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Is AK47 more valuable than Kevin Love?

Is AK47 more valuable than Kevin Love? At first glance, how could this be possible? Kevin Love is an Olympic Gold Medalist, an All-NBA Second Team selection, an elite rebounder and an elite scorer. He finished 5th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, while close to the league lead in minutes per game. All these accolades and accomplishments suggest brilliance, at least individual brilliance, but they have yet to translate to NBA wins, barring the singular stretch of .500 ball to start last season.

With Knuckles on ice to begin this season, the Wolves are off to their best start in franchise history, at least when measured against expectations. If Kevin Love couldn’t take a team full of misfits and turn them into winners, how is the current roster able to take a team without Kevin Love and turn itself into winners? Hopefully 82games can help us understand how.

Yesterday, 82games.com released their first batch of 2012-13 statistics. One aspect of these statistics that I think is helpful in identifying team strengths and weaknesses is the production by position charts. First, let’s take a look at last year’s positional PER differentials:

2011-12 Minnesota Timberwolves

Position

Wolves Production

Opponent Production

Net Production

PG

15.0

16.9

-1.9

SG

10.2

14.1

-3.8

SF

9.9

15.0

- 5.1

PF

18.0

17.4

+0.5

C

20.6

17.4

+3.2

A few things jump out immediately, the Wolves were bad at defense, and the Wolves were very poor at net production at Small Forward. I think we can all agree that wing production last season was historically brutal. Beyond issues at Small Forward, there was also a dearth of net productive players. That short list of net productive players, using PER differential, was Love and Pek, and that’s it. Rubio and Barea were almost there, but still had a negative net differential. Let’s take a closer look at Love and Pek:

Own Production

Opponent Production

Net Production

Love

26.1

16.7

9.4

Pek

22.3

13.8

8.5

Not only were Love and Pek productive, they were both highly productive on Net Production. Unsurprisingly, PF and C were the Wolves only net productive positions, and that is definitely based solely on the production of a Pek and Kevin Love.

Yes the Wolves added a bevy of productive players to the roster this offseason, but they also have been playing without their most productive player from a season ago. How are they doing it? Let’s look below to this season’s positional PER differentials:

2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves

Position

Wolves Production

Opponent Production

Net Production

Change in Net vs. 2011-12

PG

15.5

17.4

-1.9

0

SG

13.9

16.6

-2.8

+1.0

SF

17.8

9.1

+8.6

+13.7

PF

13.9

10.9

+2.9

+2.4

C

15.9

10.9

+4.9

+1.7

AK47 and Chase Budinger together, have miraculously turned around the worst position on last year’s roster, small forward. Without canvassing every team’s production by position pages, I can assume that this positional turnaround is the starkest turnaround in the league. But beyond our newfound production at Small Forward, something else jumps off the page immediately, and that is, that without Kevin Love, we have actually improved at both PF and C. How can this be? How can our franchise centerpiece be on the sidelines, but the positions he mans, show improvement?

First, let’s take a look at who is not responsible: Lou Amundson and the Steam Machine. Amundson is playing near Darko minutes (9%) and producing substantially worse (-36.9 Net PER) than our old favorite punching bag. Steam Machine isn’t producing much better (-7.3 Net PER) in a significant amount of minutes (29%). Thus our end of bench big man depth has yet to be noticeably better, at least in PER differential, than Randolph, Tolliver, and Milicic of a season ago.

Second, let’s take a look at our Pek. His PER differential is better, almost solely do his newfound defensive chops. His offensive PER has dropped to 19.3, but his opponent PER is down also to 9.3. This 10.0 net PER differential is better than his 8.5 from last year, but the Wolves production at both PF and C as a team has improved moreso at both positions than Pek’s individual improvement. This is still without accounting for Kevin Love’s production.

If it’s not the end of the bench, and it’s not a Pek, the only players left who could be responsible for not only maintaining the Wolves net PER production at PF but increasing it are Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams. First, let’s take a look at Williams, as he was on the roster last year, and his improvement, if any, could be a major part of the improved PER differentials at PF.

Own Production

Opponent Production

Net Production

Williams 11-12

13.0

15.8

-2.7

Williams 12-13

10.1

4.8

5.3

This correlates with the eye test, in that Williams has appeared more lost on offense, still hasn’t found his shot, and still hasn’t learned to finish in traffic. In actuality, Williams’ offensive production has taken a significant drop in this small sample size. The opponent production also correlates with what we’ve seen with our eyes, namely that Williams’ work with Bayno in the offseason has lead him to be a better player on defense. We’ll see if he can maintain this otherworldly defensive production, e.g., to exemplify the small sample size of these numbers, JJ Barea currently leads the team in opponent production holding his opposition to a PER of 1.1.

Our last chance to explain the improvement in PF production without Love comes to Dante Cunningham. Let’s compare Love’s last season numbers to Cunningham this season:

Own Production

Opponent Production

Net Production

Love

26.1

16.7

9.4

Cunningham

16.2

7.5

8.8

It’s clear right away that Cunningham is not the offensive force that Kevin Love is, but it’s similarly clear that Cunningham is a far superior defender. (Small sample size alert, Cunningham’s net PER last season was 0.0 with both a 15.6 mark for production and opponent production). Thus it appears so far, that although one offseason equation that AK47 – Wes Johnson = Kevin Durant is growing closer and closer to the truth, the more mind boggling equation of the first 7 games may be Williams + Cunningham = Kevin Love.

The title of the post suggests AK47 is more valuable than Kevin Love, but the meat here has been at identifying how the Wolves have been able to not only replace Love’s production of a year ago but exceed it. What’s interesting is the Wolves have been able to be net productive at the PF and C positions for the last 2-3 years running. This year, even without Love to start the season, the Wolves have been able to not only maintain net production but increase it. The Wolves have been deficient on the wing for years, and the only thing that’s changed that is an AK47. Thus the hypothesis, is it easier to surround a wing producer like AK47 with enough talent to win than it is to surround Kevin Love with enough talent to win? Small sample size be damned, AK47 may be making his claim to this franchise’s second best Winner behind Kevin Garnett.

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