Sunday Jottings: Shooting Woes, Respectable Defense, Long Outlets and Extended Thoughts about Kevin Love

The Timberwolves have won four of their first six games and sit tied with the Blazers for second place in the Northwest Division. They’ve blown out the division-leading Thunder and have been manhandled on their home court by the Warriors. With the season now 7.317073 percent complete, it seems a good time to step away from the game wraps and look at some early trends, causes for hope, and causes for concern.

Poor Shooting

Let’s get some of the bad out the way. The Wolves are shooting just 41.4 percent from the field (27th best in league) and 31.6 percent from three-point range (23rd). The biggest drain on team shooting accuracy — by far — is Ricky Rubio. He is just 16 of 57 from the floor, shooting a miserable 28.1 percent on field goals. Alexey Shved has been worse, but in a much smaller sample size of playing time. Shved is 3 for 16 (18.8 percent) and 1 for 7 from downtown. The three-point shooting would be even worst than last season (dead last in the league, by far) if not for newcomer Kevin Martin. K-Mart (or “K-Target,” as Patrick Fenelon aptly renamed him) is shooting a hair under 57 percent from 3. His 32 points against Dallas were an integral part of getting that win.

Kevin Love is off to a fantastic start to the season (more on this below) but is connecting on just 31.6 percent of his threes. This isn’t nearly as bad as his broken-handed self of a year ago (21.7 percent from three), but it would be nice to see a return to the guy who won a three-point contest title during All-Star Weekend 2012. The great Beckley Mason wrote a piece for HoopSpeak about Love, and how well he fits into Rick Adelman’s offense. I took special interest in the section describing how Love tricks opponents around the three-point line:

On most possessions, Adelman’s offense, which is characterized by clever screen-the-screener action and plenty of hard curls that start at the wing and rip around a screen near the elbow, places Love about one long step inside the 3-point line.

This is such a sneaky and subtle way to get Love open beyond the arc. If Love stood right at the 3-point line, like most spot up shooters, defenses would know exactly how far to roam when helping off him. Instead, Love’s defender often thinks he is close enough to close out after lending help, only to discover that Love has taken one giant step backwards and is now wide open with his toes on the 3-point line.

I wrote a while back about how Love was moving too much to get open for his threes. Basically, I wanted to see him doing exactly what Mason is impressed that he’s not doing: playing “like most spot up shooters.” I just wonder if the “giant step backwards” and other pre-three-point-shot motions are to blame for Love’s shooting inaccuracy.

Maybe it’s just small sample size. We will see.

Surprisingly Competent Defense

The obvious area of concern for the Timberwolves heading into this season was team defense. On the interior, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are earthbound bigs without much lateral quickness, by NBA standards. (The “earthbound” tag is borne out in some stats. Currently, the Wolves block the fewest shots per game in the league, and have the most field goal attempts of their own blocked.) This, combined with the Kevin Martin/Andrei Kirilenko de facto swap, had many (including Rick Adelman, it seems) concerned that this team would not be able to play defense at a respectable level.

Through six games, the worries appear unfounded. The Wolves are 8th in team defense with a rating of 98.0. That number actually improves (to 95.5) when Martin is on the floor. In the early going, Timberwolves reserves have had more trouble defending than the starters. I don’t think this was expected, and I don’t know that it will continue. But if the team can hang around the 10th to 15th ranks of total defense, the odds of a playoff berth seem very good. The offense — specifically, some of the bad shooting stats — should improve over time. To maintain this level of defense the Wolves will lean on the fiestiness and grit of Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer. Rubio leads the league in steals and the team ranks 3rd overall. Steals don’t account for every play that Rubio makes, such as his Ed Reed-like ball hawking in the open floor, which seems to blow up a possession or two every game, and is not formally tracked as a steal for Ricky.

