Why Kevin Love's Best Role Is as a Superstar Sidekick

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

AP Images

The history books will blame everyone but Kevin Love for the Minnesota Timberwolves' failures.

From Ricky Rubio's shooting woes to ill-fated draft picks like 2009's Jonny Flynn (sixth overall), there are plenty of directions in which to point fingers. But a realistic assessment of Love's past and future suggests he deserves his share of accountability.

This guy was never built to lead his team from the depths of sustained mediocrity. Those kind of heroics aren't in his DNA.

So it's fitting that Love's career will in many ways mimic that of LeBron James' former teammate, Chris Bosh.

Love and Bosh both began their careers with big numbers on middling teams. Bosh spent his first seven seasons with the Toronto Raptors before deciding his best title prospects lay with the stars aligning in Miami. Love has given six seasons to the Timberwolves, similarly accruing gaudy statistics on a club going nowhere.

Now, like Bosh, he's reportedly following LeBron to the promised land.

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported, "The Minnesota Timberwolves have reached an agreement in principle to send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick."

The news follows weeks worth of speculation surrounding the seemingly inevitable deal.

Wojnarowski adds, "The deal cannot be finalized until Aug. 23, because Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, cannot be traded until one month after the signing of his rookie contract."

Though many will anoint the Cavaliers immediate contenders, there will soon be another consensus regarding Love himself: No matter how many titles Cleveland amasses, Love will be remembered as a sidekick.

Even if Love's production has thus far registered him a top-10 star in the league, he'll soon learn what it means to defer in the name of winning—a lesson Bosh and Dwyane Wade quickly internalized in Miami.

Just as Bosh was demoted to a second-tier star when paired alongside LBJ, Love will inherit a similar fate.

And in the process, it will become abundantly clear why Love needs the Cavs more than they need him. He was never going to transform the Timberwolves into a winner, which had as much to do with Love as it did the organization's numerous missteps.

In March, Grantland's Zach Lowe offered some sobering analysis of Love's limitations:

We can debate Love’s shortcomings, and loudly revoke his superstar card for failing to lead his team to the playoffs in any of his first six seasons. And he has shortcomings. He offers no rim protection, he lollygags in transition defense, he’s not going to make spirited second and third rotations on the same defensive possession, and he often fails to challenge shots in order to secure boxout position — and precious rebounds. Love wants his numbers.

Bleacher Report's Ian Levy cited the collective impact, writing in March, "The biggest hole in the Timberwolves' defense is right at the rim, where they allow opponents to shoot 64.9 percent, the highest mark in the league. They also allow the third-highest opponent field-goal percentage overall, 46.9 percent."

The team-wide glitches were at least in part traceable to Love himself.

The Washington Post's Thomas Johnson more recently noted, "Last season, Love allowed 9.1 rim attempts per game, 11th-most in the league, while allowing opponents to shoot 57.4 percent on those attempts, which ranked 159th in the league among qualifying players, per NBA.com’s SportVU data."

Johnson added, "Sure, Love grabs a ton of rebounds, but mediocre doesn’t begin to describe Love’s help defense."

Love may make up for his deficiencies thanks to his prolific long-range shooting and general basketball IQ. But to whatever extent Cleveland contends this season, it will principally be because James is the best player on the planet—not the fact that Love came along for the ride.

Some will excuse Love's uninspired defensive effort by suggesting he deserves a free pass on account of all those rebounds.

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 24: Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes up for the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 24, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Others will point to advanced metrics that indicate Love's defense may be better than advertised.

As Sporting News' Sean Deveney acknowledges, "He is actually not a bad individual defender—overall, he is rated as 'Very Good' by Synergy Sports, and in post-up situations, he allowed 0.721 points per possession, which is 'Excellent' on Synergy’s scale."

That misses the point.

Deveney goes on to add, "It’s when you ask Love to move around, switch and help teammates that trouble comes."

Put simply, Love's inability to remain consistently engaged on the defensive end demonstrates the very leadership deficit that prevented him from winning in Minnesota. He never inculcated the kind of culture that succeeds in this business, the kind of culture Minnesota desperately needed in a crowded Western Conference.

CBSSports.com's Zach Harper reminds us that "in 2013-14, his team failed in late-game situations and trailed off down the stretch once they were all but mathematically eliminated from the eighth seed in the West."

Love will blame a lack of talent, just as he hinted back in 2012 when telling Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, "My patience is not high. Would yours be, especially when I'm a big proponent of greatness surrounding itself with greatness?"

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 14: Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 14, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

A deeper problem, however, is that Love has never been a big proponent of inspiring greatness.

Per Deveney, one coach said, "Kevin Love is the star. But it is hard to say he is a leader, not when he never sort of grabbed the reins with that team and drove them to be better. He made himself better. But not the team."

That kind of leadership starts with hard work on the defensive end, the kind of willful determination that becomes infectious. There's such a thing as overachievement in this league, but you'd never know it from watching Love's Timberwolves.

They only went so far as their talent would take them, and not a step further.

It's not that Love deserves all the disapprobation, nor even the lion's share of it. It's just that he was destined to play second fiddle, to feed off an actual leader like LeBron James. 

Kevin Love never made it back to Los Angeles, and he won't be taking his talents to the big-city spotlight. But in a much more important sense, he will find a home—a place where he'll do what he does best.

Precisely because he'll be second best.


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