Why Kevin Love Is Worth All the Trouble and Uncertainty

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 31, 2014

The race for Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Kevin Love hasn't been a race at all.

This has been nothing short of a marathon, and a particularly exhausting one at that.

Word leaked in mid-May that Love had informed the Timberwolves of his intention to opt out of his contract next offseason and his desire to find a new NBA home, per Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com. More than two months later, his bags are still packed, and he's still waiting to learn his next destination.

Love is probably headed to the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point. Stein and ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported that the Cavs are the only team having "serious" talks with the Timberwolves. Trade winds might have stopped swirling around the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and every other team that has taken a shot at the walking double-double.

There are risks involved with bringing him on board. His price is rightfully high, as the Timberwolves need multiple pieces to help replace their franchise face. He's also a potential flight risk, as The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto wrote that he's "hearing Love will not pick up his [player] option" even if he's dealt, which would make him an unrestricted free agent during the summer of 2015 if he doesn't sign a contract extension. 

It's going to take a gamble, but Love is the type of top-shelf prize that lures dreamers to casinos. He is an elite NBA force who dominates the game in a number of different facets.


Supreme Scorer

Part of what makes Love such an attractive trade target is the amount of skill packed inside his 6'10", 243-pound frame. Players who are this big aren't supposed to do some of the things he does.

But truth be told, he could be a great scorer at any size.

Love, who hit 37 threes on 125 attempts over his first two seasons, has established himself among the league's top long-range threats. Eight players launched at least 500 triples last season. Love was the only one who stands above 6'8" in that group, which he led in win shares (14.3) and ranked second in field-goal percentage (45.7), via Basketball-Reference.com.

His ability to stretch the floor simplifies the game for his teammates. Last season, he started alongside a point guard who can't shoot (Ricky Rubio) and a small forward who depends on transition opportunities for his offense (Corey Brewer). The Timberwolves still finished 10th in offensive efficiency, via NBA.com, tallying 105.6 points per 100 possessions.

Still, praising Love for his shooting is like celebrating Michael Jordan's perimeter defense. Both need recognition as long as fans remember there are so many other layers to their greatness.

Love can torture a defense from distance, but really, he's a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor.

He had the fourth-highest points-per-game average last season with 26.1, trailing only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Of those four, only Durant had more 40-point games than Love (14 and six, respectively).

Love held top-50 efficiency rankings as a post-up scorer (0.92 points per possession, 45th), pick-and-roll screener (1.12, 31st), off-screen shooter (1.12, 12th), off-ball cutter (1.32, 47th) and offensive rebounder (1.19, 38th), per Synergy Sports (subscription required).

No matter what defenses tried to take away, he always had a powerful counterpunch. He could bully his defender on the low block, lock and load from distance or create something off the dribble anywhere in between.

He's a historically relevant scorer now, and he hasn't even played on a winning team yet:

And scoring is only part of what he brings to the table. 


Relentless Rebounder

Love is coming off the worst rebounding performance of his career since his sophomore season in 2009-10. He averaged 12.5 boards a night in 2013-14, third-most in the league.

"I don't know how he does it, man," free-agent big man Andray Blatche told Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck. "He always gets himself in the right spot, and the ball goes right to his hands."

It's not quite that easy for Love, but his stat sheet says it's close.

He has the third-most rebounds over the last four seasons combined with 3,061. If the number or the ranking didn't jump off the page, consider this: he has only played 223 of a possible 312 games over that stretch. No one else in the top 35 of that list has played fewer than 253 games.

As a rebounder, he nearly goes unrivaled among his peers.

Since his rookie year, he has snagged 20-plus boards 18 different times. Only five other players have at least 10 such games, and only Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard—a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time rebounding champ—has more (46).

