Kevin Wesley Love is playing absolutely amazing basketball right now.
In fact, he may be playing himself into being untradeable. Since 2005, here's a list of players in their first three years who are similar producers to what Love is doing this season. Not bad company, eh? Love's WS/48 this season already ranks 11th on that list, his current PER 6th. Like I said, dude's playing amazing basketball right now.
In terms of Wins Produced, Love is currently leading the entire league with 9.2. He's on pace to produce over 27 wins this season...by himself.
Soooooo.....seeing as how Love isn't a cornerstone type player because he's not a number 1 scoring option nor a defensive whiz, I got to wondering - what would a team built around Love look like? What would it need to look like? My thoughts after the jump.
First, my caveat - I don't know much about basketball history. I'm a numbers guy. And much of my thought/analysis about basketball is informed as much by my own experiences on various teams (in other sports) and by my fandom of other sports, specifically football (what I probably know best) and baseball. I subscribe to the idea that, at heart, all successful teams share similar elements and roles despite the inherent differences between sports. I also subscribe to the idea that while there is no single 'best' way to be highly successful, there are a handful of general templates that describe most (or all) high level teams, and a key part for all successful teams is the marriage between players and coaching.
Alright - so what would a team built around have to look like? Well, what do we have in Love? In my mind, Love is perhaps the greatest between the gaps player in the NBA today and in at least the last 10 years. He plays within any system and simply figures out how to get his while seemingly flying completely under the radar. How many times have we seen Love reach a double double by halftime but there at least two other Wolves players who stick out in your mind for points or rebounds? How many times have we seen Love close in on 20-15 and it seems ho-hum? For the purposes of this post I am assuming that Love will continue to do exactly what he's doing right now - very solid shooting, solid three point range, solid FTAs, elite level rebounding, solid passing, suspect defense. In other words, one of the most unique and (in some ways) head scratching big men since Charley Barkley. (By the way, kind of interesting look at these guys through their age 22 seasons.)
Speaking of the Round Mound of Rebound, he and Wes Unseld are the two templates that come to mind for me for as to how to build around a guy like Love. Both of those HOFers played with some amazing, amazing talent, and both were far superior defenders than Love is (and probably ever will be). But then again, today's NBA is a far cry from the era in which those guys played, and Love's three point shooting is a wrinkle that is an important development in order to be effective today. However, moving forward, it appears (through a very cursory, casual analysis) that there is a common theme in the kinds of players needed to be successful around players like this - a scoring point guard OR a defensive, assists PG, a lights out perimeter scorer/defender around 6'-6" to 6'-7", and an athletic rangy forward type (who's either a plus scorer or plus rebounder, but always a plus defender).
Again, I must emphasize the cursory and casual nature of this analysis, but going through BBall-Ref and looking at their successful teams, these were the kinds of players who seemed important to each team. Notably a high scoring point was present on most of them - it would seem that when you have quality passing big men you don't need an assist maker nearly as much at that position. However, as the league changed, guy like Kevin Johnson became more important, or even Mo Cheeks, who could score a little as well as dish. In terms of what Love can do within the context of today's game, especially given his legit three point range and his defensive deficiencies, I suspect that pairing Love with a guy like Rondo would work out very well.
Or, you know, instead of Rondo...Rubio. I think, in the context of this little thought experiment, any high level team built around Love needs a guy exactly like Rubio, and not because Love needs Rubio's passes. Nope, an elite team built around Love needs to address Love's single biggest weakness - his defense - and in today's PG awesome NBA, any elite team built around Love needs elite level defense on the perimeter, and especially at the 1. Rubio, despite his struggles in Europe, is about as good a prospect as you'll find right now for PG defense. He's long, he's crafty, he's highly intelligent, and he can handle the ball. Rubio may only average 6 ppg for his NBA career, but he'd also step in as perhaps the best defensive Timberwolf PG ever. (Right? Am I forgetting someone?).
