Kevin Love is a unique mammal. We've tried for years to describe what he is, or whose career to compare him to. To this point there's no answer. Last season we witnessed him pile up incredible statistics, and had endless arguments as to where he stands amongst the game's power forwards. Reasonable answers had listed him anywhere from 1st to 9th amongst PF's, with the CH faithful (and Dave Berri) perhaps ranking him higher on average than the rest of the nation. Due to his elite production at a strange combination of statistics, coupled with his team's historically bad production, Kevin Love was a very polarizing figure in the league last season. This season that is not necessarily the case. Even the 4-letter network has articles placing him definitively in the top 2, and many as THE top guy. So what has changed for the reigning most improved player? Has the combination of Rubio, Adelman, 30 less pounds, and one more year of intelligence spurned on further improvement for Kevin Love? Has the Wolves' national exposure simply made him a more interesting player to write about? Was he so underrated last season that he's simply been overrated this year? Good questions, BeasleBong.
As with everything I write, this is about 1000 words too long. If you don't have time for it, don't read it. Or just skip to the bullet points at the end and you'll pretty much get the gist of it.
There seems to be a greater consensus this season. People seem ready and willing to accept that he is an elite PF in basketball. When looking at the 4-letter's widely publicized NBA Rank, before the season Love was ranked behind Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, and Amare Stoudemire as the 5th best PF (and 16th best player in the league). Arguments could have also been made to have LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Chris Bosh, and even great 2-way players like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan over him as well. It seems like through 18 games Love has passed, and even shed debates from all these players except Blake Griffin and occasionally LaMarcus Aldridge on the national landscape. The heaps of praise being piled onto him this season imply even further improvement. Before researching for this post I wondered to myself whether that was due to some great tangible improvement, or just mere perception.
My worry stemmed from the other name involved in the conversation: Blake Griffin. Last season Blake seemed to be acknowledged as a superfreak of an athlete with a very bright future. This season people seem to be anointing him as officially arrived: even though he has been worse statistically even with the arrival of Chris Paul. Without getting too deep into Blake's stats, his PER is down, TS% is down, TRB% is down, AST% is down and TO% is up (despite being surrounded by improved teammates) which all leads to his WS/48 being significantly down. Even his aggregate stats have not improved, which leaves no reason for even casual fans to believe he's improved. These beliefs must stem solely from being on a new national landscape with a winning team. Somehow Blake has been able to be acknowledged as a top 1, 2, or 3 PF without actually getting better. So if that's the deal in Hollywood, what's the deal here?
Remember how I mentioned Kevin Love being a weird mammal? Well after looking into it Kevin Love is a weird, weird mammal. Having watched all the games so far, Kevin Love looks a TON better than he did last year. He's quick, he's explosive, he can dribble, he has shown quickness and power in the post. He looks vastly improved. The very surface aggregate stats imply he has also improved. He is scoring 5 PPG more, while not suffering a dramatic loss in rebounds. He's getting more steals AND more blocks while playing the most minutes in the league. Of course, CH is too smart to be deceived by simple aggregate numbers, so let's ignore those for a minute. His FG% is the worst of his career (.436). His FT% is the 2nd worst of his career (.804). His 3P% is worse than it was last season (.409 from .417). His assists are down, his turnovers are up. His TRB% and DRB% have dropped dramatically (19.3 from 23.6 and 26.6 from 34.2 respectively) while his ORB% has dropped a little bit (11.8 from 13.7). If I was a sexy poster here I would include charts and shit, but I don't want to be considered sexy. I just want to be considered ruthlessly aggressive, bringing the straight facts without the frills and sequins. Also I don't know how to make charts, and am too slow to learn.
Despite the lack of improvement in % numbers, Kevin Love has STILL managed to boost his WS/48 from an outstanding .210 last season to .237 this season (SAY WHAT?!?!?!). Not only that, but there is significant reason to believe that he could jump even more than that by the end of the season. I've played with my food long enough on this post. I told you he was better, then told you he was worse. Here are the 3 biggest reasons why Kevin Love has made the leap to become an elite member of the league.