Kevin Love to Corey Brewer: A perfect marriage of skills

One of the fun wrinkles of this year’s team is the perfect marriage of Kevin Love’s outlet bomb passes and Corey Brewer’s propensity to leak out at full speed when he sees that a teammate corralled the defensive rebound. Brewer is shooting 47.8 percent from the field, which is well above his career percentage of 41.7. Kevin Love is averaging 5.0 assists per game, which is dramatically (and perhaps unsustainably — if that’s a word) better than his career average of 2.0. This isn’t a coincidence. More than once per game, Love is finding Brewer on 60 to 70 foot outlet bombs for wide open dunks. Before Brewer arrived (returned, I guess) Love’s outlets were novelty. Now they’re a weapon that provides an extra easy basket or two in every game.

Kevin Love: MVP Numbers, “Limited Natural Ability,” and a Shorter-Than-Was-Necessary Kahntract

If the season ended today, Kevin Love might win the MVP Award. He’s averaging over 27 points and almost 15 rebounds per game, and leads the league in win shares per 48 minutes (.325). His team is winning twice as often as it is losing and he is, by far, the biggest reason why. Love is shooting a career best 47.4 percent from the field and, more importantly, is shooting 8.2 free throws per game, where he converts at an 83.7 percent rate. His defense has been solid and the aforementioned assist numbers evidence the culmination of his development that Rick Adelman has long wanted to see. Love is not just finding Brewer for fast-break dunks; he’s also bounce passing to Martin and Brewer on baseline backdoor cuts, allowing Wolves fans some aesthetic enjoyment that Adelman admirers have come to expect. Aside from the nitpicking about his three-point shooting style up above in this post, there is almost nothing to criticize about Kevin Love.

But Love isn’t so flawless a player that he’s boring to discuss. Far from it. In fact, he might be the single-most interesting player in the NBA.  A preseason survey of NBA general managers found Love to be the league’s player who “makes the most of limited natural ability.” What’s so interesting about this finding is that it’s both an entirely reasonable statement about Kevin Love (he’s shorter and/or less explosive than the small list of players who have combined this level of scoring and rebounding) and it’s also met with scorn from basketball fans who seem to interpret it as a dig at Love, rather than a compliment.

Rather than accept the obvious, it seems many prefer to widely expand [what should be] the common understanding of “natural ability” in basketball. If you attend a high-school basketball game, you’ll probably notice that the players on the floor are a little bit taller and a little bit leaner than the kids watching them in the stands. Attend a small college game, and the difference is a bit more pronounced. Continue up the chain to the Big Ten, and these gaps continue to widen. And at Target Center, where the Timberwolves play, there will be a seven-footer or two on the floor, as well as a few freakishly-explosive, long-armed athletes like Corey Brewer who do things with their bodies that we in the stands can barely comprehend.

Height and athleticism are the general separating factors between basketball players and People Who Do Other Things For a Living. And compared to his All-NBA caliber peers, Kevin Love is not particularly tall, and not particularly athletic. He leads the league in rebounding and almost leads the league in scoring, despite often giving up size and speed to his opponent.

The obvious area of discomfort for fans struggling with this Kevin Love Conundrum is race. Kevin Love is white, most NBA All-Stars are not white, and by labeling the white guy as the “does the most with the least,” we’re either: a) Perpetuating a stereotype about white basketball players that is based straight down racial lines, which is never a good idea; or b) Taking an indirect shot at non-white ballers who reach high levels of success, attributing their achievements to genetics rather than hard work and — to borrow a term from the both naturally-blessed and historically-dedicated Kevin Garnett — taking pride in their craft.

(I should add that the other results of the survey evince a racial bias. Marc Gasol received the second-most votes, despite being seven feet tall. Matt Bonner tied with Jared Dudley for third, despite being a limited role player. J.J. Barea ranked fifth, and he’s far from a star player. Had I been given a vote, I would’ve considered Love along with Steph Curry (who received votes) or Chris Paul. Curry and Paul dominate games despite having neither exceptional height or explosive athleticism (again, by NBA standards) on their side.)

