Centered Love

Kevin Love

As you probably already know, Kevin Love earned a spot on this summer’s Olympic team.  If you’ve read a little bit about it, you noticed that he will likely play the center position for America’s Finest.  From Ray Richardson:

“That’s going to be my primary position throughout the event … through the friendly games and leading up to the Olympics,” Love said Saturday in Las Vegas during an interview on NBA TV. “It’s going to be a lot of the ‘five spot’ for me, so I’ll be doing a lot of picking and popping, offensive rebounding, getting extra possessions … doing everything I can to help this team.”

Picking and popping, offensive rebounding, and getting extra possessions are all things that Love does at an elite level for his NBA team.  Is there some reason that he cannot or should not play center for the TWolves?  In the middle of last season, I wrote a piece that compared Willis Reed’s role on the champion Knicks to what I thought Kevin Love might be able to accomplish in today’s NBA.  Although I’ve made my feelings known on the subject, I find it necessary to address it again now, because of the Olympic news and also because important roster decisions will be made in the coming days and weeks.

Before I go any further, I should address what you’re probably thinking: That the Wolves already have a great center in Nikola Pekovic.  This is true.  But I’m not talking about Pek’s minutes.  He’ll play, and play well, for 26 to 35 minutes on a given night.  But there are 13 to 22 other minutes sitting out there, and the Wolves are now rumored to be pursuing Greg Stiemsma, the 6’11″ center more known for his reserve role on last year’s Celtics than his mediocre collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin.  (Funny how that works–Stiemsma couldn’t command 12 minutes of playing time for Bo Ryan, and now is pursued as an NBA free agent.)  If the Woofies do sign Steamer, it would presumably be to give him playing time as the nearing-cliche-status “third big” role.  In case I have to point this out to you, if the Wolves devote starters’ minutes to Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, and carve out a regular spot for Steamer, our favorite “highest draft pick in franchise history,” Derrick Williams, is left with garbage duty–perhaps playing the 8 minutes a night that Kevin Love sits on the bench.

Or, more likely, he’s traded after the team unsuccessfully attempts to pry Nic Batum away from Portland.  Two likely targets would be Batum himself (in a sign-and-trade being negotiated as I write this) or Andre Iguodala.

Consider this my unofficial vote against such a plan.  For two broad reasons:

1) Adding a wing like Batum or Iggy, and rounding out the front line rotation with Steamer leaves the team with neither an offensive or defensive identity.  Let’s begin with defense.  While a backcourt that includes Rubio and Iguodala (a great man-to-man defender) could more than hold its own defensively, NBA defense at the highest levels is about rotations and mobile bigs to defend pick and rolls.  Tom Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett have been teaching this course for five years now.  When Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Greg Stiemsma are your big men, I don’t think elite defense is realistic.  They could be solid–above average even, maybe–but defense wouldn’t be this team’s calling card.

Offensively, I also see a limited ceiling even if a pretty high floor, too.  How is this going to be an elite offensive team?  Ricky Rubio can generate a fair amount of three point opportunities for teammates.  If Batum is one of those teammates, he’ll make a lot of them.  Iggy might too, though his high percentage of last season (39.4) is an outlier amongst his other season averages (33.1 percent for his 8-season career).  Kevin Love, no matter what position is, will also rain some threes in at an accurate clip.  But there are limitations in that lineup that can’t be ignored.  First, Rubio is a poor shooter.  Second, none of the wing players are dynamic scorers.  Even Iguodala, who is very athletic and dribbles well, only scored 12.4 points per game last season.  His high assist numbers would help, but not as much as if he could be leaned on for scoring.  Third, Love doesn’t command a double team and therefore has not evolved as a passer or creator of shots for his teammates.  He racks up tremendous numbers for himself, but is not the sort of offensive anchor that can be relied upon to carry a team in the playoffs.  Fourth, Pekovic doesn’t pass at all.  There are plenty of ways that team could score buckets.  But without a single method that is both elite level and reproducible on a consistent basis, I don’t see a formula for success at the highest levels.