Due to the lack of one inarguable solid defensive statistic, it usually takes two seasons or more to recognize a typical improvement in a player's defense. However, from where he was two seasons ago, Kevin Love's defensive improvement has been anything but typical. He has gone from defensive atrocity to defensive asset. That's right, not just a hide-able entity, but an actual asset. It doesn't matter what metric you want to use, he's gotten better. Synergy Sports' PPP? He's given up .78 PPP, including .65 in the post (good for top 20 post defender in the league). Opponents' PER? When covering C's he overcomes the typical 2 or 3 inch differential in height to give up a 12.1 PER (league average is 15). When covering PF's he gives up a mere 10.5 PER Last year he gave up 12.4 to C's and 16 to PF's. Defensive Rating? He's gone from giving up career numbers of 109, 109, and 108 to a very solid 99 this season. Due to Darko's decreased minutes Kevin Love has had a lot more responsibility as a post defender this season as well. Darko has recently had memorable performances against Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom, but for the most part Love has been manning the opposition's best post scorer. If you disagree with statistical evidence of defensive improvement, you can watch the game and probably reach the same conclusion. He has greatly stepped up his help defense as well and raised his effort a ton. He'll never be a guy who racks up blocks, but he has challenged a lot more shots (both inside and outside) this season than last. He has some improvement to do on the perimeter against stretch 4's, but he has not been burned badly yet this season in a place on the court where he was burned semi-nightly last year. In fact, due to his solid shut-down ability this year combined with a still excellent (although lower) DRB% and high minutes, Kevin Love is actually in the top 10 of defensive win shares this season with 1.1. It's early, but he's tied with LeBron so that's pretty cool (Ricky has 1.0... it's cool when your two best offensive players are also two good defensive players). Love's defensive improvement more than makes up for any drop in rebounding numbers.
- Shot Selection
I mentioned earlier that Love is averaging 5 more points than last year despite far worse percentages. Surprisingly, he's only taking 4 more shots per game this year to get those 5 extra points. His Points/FGA is only slightly worse than last season (1.39 to last year's 1.43). While this isn't necessarily an improvement, there is an improvement in what his shot chart looks like on a nightly basis. Kevin Love is bombing threes like he thinks they're worth more than that. He's averaging 1 more shot at the rim, the same amount from 3-15 feet, 1.2 more from 16-23 feet (the easiest shot to get, the hardest shot to make) and a whopping 2.2 more shots from 3 point range. The reason I'm optimistic for possible further in-season improvement is that relative to his career averages, he's been shooting like crap (worst FG%'s from 3-9, 10-15, and 16-23 of his career... chart can be seen here). On top of taking a lot more jumpers, he's also been getting to the line 1.3 more times per 36 minutes than last season. The cynic in me would believe that NBA officiating might have something to do with that. However the witness in me has seen Kevin Love drawing borderline reckless amounts of contact this year, while still bombing 3's at an alarming rate. Again, his FT % is down, and his 3P% is down, but he's racking up almost 4.5 more points from the efficiency stripes in comparison to last season (when a huge percentage of his points came from the FT line and the 3P line as well). If he returns to his average percentages, we could see him average 26 or 27 points per game at this particular usage rate (we'll see how Beasley returning to the lineup effects that). Which leads me to my 3rd great improvement...
- Usage Rate
Last year we loved Kevin Love because he was highly efficient and relatively low usage, while we weren't as fond of Beasley because he was low efficiency and high usage. I would have argued a season ago that a player like Beasley is a necessary evil to employ. You need someone on your team to swallow the bad possessions and force shots when the shot clock is winding down. A player like Beasley allowed a player like Love to maintain his high efficiency numbers. Kevin Love has, for about the 15th time, proven me wrong. Love's usage rate has been pretty consistent through his career (21.0, 22.4, 22.9). This season that number has taken a huge jump to 28.4 (comparatively, last season Beasley was 28.3). I'm not sure how much of this has to do with Beasley having been out of the lineup/ineffective when he's been in the lineup, but I figure it's worth quoting now in case anything happens when Beasley gets back. In basketball a player's efficiency drops when his usage goes up. That's just something that happens. In basketball, a big man's efficiency drops more than a guard's efficiency drops when their usages go up the same amount. That is why the league leaders, and the players generally considered to be the "best" tend to be guards, or ball-handling forwards. Kevin Love is currently 13th in the league in usage rate, and the only PF's or C's ahead of him are Blake Griffin and Andrea Bargnani. This is exactly the type of player people have claimed Love could not be. This is where Kevin Love claims to be a banana sandwich. He has been playing the most minutes per game at a high usage offensively, while giving more defensive effort than ever in his life. The season he's been having might not be MVP caliber, but it's shaping up to be something special.
For the sake of optimism, please refrain from commenting about 2015, or 2016. I started this fan post before the heinous (lack of) extension, and I don't intend for any Kahniness to ruin my good vibrations.