Continuing on the defensive theme, this team needs to keep Anthony Tolliver, but also needs to add another impact big who not only supports Love's game (meaning, covers his deficiencies), but can play off of him very effectively. Is Darko that guy? To be honest, I don't know. In my opinion we haven't seen enough quality coaching of the team on defense to know this for sure. Moving forward Darko is definitely a guy I want to keep on the team, along with Tolliver, but there are two other guys that I have my eye that this hypothetical team needs to acquire.
The first, Greg Oden, is a HUGE risk. First, is he even available? Second, will he ever be healthy? Oden does fit the exact profile of the kind of player you want next to Love - an elite level defender, long and rangy, with very solid complimentary skills. He's smart, plays close to the basket (but understands how to move out of the way if Love's working inside), and brings great rebounding and solid scoring to the table. But to echo the theme, Oden would be the anchor of the defense, the guy who shuts down opposing bigs and is the end of the funnel opposing wings and points drive into, all while being smart enough and athletic enough to occasionally provide timely help defense for Love. Again, could Darko be that guy? Maybe, maybe not.
Derrick Favors is the other guy who I'd put next to Love. In this hypothetical scenario Favors would be the one of the primary trade targets, one of the mandatory trade targets. He's young, he's productive, he's got great upside, and he represents the kind of player who would both cover Love's weaknesses and still fit nicely with all the other players out there (meaning that if he played without Love, he still fits what we do - he's not a one trick pony, that trick being covering Love's weaknesses).
So who else do we need, or rather, what else would this hypothetical team need? First, defense, defense, defense. And second, defense. No, I kid, but seriously, defense is paramount, closely followed by solid, consistent scoring from the SG and SF positions as being second most important. I don't know if there are particular benchmarks that need to be met, but I think any team built around Love that wins at a high level needs a consistent (and relatively efficient) 30+ ppg combined from their starting SG and SF, perhaps 35+ if Rubio is your starting point. Do we have this? In this vision I'm not sure Beasley is that guy, as much as I love him, and it's mostly about his defense. Is Wes one of those guys? I think he could be, if he was the starting SF (and playing next to Rubio and Love's passing). Wes was certainly drafted to be one of those guys.
Is Martell one of those guys? Right now I say yes, in lieu of other options, he's got the strongest hold on the SG position moving forward. He's got the defensive chops for it, he's showing veteran savvy (despite being 23) in making plays that need to be made when they need to be made (driving, threes, defensive stops, whatever), and he's got the smarts to understand how to play off of anybody.
Right now, then, the basic foundation of the team looks like this:
Rubio, Martell, player X, Love, Favors/Oden
Of course, this also means that we're not playing the triangle anymore, but that's neither here nor there. I'm not even going to get into recent draft history because, for the purposes of this thought experiment, it actually doesn't matter. This is about what we've seen and learned about Love this season, and what we hypothetically should do going forward, not what we've done in the past.
All this begs the question, then - what should be done?
First, bring Rubio over. Pay him whatever he wants, but get him over ASAP. We need time for Rubio and the SG/SF to gel defensively, as they will be most responsible for masking Love's defensive liabilities (the idea being that if the perimeter is consistently stifling it will be easier to force opposing teams to play into what Love is good at defensively instead of what he's bad at, in addition to making it easier to simply funnel players into our big time defensive stopper at Center, whoever that is).
Third, acquire either Favors or Oden (I'll get to second in a moment). Of the two, I think Oden is the better fit but Favors the better long term bet. What would I give up for Favors? How about Pekovic, Jonny Flynn, and a pick (or even Beasley)? Too little? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me, maybe take back one of their overpriced vets (Travis Outlaw?). Jonny Flynn might turn out to be pretty good under Avery Johnson, and we know Prokhorov should love Pek. Point is, we have (IMO) the assets to acquire Favors and I think we should. Love, Darko, Favors is a three man big rotation with very excellent long term prospects, again, IMO.