2) The second reason is that I view the team’s best upside, amongst the realistic alternatives, as creating an offensive identity built heavily around smallball, with Rubio-Williams 1/4 action supplemented by a 2, 3, and 5 that can each hit the three with consistency.  The model for comparison would be the Phoenix teams when Amare Stoudemire played center, and Nash was wheeling around the halfcourt, eventually hitting an open (and always capable) spot shooter behind the arc, or a rolling STAT for a monster dunk or open fifteen footer.  There remains an important role for Pekovic as the starting center who can pick-and-roll, receive high-low entries from Love or Williams, and defend the bigger and better centers that the league has to offer.

The Wolves are kind of a weird team.  Flipping Williams for a veteran wing and signing Stiemsma would be conventional moves that, in my opinion, do not embrace the positive qualities that make us weird.  Kevin Love’s ability to rebound and shoot three pointers at elite levels should be embraced to the maximum extent.  To me, that means daring opposing coaches to stick a big center on him and chase him out to the three-point line.  Rubio is already an elite passer.  The question is whether D-Thrill can become that matchup problem power forward that pulls defenders toward the hoop while Love (and a slew of spot shooter wings, like Air Bud) pulls them away.  Keeping defenses off balance is what elite offenses do.  Very few (maybe only one) players can accomplish that on their own, with consistency.  I don’t think the Wolves have any of those, and I don’t think there is any scenario where they can build a defensive identity around the Rubio-Love-Pekovic core.  So embrace the strengths, win with offense and play K-Love more minutes at center.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Centered Love

  1. Eric in Madison

    Well. I’m not necessarily opposed to Love getting center minutes. But I will critique your piece in the following ways:

    First, I think you undersell the offensive capabilities of this team in point one. What you are really saying is: it’s too bad we don’t have LeBron. Yeah. But as it stands, Love has shown immense offensive capabilities, and to assert that there is nothing elite or reproducible seems wrong to me. The PnR with either Love or Pekovic, Love’s ability to hit 3s and get to the line.

    One of the things you lose by minimizing Pek’s role and not having Love and Pek on the floor together is offensive rebounding. That’s something that I think, with health for those two guys, could be an elite aspect of this team.

    Second, and you mention this yourself, but is Williams able to fulfill the role you envision for him? he wasn’t as a rookie, will he be as a 2nd year guy? This team really can’t wait anymore. Hoping that Williams redefines his game and improves enough to become a linchpin for a small ball lineup that gets this team a lot more wins is not something I’m willing to bank on at this point.

    • For fear of sounding too cynical (an odd role reversal between us, here) I should say that I think a Rubio-Love-Pek core is good — and could win quite a few games and perhaps make next year’s playoffs and many after that. What this post is about is how to leave room for improvement beyond that. Yesterday’s remarks from Love notwithstanding, the team as presently constructed should be a playoff team for the foreseeable future. They were likely on that path or very close before Ricky’s injury (as Kahn noted) and Rubio and Pek are only getting better (as is Love, to this point). I see no reason why that core, with better wings like Budinger (as opposed to Wes) wouldn’t begin a stretch of 45+ win seasons.

      But I think the Williams-Love smallball lineup has enough elite upside that it isn’t worth ditching in an effort to get a wing player that won’t make the team elite on either end of the floor. In the case of Batum, there is a small chance that we could land him via free agency, which wouldn’t require ditching Williams. I would like that. I wouldn’t like it if Williams is spent to get him in a trade (though this is perhaps the most likely scenario in my view, based just on reading all the different reports.) In the case of Iggy, it is obviously a trade, for two years of his services. Bird rights and all that, I realize. With Iggy, the defense on the perimeter improves. If this were 2010, I’d say that it would be hugely beneficial. Now, I think there are coaches here that can get the wings (particularly with Beasley’s departure) to play adequate or better defense. And like I said, I don’t see a Love-Pek-Stiemsma front line as formidable enough to form part of a truly elite NBA defense.

      I wouldn’t object too strongly to an Iggy trade where Williams leaves, but the part of me that wants to see Love at the 5, and Williams doing an Amare impression at the 4 had to write this post.

      Oh, and I don’t think it’s just too bad that we don’t have LeBron. There are many great offensive players who could help this team significantly; I just don’t think Batum or Iggy is one of them. (Wade, Harden, Bryant, Melo, Joe Johnson (salary notwithstanding)…)

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