In interpreting the Love GM Survey, I guess I’d rather just make note of the racially-driven discomfort, but also try to maintain objectivity. Just because something is awkward to discuss doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. Kevin Love is shorter and slower than a lot of his opponents, but he has developed such incredible skills as a shooter, rebounder, and foul-drawer, that he usually outplays them. A (gasp) cross-racial comparison could be made between Kevin Love and James Harden, as each player possesses expert understanding of how to use the league’s touchy hand-check rules as an offensive weapon. Love also does something that I continue to shake my head at, late in 3rd and 4th Quarters. After relentlessly fighting for rebounding position all game, he’ll wait until the opponent has fouled the Wolves 5 times, putting them in the bonus. When he has position for a contested rebound, he’ll either twist his arm into his opponents, or flail forward and out of bounds, daring the ref to call a foul. Fighting for a defensive rebound, 90 feet from his own basket, Kevin Love has just managed to generate two points for his team. I’m sorry for thinking that isn’t “natural ability” as I understand the term to apply to basketball players.

Reading David Halberstam describe Larry Bird reminded me of some of the ways Kevin Love’s “natural abilities” are often described:

When [Bird] came into the NBA, everyone knew he was a great shooter and gifted passer–he had huge hands and great peripheral vision–but the fact that a player with so limited a body by NBA standards was also a first-rate rebounder surprised everyone. He was a very good rebounder because he worked at it, and he was exceptionally skilled at picking up the tiniest fault line among the players jammed around the basket and somehow muscling his imperfect, flawed body through the seam to get the position he wanted. If the ball came down anywhere near him, it was his: He had those huge but wonderfully soft hands attached to great, thick wrists. If there was a key to Bird’s game, which few people saw, thought Jimmy Rodgers, an assistant in Boston for several years, it was those wrists. He was in many ways a wrist shooter–just a little flick of the wrist and he had his shot.

If Larry Bird’s success was due to “great, thick wrists,” then perhaps Kevin Love’s is due to a strong core and trunk. He holds position really well, and when he gets his hands on a rebound he rarely loses it. It’s just that thick wrists and a strong core are hardly typical traits discussed as correlating with high-level basketball success. To borrow David Kahn’s phrase, “long and athletic” is the more common attribute pairing thought to go along with the success of greats from Michael Jordan at guard to Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal at center.

While Bird and Love were both fair-skinned NBA superstars who made a lot out of their God-given abilities, a counter example would be Darko Milicic. Having seen Darko more times than I care to recall during the David Kahn Era here in Minnesota, I feel confident saying he’s one of the all time “Did the least with the most” players in league history. Milicic is REALLY tall. He has long arms, and — when he occasionally feels like showing it off — has a graceful athleticism about him that makes you understand why Joe Dumars drafted him so high, ahead of future Hall of Fame talents Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.

But Darko was a terrible NBA basketball player. He was often out of shape, and would do just about anything and everything to avoid putting his face in harm’s way en route to rebounds. Rather than dive in an elevated scrum with two hands (you know, like Kevin Love does every night) Darko would keep his head back and try getting one hand up there for a tip-back rebound. He wouldn’t get fouled because he wouldn’t go hard to the basket. Instead, it would be the soft, lefty baseline hook. When Darko did go to the line, he made under 58 percent of his free throws; this, despite having a nice release on his shot. Whatever tweaks would’ve been required to up that baby 20 or so percentage points, Darko wasn’t going to spend much time correcting them. (My advice would’ve been to stop aiming his feet and shoulders 45 degrees to the right. I digress.)

Anyway, that’s enough piling on Darko. He hung around the league for longer than he should have, because NBA GM’s kept looking at that “natural ability” and convincing themselves they could tap into it. It never happened. If Kevin Love had Darko’s body, he’d be a better version of Tim Duncan. Maybe that’s the simplest way to make this point.

The final point of Kevin Love Conversation is his Timberwolves contract, which will almost certainly expire after next season, in the summer of 2015, when he’ll exercise his player option and explore free agency.

The simple facts:

The Wolves could’ve offered Love a maximum contract of five years. Instead, they agreed on a four-year contract for max money, which — as a consideration to Love, for accepting a shorter deal — included a player option after three years. Based on everything written about the negotiations, Love wanted the same five-year deal as his college roommate, Russell Westbrook, signed around the same time period in Oklahoma City. So, the Timberwolves voluntarily locked up Love for three years, instead of five.