Second, trade Beasley (and other stuff?) for either a player or simply to make room for Wes. Now, let me say right off the bat, I don't know if Wes is the guy who's right for SF on this hypothetical team, but I do think he can perform at an efficient and high level for a very long time. He's got career 15 ppg written all over him with good to great defense on a good team where he's the clear 2nd or 3rd scoring option. If you don't like other trade options out there, Wes is a great fall back. However, there are two other guys who are gettable (especially for Beasley) who would clearly fit what this team is about. The first is Gerald Wallace. He's signed for $9.5 million a year this year and the next two. He's 28, durable, and also this:
Simply one of the best defensive players in the League. Works extremely hard, and doesn’t take plays off. Leaping ability makes him one of the best weak-side shot blocking guards in the game, and he has the speed and quickness to play in passing lanes. Can create turnovers, but doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and gets his steals and blocks in the flow of the game. That’s what makes him such an impressive player.Oh yes, and he's a very solid 15-17 ppg guy as a starter. Combined with Rubio and Martell, Wallace would anchor our perimeter defense and make us one of the most difficult teams for opposing offenses to face. And if he breaks down by the end of his contract? Well, maybe Wes will be ready to take over by then. What is also great about Wallace is his ability to go strong to the hoop - an attribute needed on this hypothetical squad.
The other guy we should be looking at is Iggy. Iggy is absolutely killing it at SF this year. He's younger than Wallace (26 to 28), but more expensive (signed for a year longer, well, it's a player option/ETO, and at a higher rate of around $13.5 million a year for the next three seasons after this one.) Would Philly accept Beasley for him? Do we throw in Wes instead (a move I'd rather not do as Wes' three point shooting and defense fits the new MO of the team)? I'm not sure, but both Philly and the Bobcats would probably accept our capspace as a significant return for these players. Oceanary wrote up a great piece on Iggy, so I won't say too much more about him other than, like Wallace, he is just about an ideal fit for this hypothetical team centered around Love - he's athletic, an outstanding perimeter defender, he gets to the line, and he's consistently productive (points, rebounds, steals, whatever). A very safe 15-17 ppg guy. Oh, and this:
A tremendous defender who is arguably the most dynamic player maker on Philadelphia’s roster. Does a very good job reading the eyes of ball handlers and intercepting passes to create transition opportunities. Has the quickness and length to effectively deny penetration. Will make some plays blocking shots as well. Gives more effort than almost every elite scorer the League has to offer. Very good rebounder as well. The type of player that coaches love.
Where this leaves us: Rubio, Martell, Gerald Wallace/Iggy, Love, Darko/Favors/Oden Wes as a backup along with whoever else is left over (Luke, Wayne, Lazar?)
Is that enough to win at a high level in this league? It might be. It's certainly a playoff team. Biggest question is scoring. Biggest strength is defense and rebounding. Again, I'd really like to hold onto Wes for his three point shooting - might be really nice to be able to insert that into the game when you need more range, but without giving up too much defense. It's a team whose identity would be pressure, pressure, pressure - defensively, obviously, but also with Rubio pushing the ball forward and testing defenses and looking for FTA machines Love and Iggy/Wallace. This is where the last component comes into play - if Gregg Popovich was coaching this team, they could win 55-60 games and go deep into the playoffs.
This team, as imagined, needs the right coach, and I'm frankly not sure Rambis is that guy. Laimbeer? Maybe. Larry Brown would probably love this team. Point is, in my mind a team could be constructed around Love with the assets we already have and within current NBA landscape. Getting either Iggy/Wallace AND Favors/Oden is within the realm of possibility. Would we have to cash in many/all of our chips? Ya, probably, but such is the price to go from a 15-20 win squad to a 40-50+ win squad. We'd also have to change coaches, maybe even POBOs (all hail Ronzone!). This team could win at a high level and wouldn't need to force anyone to be anything that they're not (speaking specifically of Rubio, but also Wes, Martell, and Love). The identity would be utterly different - defense, not offense - but it could work. It would work.