“I think Minnesota at times plays better without Love.”
-George Karl, following last night’s Wolves-Nuggets game.
It didn’t take George Karl’s comments to detonate the nuclear bomb of Kevin Love derision that followed last night’s surprising win at Denver. This is 2013 after all, when public opinions bare in a matter of seconds. By the time an NBA coach finishes a post-game presser (let alone by the time his remarks are published by the Star Tribune) fans have already had it out on the interwebs on whatever the night’s hot issue. Last night, the Timberwolves rallied to overcome a 10-point deficit and win at Denver; a place only the Miami Heat had left victorious before. Kevin Love became a hot-button issue because his third quarter hand injury coincided exactly with the moment the comeback began. In other words, it looked like they were going to lose before Love got hurt and left the game. And then they won it without him.
“SEE THEY’RE TOTALLY BETTER WITHOUT LOVE” was a cheap shot set on a tee for any tweeting fans ready to take a swing.
Almost as quickly as the LOVE HATE polluted NBA Twitter an equally passionate chorus came screaming in Love’s defense.
“KEVIN LOVE IS AWESOME AND ANYONE WHO DOESN’T REALIZE IT IS STUPID.”
The whole exchange, impersonal and indirect as it was, exposed one certain truth:
This is a huge season for Kevin Love.
It is the first season in which he has a real supporting cast. It is the first season in which he’s a highly-paid–max, even–player. It is a season in which he has been involved in a pair of P.R. nightmares: one involving a hand injury that continues to affect his hoops performance; the other his decision to be interviewed by Adrian Wojnarowski that left him (for a day or two, anyway) closer to Stephon Marbury than Adrian Peterson on the spectrum of Minnesota sports love. But more germane to this discussion is Kevin Love’s history of being rated by most experts as one of the very best players in all of basketball. Charles Barkley began calling him the best power forward in the league. Stats-oriented folks had been on this band wagon long before Chuck, what with some metrics rating Love as the best player in the world. His infamous “NUMB#RS” campaign to make the All-Star team a couple years ago was easily boiled down to: “Don’t blame me that my teammates stink. Look at my stats.” Sure enough, Love did make that team–after David Stern used a commissioner’s pick on him controversially over LaMarcus Aldridge, who boasted more modest numbers but way more wins.
Against this backdrop the Timberwolves find themselves 1 game over .500. If you split the games by With Love/Without Love, they are actually slightly better in his absence. (6-5 without; 9-9 (including last night’s comeback win in his absence) with). On a more micro level, 82games’ most-recent splits show the Wolves to be 0.2 points better, per 100 possessions, with Love on the court than when he is off of it. In other words, there is not much difference in how the Wolves perform whether Love is on the floor or not. In earlier seasons, on terrible teams, Love’s on/off splits were very impressive. That essentially tells us that he is much better than his former teammates. The open question is whether and how much he is better than his improved, current replacements. The versatile Andrei Kirilenko, the energetic Dante Cunningham, and the brutally-tough Nikola Pekovic are each bringing contributions that lead to a roughly .500 record.
A legitimate superstar would lift this type of supporting cast to the playoffs. Certainly players in the LeBron/Durant/Paul tier, but it is a list longer than that.
One of my things that I’m looking forward to this year that I think is going to happen is the WILD swing back on people’s rating of Kevin Love. This year in NBARank he was SEVENTH. Think about that. He was SEVEN. [Eds note: Link to what Mason is referring to.] Ahead of…he somehow was ahead of Deron Williams. I mean, he’s gonna climb. But they had him ahead of guys like Melo, Parker, Bosh… There’s just tons of them. And I think he’s going to swing way back the other direction. Partly due to injury and it’s not fair, but also partly because the [Wolves] have been so good without him and you see that the defense is better, the ball movement is better and he’s kind of messed things up a little bit since he’s been back. So it will be interesting to see if he’s still held in the same regard or if that “empty stats” argument actually comes out and gets him.
All of this is not to take a side. Not today anyway. It is just worth taking a moment to think about what this fiery debate is really about. Kevin Love’s value has been a hot topic of debate going back to the night he was traded for O.J. Mayo. Even if this isn’t a “contract year,” it is very much a huge one for Kevin Love. If his hand heals up and he can regain his shooting touch, and if his conditioning and attitude will allow him to get back on defense with better consistency, it seems likely that a player of his caliber should be in the playoffs. But with his unique history of value assessment and the interesting beginning to his fifth NBA season, nobody should be surprised that arguments break out. Last night’s was not the first and it certainly will not be the last.