It has been suspected that the Wolves wanted to preserve the five-year max, which can only be used once during this Collective Bargaining Agreement, for Ricky Rubio. Ricky is more popular with fans, but not (yet, anyway) as great of a player as Love. However, I’m not aware of Wolves Brass ever admitting this publicly. In his exit interview with Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, David Kahn said that the four-year offer was at the direction of owner Glen Taylor, but with Kahn’s input that five years is a very long time to commit maximum money, citing injuries to big men as a potential risk.

Clearly, it would’ve been wise to use the five-year max on Love. He is a great player who was willing to commit to a medium-sized market like the Twin Cities for the prime of his career. The likelihood of the Wolves finding a better forward than Love in the next two years is extremely unlikely.

But there is room to defend the decision on three separate grounds.

First is Kahn’s point about injuries. Love already missed (effectively) an entire season due to his own negligence away from the court, breaking his hand in two places. It isn’t the first time he’s suffered a serious hand injury, and — for good measure — he also underwent knee surgery in the offseason. When considering contracts for almost-nine-figure sums, it’s not unreasonable to consider injury possibilities in the long term. However, this is not a very convincing argument against committing to Love for five years. There isn’t much indication that his knees will remain a problem, and the hand injuries are isolated instances based on random, fluke occurrences.

A second ground for defending the Wolves here is to simply look at their lack of success during Love’s tenure in Minnesota. It’s entirely unfair to *blame* Love for the losing, as if his play was the problem. But what is fair is acknowledging the simple fact that his individual production on the stat sheet has been grossly superior to his team’s performance. Some of the worst teams in NBA history have had Kevin Love racking up NUMB#RS on them. Whether the Wolves signed Love for three years or five, something is going to give if they don’t start winning games. A player of this caliber is not going to accept an entire career of losing, and he would hardly be the first player to demand a trade if the circumstances called for it.

You could counter this by pointing out that his trade value would be at least as high with more years on his deal, and I’d counter your counter by saying an ugly PR mess involving a trade demand would go a long way in removing the team’s leverage. Let’s not forget the last time when Love was bizarrely dissatisfied with his team, that had been off to a surprisingly-good start in his hand-injury absence. Rather than keep things in house or even speak to respected local media outlets, he had lunch with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski in Philadelphia and sounded off on all sorts of reasons why he was upset with the Timberwolves. If the Wolves continue to lose, Love will not be happy, and history tells us he may act out publicly in ways that could ruin leverage in trade negotiations.

The third and final ground for defending the team’s handling of Love’s contract is a point made by Kahn in the Zgoda interview: Giving him the third-year option was a good-faith gesture by the team to Love. It provides him flexibility in the event of a third-year injury (in which case he will likely opt in for the fourth year) or in the event that he’s playing at a high level and is able to command a new, bigger contract in 2015 (in which case he will opt out and either leave via free agency or re-up with the Timberwolves for another big contract). When speculating about Love’s 2015 intentions, fans and pundits seem to focus on his shaky relationship with Kahn and how Flip Saunders’ arrival will go a long way in keeping Love here. While I personally disagree with that (I think it overestimates the importance of player-GM relationships. See Krause, Jerry.) there’s an important implication embedded in that argument: Kevin Love’s feelings matter. And by giving him an unnecessary amount of freedom in 2015 — perhaps after he had enough time to digest the process, in talks with his agent — it’s possible that he will reciprocate in 2015 with a long-term Timberwolves contract that carries through his entire prime as a basketball player.

Of course, like I said, it would’ve been wise to just offer him the five-year max and deal with Rubio when the time comes. But few things are black and white and sometimes it’s fun to play contrarian. Personally, I think it will work itself out. The team will either win this year and next, and he’ll want to stay. Or the team will lose, Love will leave (probably via trade), and that will probably be best for both sides anyway. There will be no more Love (or Adelman) and the rebuild will commence around Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and future lottery picks that will hopefully be a lot better than Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson.

Big game tonight at Staples Center against the Lakers. Let’s hope for a Timberwolves win and — looking ahead 19 or so months — that Love isn’t visiting the place he will one day call his home office.

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