolute best power forward.
A healthy Kevin Love is a dominant Kevin Love.
That's what we've learned this season, as Love continues to destroy stat lines like today's NBA is a video game and he's the unabashed puppeteer, setting opponents' competition levels to "super easy, they wear cinder blocks as sneakers" mode.
Love is averaging 26.4 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on the season. If his current numbers hold, he will become the fifth player in NBA history to post such benchmarks for an entire year, joining Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billy Cunningham, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
The transformation he has undergone truly is remarkable. Love has always been a double-double threat, but he's strengthened the passing element of his game, making him someone who could flirt with a triple-double on any given night.
And that's just what he did in a win over the Utah Jazz:
Passing-inclined bigs are difficult to find. Passing-inclined bigs who also space the floor are near-nonexistent.
Minnesota's stretch 4 is connecting on 38.1 percent of three-pointers while attempting 6.3 a game, which would make him just the fourth player in NBA history, standing at 6'10" or taller, to close out the year with that high a conversion rate on at least six long-ball attempts per night.
All this is in addition to his nightly double-doubles that have been fixtures for close to five years. He leads the NBA in double-doubles with 46, putting him five ahead of second-place Andre Drummond (41).
More impressively, Love has become something of a 30-point, 15-rebound aficionado, having eclipsed the plateau eight times this season. For added context, Dwight Howard and Love are the only players since 2000-01 (Shaquille O'Neal) to register at least 30 points and 15 rebounds 10 or more times in a single season.
So, yeah. Wow.
Long criticized for his lack of defense, Love has taken great strides on that side of the ball as well. His 102 defensive rating ties a career best and ties him for the third-best mark on a Timberwolves team that ranks seventh in defensive efficiency.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Timberwolves' defensive rating with Love on the court (101.6) exceeds that with him off (103.9), which would mark the first time in his career Minnesota has fared better defensively with him on the floor for two consecutive seasons.
Opposing power forwards are posting a 15.3 player efficiency rating against him as well, per 82games.com, only slightly above the league average of 15 and markedly better than the 18.9 he relinquished during his injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign.
When comparing Love's numbers to those of his three main competitors, he comes across as the most well-rounded of the quartet as well:
|Best of the Best Power Forwards|
|Player||PTS||FG%||REB||AST||BLK||Off. Rtg||Def. Rtg||Opp. PER|
|Via Basketball-Reference and 82games.com.|
Flaws exist in every statistical-based argument, and Love holding opposing power forwards to the lowest PER of anyone above is a crowning example of just this. Davis is regarded as one of the best defensive players in the game. Love isn't a better defender than he is just because opposing 4s are posting a lower PER against him.
But it speaks to Love's improvement that he can be placed alongside the top power forwards in the game and not be overshadowed in multiple categories. And it bears mentioning that he's just as versatile a scorer as anyone for his ability to step back and hit threes consistently and frequently, something none of his counterparts do in this case.
Far from perfect, Love is the next best thing: balanced, more so than most care to admit.
Winning defines superstars, and that's not always fair. This is one of those times.
Love cannot be berated for the absence of a playoff appearance—not this season at least.
In years past, you could make the case that Love had become overrated. Top-10 superstars carry their teams—to the playoffs.
But this isn't years past. Today's NBA demands there be more than one player piloting playoff campaigns. It's a rude awakening, but a legitimate one nonetheless, most obvious for the New York Knicks, who are pacing toward the first lottery finish of Anthony's career despite the superstar playing largely out of his mind.
In absence of victories, win shares are one of the more complete and useful metrics available. They measure the number of team wins an individual player has accounted for, determining his value to the franchise in question and his standing among other superstars.
Love ranks second in the NBA in win shares accumulated with 10.9, behind only Kevin Durant (13.8). To be clear, Love has appeared in the same number of contests as LeBron James, who has 10.8 win shares, even though his Miami Heat have won 13 more games than the Timberwolves.
If anything, Minnesota's current campaign attests to its inability to surround Love with the right talent. He hasn't been given the second superstar James and other dignitaries have, and it shows in the fact that he accounts for 40.4 percent of the Timberwolves' victories.
Of those who rank in the top 15 of win shares this season, not one represents that large a portion of his team's wins. The closest anyone comes is Anthony, whose 7.7 win shares represent 36.7 percent of New York's victories.
Notice that Aldridge doesn't even crack the top 15, while Griffin and Davis don't account for even close to 40 percent of their team wins.
This alone doesn't make Love better. It merely furthers our discussion while also killing any doubt that Love must be penalized for Minnesota's current lack of success.
You won't find Love claiming the No. 1 power forward spot miles in front of other contenders. This is a close race, deepened by incredible talent and complicated by team standings.
But it's a race that Love is winning.
Almost three-quarters of the way through 2013-14, the power forward hierarchy should be viewed as follows:
- Kevin Love
- Anthony Davis
- Blake Griffin
- LaMarcus Aldridge
Disagree if you must, but there are no losers on that list. Love, right now, is just better.
It may not always stay that way. Anyone on that list of four could leapfrog him, most notably Davis, who Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley points out is already tracking toward greatness:
With a developing skill set that already puts him among the elites, he's capable of carrying a franchise at both ends of the floor. He's a No. 1 scorer who can defend No. 1 scorers—nearly regardless of position.
There are only a handful of players who can attempt to make that claim, let alone back it up.
That's why Davis already finds himself at the top of this pecking order. The gap might not be very wide now, but it's growing by the day.
My esteemed colleague and I must agree to disagree on that final note. I'm fully prepared to admit that Davis and Love have meandered in and out of that No. 1 spot all season. Throw some Griffin into the mix as well.
That's what happens in tacit competitions like these, where there are no weak links, only great players.
At the moment, though, Love has swiped the proverbial crown and is protecting it using an impregnable death grip. And he's earned that right.
For so long, his production and subsequent impact have gone overlooked, tainted by collective failures and uncontrollable injuries—but no more.
Love has established himself as the game's best power forward, securing a title he's not about to relinquish this season, no matter what happens.
"It's unbelievable because he does it all the time sometimes we don’t realize how big it is," guard Ricky Rubio said after Love's first career triple-double, via NBA.com's Mark Remme. "He puts up video game numbers, and it's just fun to play with him."
Years of being ridiculed for the absence of a playoff berth and recurrent injuries are finally diminishing in significance. Arguments against him are infrequent, and the ones that exist are weak, devitalized by Love's accelerated evolution, historical results and positional dominance—dominance that Davis, Aldridge and Griffin, among others, can rival, but have not exceeded.