Can Kevin Love Lift Minnesota Timberwolves into 2014 Playoffs?

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Can Kevin Love Lift Minnesota Timberwolves into 2014 Playoffs?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Love has no problem winning individual games on his own, but he's going to have to be at his very best and get plenty of help if the Minnesota Timberwolves hope to sniff the final playoff spot out West.

As an example of Love's ability to take care of business on a game-to-game basis, consider the finisher he nailed against the Dallas Mavericks on March 19. With 17 ticks left in overtime, he split a double team, leaned into the lane and calmly knocked down the go-ahead bucket in Minnesota's stirring 123-122 overtime win.

Love was a beast in that game, tallying 35 points, eight boards and three assists in what was, for him, a typical night's work. But as great as his overall performance and final shot were, the victory only shrank the Mavs' lead on Minnesota for the No. 8 spot to five-and-a-half games.

And it bears mentioning that, on balance, the Wolves' efforts in the final few minutes of their win (which included coughing up a double-digit lead in the late going) weren't especially inspiring.

The Wolves are fighting an uphill battle for that final postseason nod, and the stakes are higher than you might think.

 

Those Cold, Impartial Standings

Sorry, Wolves fans; we have to start with reality.

That five-and-a-half-game chasm separating Minnesota from the Mavs and Memphis Grizzlies is Grand-Canyon wide. Plus, the Phoenix Suns are currently occupying the No. 9 spot, one position ahead of the Wolves. If anybody's going to jump out of the lottery and into the postseason, it's probably going to be the Suns, whose one-and-a-half game disadvantage is far more manageable.

At present ESPN's Hollinger odds give the Wolves a 5.9 percent chance of sneaking into the dance. Earlier this week, I gave them a slightly more generous (but admittedly less scientific) 10 percent shot.

Minnesota has won two straight games since then, but time is running out.

Love and Co. have just 16 games left, including a tough one on deck against the Houston Rockets on March 20. Half of the Wolves' remaining contests come against Western Conference foes who sit above them in the playoff chase. Two of those games feature the Grizzlies, which could be especially meaningful.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, nine of Minnesota's final 16 games will come at home, but only five lottery teams are on the slate between now and the end of the regular season. One of those "lottery" teams is the Suns, which hardly counts as a pushover opponent.

In short, the Wolves are facing a tough stretch run.

And even if we assume Love can lead Minnesota to a surge of, say, 11-5, the Wolves would still need Memphis or Dallas to play pretty horribly the rest of the way. If the Mavs were to drop 10 of their final 13, Minnesota might be in business. Memphis would need to lose seven of their final 11 for the Timberwolves to overtake them—and that's if we assume Minnesota can go on a major run.

Both the Grizzlies and Mavs boast winning percentages just a shade under .600 on the year, though. And their remaining schedules are both more favorable than Minnesota's.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Dallas gets to play eight of its final 13 games at home, and it'll square off against six lottery teams. Memphis has to hit the road for 9 of its last 15 contests, but will see seven current non-playoff opponents.

As such, it's hard to see the Mavericks slipping up in a significant way. And according to head coach Dave Joerger (via Sam Amick of USA Today), the Grizzlies are looking a lot more like the team that made a postseason run last year:

The chemistry is the best that I've ever seen it in all of my years here. Guys really like each other. They like playing together. They like traveling together. They're playing for each other, and I think that's very positive.

We can all agree that Joerger's sound bite is a little self-serving, but the Grizz have been damn good since Jan. 1, and have won eight of 10 since the beginning of March.

The Mavericks have been nearly as tough.

Basically, if Dallas and Memphis play .500 ball the rest of the way, it won't matter how great Love and the Wolves are.

 

Appreciation Time

Speaking of which, now seems like a good time to acknowledge just how great Love has been this year. 

Per CBS' Zach Harper, any fair picture of the stat-stuffing power forward has to include both the highs and lows of his game:

While he refuses to foul players at the rim, leading to giving up shots inside, his defense has been more engaged. The team is actually a full point per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the bench than they are with him on the floor. His passing out of the high-post for Rick Adelman's offense has led to some remarkable point creation by him. And the numbers he puts up on a nightly basis are still historically rare.

Rare indeed.

Love is on pace to finish this season as the only player in NBA history with averages of at least 26 points, 12 rebounds and 38 percent shooting from long distance, per Basketball-Reference.com.

He ranks third in the NBA in both player efficiency rating and win shares as well.

It's within reason to knock his defense, point out how he sacrifices good position for rebounding opportunities and hasn't led his team to much more than a .500 record. But those are tired criticisms, and ones that get far too much attention—especially when weighed against Love's undeniably positive impact.

On balance, he's a ridiculously valuable player. But even he doesn't have enough to get the Wolves over the hump...probably.

 

A Case for Hope?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It should be abundantly clear by now that the Wolves need help to reach their postseason goal.

Perhaps that help could come in the form of an injury to the seemingly ageless Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas is a team built strictly around its offense; maybe losing its No. 1 option would cause a tailspin. And it's always possible that the Mavs' shaky D collapses of its own accord down the stretch.

Memphis could hit a rough patch as it finishes the season with a road-heavy schedule. Always a threat to run into scoring droughts, it's not inconceivable that the Grizzlies' offense could fall apart at an inopportune time.

If it seems like we're grasping at straws to make a case for the Wolves here, it's because we are.

For what it's worth, though, Minnesota still boasts a net rating befitting a playoff team. At plus-2.3 points per 100 possessions, the Timberwolves' most significant per-possession stat is a full point better than Memphis'. All season long, Minnesota's solid differential has been a key in the argument for its playoff chops.

The Wolves are running out of time for the differential success to translate into wins, but maybe the numbers will normalize in drastic fashion over the final month.

Stranger things have happened.

Then again, Minnesota dug itself a hole by ignoring the defensive end all season long. And its recent surge has had more to do with a soft schedule and a season-best offensive rating of 110 points per 100 possessions in March than any major transformation.

The D is as porous as ever, Love's numbers (except for a small uptick in assists) aren't appreciably different than they've been in previous months. Ultimately, the Wolves are the same team they've been all season, which doesn't bode well for those viewing their 10-4 run as a sign they've turned a corner.

 

 

Approaching the Finish

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves are in the midst of their best stretch of the year right now, going 10-4 over their past 14 contests. But even if they maintain that pace in the next few weeks, they'll still need an unrealistic amount of help from Dallas or Memphis.

The stakes are high for this season, as Minnesota entered the year with higher hopes than it'd had in years. Missing out on the playoffs would be a significant disappointment.

Just like everything else with the Wolves, though, the real issue here is Love's contentment level in Minnesota. Another lottery trip would make it harder than ever to see a scenario in which the Timberwolves' best player sticks around for the long haul.

The slight of a four-year deal when the Wolves could have given him five still stings, and Love is probably getting tired of having little to show for his superhero individual numbers. With the ability to opt out at the end of next season, Love will enter 2014-15, effectively, as a free agent. If he voices increasing disappointment any time soon, the Wolves might try to move him for fear of losing him without compensation next summer.

That issue is a long way off, but the upcoming month could go a long way toward determining the franchise's future.

No pressure, Wolves; the only thing hanging in the balance between now and the postseason is, well...everything.

 

*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

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