During the recent contest in Los Angeles between the Lakers and Clippers, commentator Ralph Lawler digressed from the action at hand to discuss Kevin Love, animatedly claiming that the Minnesota Timberwolves power forward was a superstar.
Not an emergent superstar or a potential superstar, mind you, but a straight-up, flat-out, current superstar.
Boy, do they throw around that term these days.
If Kevin Love is a superstar, then Kim Kardashian is an actress, Bristol Palin is a dancer and two slices of bread might as well be called a sandwich. While Love may be the best rebounder in the NBA, his game is far from complete, and therefore he is far from a superstar.
Love’s retina-bursting rebound numbers seem to cloud popular perception, shrouding the fact that he is extremely inefficient on offense and plays defense like a mannequin. He’s like a housekeeper who spends hours cleaning the glass but neglects do the laundry or sweep the floors.
Love’s 20.4 points per game is also misleading, as his 44 percent field goal average is downright awful for a big man. Digging deeper, he cashes a paltry 53 percent at the rim, where he should be earning his living. In comparison, Kevin Garnett makes 77 percent of his attempts at the rim. Oh, that’s because Rajon Rondo sets him up nicely? Well, pint-sized Jose Juan Barea shoots 66 percent in those situations. Oh, that’s because he’s crafty?
Only 20 power forwards or centers own worse at-the-rim shooting percentages than Love, and most of them have names like Timofey Mozgov, Dan Gadzuric, Yi Jianlian and DeSagana Diop. Not exactly your collection of powerful finishers. It is plain to see that Love is not nearly as productive as he should be.
Now don’t go ahead and blame Love’s struggles on the rest of the pitiful Timberwolves. Team futility does not explain individual ineptitude. It’s not like he’s facing constant triple teams or guarding Pau Gasol every night. Even on the woeful Clippers, Blake Griffin scores effectively and Eric Gordon defends well.
Some critics cite Love’s lack of height, quickness and explosion to justify his inability to finish around the basket or guard his man, but somehow his physical deficiencies do not impair his capacity to gobble up errant shots. That implies two things: Firstly, rebounding must be more about positioning, desire and hands than athleticism. Secondly, Love is not yet a mature player with an all-around game.
In fact, Kevin Love is rather similar to the old Amar'e Stoudemire. During his Phoenix Suns days, Amar'e was also a one-note song. You could count on him night-in, night-out for a bunch of points, several highlight reel dunks, a board or two and perhaps a defensive series in which he pretended to try.
Despite the obvious holes in his game, Stoudemire too was prematurely considered a superstar, even as experts admitted that you probably couldn’t win a title with him as your leader. As it is with Love, Amare’s studly qualities often hid the fact that he was hurting the team with his weaknesses.
On the other hand, with his physical gifts it made no sense that Stoudemire wasn’t a better rebounder or defender, and this year he is singing a different tune with the New York Knicks. He has clearly improved in the effort, hustle and mental departments, and he no longer has significant flaws. Amar'e is now a genuine superstar and might even be the savior of New York basketball.
Since Love does not possess Stoudemire’s elite athleticism, it may not be as easy to fix his problems. However, Love is smart, strong, and fundamentally sound, so you would expect him to find a way to eventually work it out.
But what if he doesn’t? Can this edition of Kevin Love be a legitimate starter on a successful team? Truth is, no one knows.
Which brings up another question: How do you construct a championship contender? Here is one look at recent championship team formulas, but let’s approach the issue from a different angle.
NBA General Managers are somewhat like college admissions officers. Building a great team is akin to assembling a great class. There has been much debate amongst those admissions officers about the best way to create such a class, whether they should accept the well-rounded student or the well-rounded group.
For years, the well-rounded student was considered the finest applicant. Universities wanted nothing more than to produce renaissance men and women, accomplished members of society that could smoothly transition from day jobs as engineers to night gigs as jazz guitarists while remaining perpetually ready to guest lecture on modernist drama.
The well-rounded student was more likely to embrace everything an institution had to offer, performing admirably in diverse courses and getting involved in myriad activities.
Nowadays, in these modern times of specialization and precociousness, schools seem to value the well-rounded class comprised of singular talents. The theory is this: one amazing cellist plus one brilliant mathematician plus one transcendent philosopher, and you've got yourself balance.
What would that look like in the NBA? One deadly shooter plus one beastly rebounder plus one pinpoint passer plus one lockdown defender plus one athletic finisher, and you've got yourself a title squad? Or is it more advantageous to boast a lineup full of well-rounded players?
Like so many discussions in the league, this one boils down to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics are largely specialists with defined roles—Rajon Rondo the passer, Ray Allen the three-point shooter, Kendrick Perkins the banger—whereas the Lakers (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom) are generally versatile talents in a fluid system.
Both teams have been dominant over the past few years, combining to win three straight championships, so both formulas appear useful.
That’s good news for Kevin Love. He might not need to improve any part of his game if he can maintain his ungodly rebounding level. Surround him with perfect pieces and you could be looking at the next dynasty.
Then again, it might behoove Love to work on his finishing and defense, especially if he wants to carry a team or actually become a superstar. Basketball’s immortals were all well-rounded guys, and weakness was probably not even in their vocabulary.