Kevin Love trade saga a tricky case of reality versus perception

Two weeks ago, it was assumed Kevin Love was one of the NBA's best players, writes Jonathan Raymond. So why are teams lowballing Minnesota for his services?
Kevin Love was fourth in scoring and third in rebounding per game in the NBA in 2013/14. David Sherman / Getty Images / AFP
Kevin Love was fourth in scoring and third in rebounding per game in the NBA in 2013/14. David Sherman / Getty Images / AFP

Perception and reality – it’s a tricky task to separate one from the other, especially when lost in the fog of sports rumours.

Take Kevin Love, for example. A few weeks ago, it didn’t seem to be in question that the 25-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves power forward was one of the 10 or so best players in basketball.

An incredibly gifted offensive player, Love was widely seen as, if not quite a franchise player for the rudderless Wolves, then someone who could be the league’s best supporting act at another team.

But then Minnesota made him available.

These last weeks of Love trade rumours have thrown all of that into doubt. They have forced the question: What do NBA teams know that we don’t?

Minnesota’s two primary suitors for Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, have both continued to refuse to meet what would seem the Timberwolves’ reasonable asking price. These refusals have begun to extend beyond the point of mere posturing or hardball negotiating. Neither side seems to actually want Love that badly.

Love, who would either pair with the recently-returned LeBron James and make the Cavaliers title favourites for at least half a decade or team up with Stephen Curry and give the Warriors basketball’s most beautiful offence.

It is difficult to imagine Love is not ultimately worth Andrew Wiggins, the No 1 pick who’s a wonderful talent but also complete unknown at this point, from Cleveland, or Klay Thompson, the very good, but not necessarily elite, young guard from Golden State.

But neither team will yet play ball. So was the perception from outside the league of Love, top-10 talent, in fact a misperception?

Is he seen from inside the league as something more like a good, not great, player?

Is his excellent offensive game enough to make up for his defensive deficiencies? Is he actually that bad defensively? Is he actually that good offensively?

What, really, is Kevin Love?

If you’re inclined to believe statistics, you’re similarly inclined to think the position currently held by Cleveland and Golden State is foolish. Wiggins has very good potential and Thompson is already a very good player, but neither potential nor very good is great, and that’s what the numbers say Love is.

A point on Love’s defence: No, he’s not a great defender. He is kind of soft inside and easily scored upon. But there’s a lot to suggest he’s not a bad defender, either.

What he lacks close to the basket, namely strength, he makes up for further out with nimbleness and positioning. Which is to say, players stronger than Love are usually able to beat him inside – but only if they get there.

Perhaps it will come as a surprise, but he limited actual attempts against him at the rim per game to 9.1 – better than Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan and Roy Hibbert – despite playing more minutes than any of those players.

On a per-minute basis, he kept opponents from attempting field goals at the rim at a frequency better than Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Andrew Bogut.

That doesn’t make up for the fact he allowed those attempts to succeed 57.4 per cent of the time, a mark pretty much worst in the league among players who had that large a role, but his elite defensive rebounding, quick hands and usefulness as an extra deterrent on the wings make him something like a passable defensive player.

More broadly, pretty much any and all advanced defensive metrics – from defensive win shares and rating at, to ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, to the raw plus-minus and points-per-100-possessions figures on – rate Love average or a tick better.

His offensive numbers are pretty much beyond reproach. Fourth in raw scoring and third in raw rebounding, he was third by John Hollinger’s PER stat. By basketball-reference’s Win Shares or by ESPN’s Wins Above Replacement or by 82games’ Simple Rating, Love was well within the 10 best overall performers in the NBA last season.

So maybe the numbers are wrong. Maybe Love really isn’t that good. Maybe Cleveland and Golden State have his value pegged properly.

Or maybe the numbers confirm what was widely perceived just two weeks ago without much controversy.

That Love is indeed an elite NBA talent.

That the Cavaliers and Warriors are being obstinate rather than astute, silly rather than savvy in their game of hardball with Minnesota.

That their preceptions about Love’s talent or the market for it have been wrong.

And that, when one team finally relents and makes the move for Love, the other will be left with, as it happens, a very ugly reality check.

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Published: July 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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