Kevin Love Is Franchise Building Block, Not an Empty-Stats Superstar

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Kevin Love Is Franchise Building Block, Not an Empty-Stats Superstar
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

If there's one thing Kevin Love's video game production isn't, it's meaningless.

Try arguing the Minnesota Timberwolves superstar is the byproduct of a good player headlining a mediocre team. Go ahead. Do it. I beg you.

For anyone who collapsed under my halfhearted peer pressure, you're wrong—very, very (very) wrong.

It's true that Love has gone five seasons without leading the Timberwolves to a playoff berth. It's also true he's likely headed for a sixth. And it's most definitely true that his supporting cast—headlined by a point guard whose jump shots resemble unhappy accidents (Ricky Rubio) and a center who often looks like he would rather be ice fishing (Nikola Pekovic)—is a cut below that of Western Conference powerhouses.

Somewhere between Love's injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign and the realm of absolute nonsense, many made the mistake of thinking that matters.

Just as Minnesota's continued lottery appearances are not on Love, his supernatural production is not the result of a player using hapless circumstances to drum up individual value. It means something.

In the scheme of Love's and the Timberwolves' season, it means something. Pitted against fellow superstars and objectively used to measure his place in the NBA, it means something.

It means everything.

 

Defining Empty

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

In the age of advanced analytics and numbers-starved fans, certain stats are sometimes cast aside.

Scoring isn't as sexy without empyrean efficiency. Blocks and steals don't mean a player isn't defending worse than an acrylic-painted garden gnome. Volume rebounding isn't as impressive when a majority of boards go uncontested or come from a 7-footer crashing the glass in a 13-and-under exhibition league.

There is value in skepticism and curiosity. The need to know more and ability to doubt and question traditional metrics are a gift this side of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns. But there's a tendency to move beyond advanced analytics and inadvertently simplify individual production.

"Player X averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds per game," some may say. "But that doesn't matter, because Player X's team didn't make the playoffs."

The above argument is either completely genuine or baloney-infused salmon. It all depends on the player.

Who is Player X? How bad is his team? Is this production Player X has sustained or rivaled before, or is it merely an aberration?

Much of what is still held against Love applies to tanking offshoots. On tankers and rebuilders, someone needs to score. Players such as Thaddeus Young and, until recently, Evan Turner have seen their numbers skyrocket on a team nearly barren of NBA-ready talent. 

But that's tankers allowing players to capitalize off uncharacteristic freedom.

Are the Timberwolves tanking? No. Are Love's numbers an aberration? No. 

The Timberwolves were supposed to contend for a playoff spot, and Love's current numbers—26.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 46.2 percent shooting—are extensions and improvements of what he's always done.

 

February to Remember

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Shorter months don't phase Love.

Through nine games during the month of February, Love registered 34 points, 14.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 48.7 percent shooting overall and 41.5 percent shooting from deep, numbers that seem like they were plucked right out of NBA 2K14.

In addition to ridiculous per-game numbers, Love also notched a 127 offensive rating, and per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, registered the highest player efficiency rating in the NBA as well:

Notice not a single player on that list—except for maybe Andre Drummond—is considered anything other than a superstar. Love leapfrogged MVP candidates LeBron James and Blake Griffin and cleared the ever-spectacular Kevin Durant without pause.

"Crazy" is the only word the Timberwolves' public relations Twitter account could use to describe his torrid production—and rightfully so:

Are those empty stats, or is month-long dominance enough to show that Love's deific numbers are a meaningful standard?

Actually, hold that thought.

 

Sustained Dominance

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Love is so much more than just February.

The season he's having is one for the ages—seriously.

If his current production holds, he'll become the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, 13 rebounds and four assists per game for an entire season. The other four—Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billy Cunningham and Elgin Baylor—are all Hall of Famers.

Assuming Love maintains his net-shredding touch from beyond the arc, he's also on pace to become the fourth qualified player, standing 6'10" or taller, to attempt at least six treys per game while converting 38 percent or more of them. 

Historical context has a way of weeding out impostors or situational stat-hoarders—and so does PER.

Love ranks third in PER among qualified players (28.2), behind only Durant (30.4) and James (29.6). Empty-stat chasers don't earn such acclaim while playing extensively.

Turner, who was averaging a career high in points while with the 76ers, left Philly with a 13.2 PER, markedly below the league average of 15. That's what empty looks like.

Unlike others in lottery-bound situations, Love also has the individual wins to back his production. His 11.5 win shares tie him for second in the Association with James. Think about that.

Then look at this:

Infogr.am.

Of the 15 players with the most win shares, Love represents the highest percentage of his team's wins, accounting for almost 40 percent of Minnesota's victories. He's also the only player on a team currently outside the playoff picture that ranks in the top 10 of win shares overall.

Consider the impact he has on the Timberwolves' offensive and defensive attacks as well.

When he's on the floor, Minnesota is outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com (subscription required), which equates to the league's fourth-best net rating. Place him on the bench, and Minny drops to a minus-10, which is a 17.2-point swing and the equivalent of 29th in the NBA.

How's that for empty?

Minnesota's record—which, by the way, isn't that gruesome at 29-29—cannot be held against Love or used as a means to take away from the season he's having and career he's pacing himself toward.

The Timberwolves aren't going to make the playoffs. Erasing a 5.5-game deficit with 24 left to play in the powerhouse-laden Western Conference is impossible. And that's not on Love.

David Sherman/Getty Images

Injuries, subpar production from teammates and a flawed supporting cast in general have all contributed to Minnesota underachieving, not Love—not even close.

"People think it's so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota," he told GQ. "And I'm not s****ing on the Lakers, but we have the better team, the better foundation. I'm having fun."

The Lakers, among others, will chase him in 2015 for a reason. Team president Flip Saunders didn't trade him for a reason. The Timberwolves are hopeful he remains in Minnesota for a reason. They're willing to gamble on him because he's worth it—because he's more than just an empty stat-filler.

Because he's a franchise-changing, fortunes-turning superstar.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).


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