Love knows how to use his body well to gain leverage on the low block. Add in his instinctive feel as a lifelong student of the game (his father, Stan Love, played four seasons in the NBA), his knowledge of trajectory as a shooter himself plus his supercharged motor, and you have the recipe of a glass cleaner capable of producing jaw-dropping numbers on the boards, like his 31-point, 31-rebound gem in 2010.

Last season, he had 18.9 rebound chances per game—being within 3.5 feet of a rebound—and came away with them 66.1 percent of the time, per NBA.com's player tracking data. Nearly 39 percent of his rebounds were contested.

He doesn't pad stats. His numbers simply reflect the havoc he can wreak on the boards.

"He works hard but also works smart; he finds the most efficient ways to fight for loose balls and compounds all kinds of information very quickly to put himself in a position to clean the glass," wrote Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney, then writing for Bleacher Report.

If there's an available rebound in his airspace, Love will do whatever's needed to track it down. And no one is better at turning boards into offensive opportunities, whether for himself or the recipients of his full-court outlet passes.


Prolific Playmaker

Love has always been an intelligent passer, but last season, he really got to showcase what he could do when he was utilized in that role early and often.

He set personal bests in assists per game (4.4) and assist percentage (21.4) all while keeping his turnover percentage (10.3) below his career rate (10.9), per Basketball-Reference.com. Only Chicago Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah averaged more assists (5.4) among players 6'10" or taller.

Love uses his potent post game to lure defenders toward the middle then punishes them for the extra help by spotting open shooters or overlooked slashers. If the Wolves had put a better perimeter attack around him (Minnesota shot 34.1 percent from three, 26th overallhis passing numbers could have been even better.

The Wolves did help complement a different aspect of his passing game, though.

By bringing in Brewer, Minnesota gave Love a vertical threat for his outlet cannon. No matter the situation—made basket, missed shot, turnover—if Love got his hands on the ball, he immediately looked down court for his favorite receiver.

That skill is obviously transferable to any situation. Put LeBron James on the end of those passes, and Love's gift becomes even more powerful.

As it is, Love already boasts the best deep ball of all NBA quarterbacks, as ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh explained (subscription required):

Great SportVU stat: long-distance outlet passes. I call them "touchdown passes." These are defined as passes off of defensive rebounds that travel at least 20 feet and lead to a fast break. As you might have suspected, Love destroys the competition with 76 of these deep bombs, more than the next two highest totals -- Spencer Hawes (33) and DeAndre Jordan (32) -- combined. There were 41 Love-to-Corey Brewer connections alone.

As Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put it, it's hard to watch Love's outlet passing and not conjure up images of some of the greatest players from generations past:

Love can shred a defense on his own or pick it apart with pinpoint deliveries. He's smart enough to figure out which hand to play and when.


The Total Package

The NBA's "Love Affair" hasn't hurt for press coverage this summer, but in some ways, it's surprising it hasn't generated even more publicity.

Ready-made superstars don't hit the trade market often.

"A player of Love's caliber and age might become available — really, truly available — once every two or three seasons," wrote Grantland.com's Zach Lowe. "This is an event."

There are no guessing games with Love. Teams aren't hoping he develops or betting on potential. He's an All-NBA player today with one of the deepest bags of offensive tricks in the game:

"He is everything you want offensively in one package," wrote ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg.

Love will never be much of a rim protector, but there is tremendous defensive value in his rebounding. He's never led a team to the playoffs, but try to come up with when he's had a healthy, postseason-caliber roster around him. No one wins by himself, particularly not in the treacherous Western Conference.

Is his contract status a cause for concern? Perhaps, but it looks like he's headed to a contender, and that could be enough for him to settle down for the long haul.

"No matter what the outcome is, I just want to end up in a great place where I can win," he said during an appearance on ESPN's SportsNation.

The Cavaliers could give him that chance. If they re-enter the bidding, the Warriors or Bulls could, too.

And Love could give those teams an incredibly skilled, wildly productive piece ready to take his place in a championship puzzle. A player who is worth every bit of the fuss that has surrounded him this summer and then some.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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