Monday, August 18, 2014

Kevin Love, Part 1: KAHN!!!

So Kevin Love, an All-Star still hitting his prime, is getting traded. What a mess. Can we all just say it one more time? KAHN!!!!! I don't know David Kahn personally. Maybe he's a nice guy. But his body of work with the Minnesota Timberwolves is nothing short of sabotage, with losing Love as the coup de grace. After LeBron to Cleveland (which seems to be widely and wildly acclaimed), this has taken over as the basketball story of the summer. The situation has stirred analysis from a variety of angles from the obvious (DAVID KAHN!!!) to the ambiguous (is Kevin Love even that good??). I thought I'd throw my hat into the mix looking at three basic questions:

  1. Why is Minnesota losing Kevin Love?
  2. Where does Kevin Love fit in the NBA hierarchy? How good is he, and can you win with him?
  3. Which situation fits Love the best? I know he's going to Cleveland, but would another team had made more sense?
In this part, I'm focusing on the Minnesota Kevin Love. So about David Kahn. I'm not talking about Johnny Flynn or Wes Johnson - those moves are horrible in hindsight, but a little more defensible at the time. Flynn could dribble and get to the line - seriously, take a look at these stats:

College numbers from
The numbers above are from point guards that have made an All-Star team over the last 5 years, referencing per-game stats from each player's last year in school. I controlled for only players that spent two years in school since one-and-dones have some funky looking numbers. Don't players C and D look like the worst of the bunch? Poor shooters that don't take 3s, generate a lot of free throws, or throw a ton of assists. Jonny Flynn is surely one of those guys, right?

This may be Example A in the statistics are worthless camp, but it shows that, in a vacuum, the Timberwolves weren't 100% crazy for taking Jonny Flynn. Problem is, things are never in a vacuum. Those stats are cherry picked because including Ty Lawson would show him as a superior shooter, distributor, and player. And that's before accounting for the sub-par nature of defensive players from Syracuse (seriously, name one that is a good defender). And worse, the Wolves had chances to take three of the Rubio, Curry, Lawson, and Flynn quartet and somehow wound up with the worst combination possible: Rubio, Flynn, and Martell Webster. We knew at the time that Rubio couldn't shoot, but was a sweet passer and could play in two-PG combos because of his size. We've seen both Curry and Lawson devastate with their shooting in two-PG lineups alongside Jarrett Jack and Professor Andre Miller, respectively. Either would have been a better option than Flynn, who never projected as a shooter. 

In 2007, Wes Johnson was the second best player in the Big 12 behind some dude named Kevin Durant. He broke his foot sometime before his sophomore season started, the Iowa coaching staff mishandled it, and he had a horrible year. Transferring to Syracuse and sitting out a season, Wes became the best player on an Orange team that was a 1 seed in the tourney (lost to Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, totally respectable). Wes put up a 17 and 9 in that game shooting 60% from the field, but Gordon Hayward and the smaller Bulldogs took 50% more free throws. Overall, his per-game stats from that year were better than those some other small forward contemporaries whose names you'll recognize:

Wes is the best 3 ball shooter of that group by a considerable margin, though he didn't chuck as many as some others. He doesn't get to the line as much as you'd like, but his steal/block numbers are off the charts - he should have tremendous athletic and defensive potential. ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton's NBA draft model heavily relies on steal rate to predict NBA success (click here and read the paragraph under Marcus Smart. Click here for another ESPN analyst, Chad Ford, talking about the same thing). Again, drafting guys from Syracuse is always a defensive concern, but at minimum he projects as an NBA starter. 

Wes Johnson has since bounced around three teams without ever signing a long-term deal. Last year with the Lakers was his best year by far, and even then is PER of 11.08 is far below average. But you can't argue his potential. Problem is, back in 2010, David Kahn followed the Johnson pick by signing Michael Beasley away from the Heat - a guy who plays Johnson's exact position. The next year Kahn selected Derrick Williams, completing his logjam at small forward. After getting stuck into the triangle offense his first year and shoved to the back of the rotation his second, Wes was fire sold to the pre-Hornacek (an important distinction) Phoenix, then one of the worst teams in the league. He signed with the Lakers, a seemingly ideal fit in D'Antoni's offense if the coach were not a lame duck on his way out. Sometimes you're just unlucky. Even Jonny Flynn suffered a freak injury and was never the same. What shouldn't happen is management pushing him to come back way too early, before his hip had healed. This quote from Grantland is foreboding:

Flynn’s game is built on his speed and ability to blow past opponents. He had neither, but Kahn continued to push for Flynn to play. “Jonny’s a second-year point guard who’s 21 and he needs to play,” Kahn told the Star-Tribune in January 2011. “Everybody can see it’s obvious he’s not himself yet: his rhythm, his timing, his explosiveness. However, our medical staff has been very clear. In order for him to regain that, he needs to play. So it’s a little bit of a tricky situation.”

My take from reading that? I think Kahn was scared. His job isn't easy. Glen Taylor is clearly one of the more delusional owners in the league. Kahn will forever live down the scorn of passing on Curry and Lawson. He needed to make something of Jonny Flynn, especially if Ricky Rubio were to come over. But instead of being patient and realizing this team would take a few years, he rushed the development process with Johnson, Derrick Williams, and others, and possibly sidetracked Flynn's entire career. This is not an acceptable way to run a basketball team. Flynn was traded after the year. This quote is from Flynn's camp, but it resonates nonetheless:

“I think it was a situation where they just wanted him to play so they could move him,” Johnson said. “That’s what I was thinking at the time. Why rush him back when he’s not ready? It never made sense. We never really knew why they did it, but they definitely rushed him back too early.”

The entirety of Kevin Love's career in Minnesota, the team has needed competence at shooting guard and small forward, and Kahn was unable to deliver. Moreover, he submarined his own chances with the signings of the ball-stopping Beasley and the drafting of Derrick Williams, who I maintain to this day can be a solid NBA player. He's a positional anomaly, but that's precisely why he's valuable. He needs rim defense behind him and ball pressure in front, but I know what he can do offensively. You can't tell me that a guy that will go around bigger guys and shoot over/back down smaller guys isn't valuable. He has just happened to play for two of the worst organizations in the league between Minnesota and the Sacramento Kings. A lot of times, it's the organizations that are rotten and the players carry the stink forever.

And this is just the start. From Bill Simmon's blog post on how badly the Wolves screwed up the 2009 draft:

Hold on, I forgot to mention something — during the 2011 draft, the T-Wolves traded The Guy They Picked Over Steph Curry (Flynn), the rights to Donatas Motiejunas and a future second-round pick to Houston for the rights to Nikola Mirotic, the 38th pick (Chandler Parsons) and a future first-round pick, then sold Parsons back to Houston. From there, they traded Mirotic’s rights to Chicago for the rights to Norris Cole and the 43rd pick (Malcolm Lee). Then, they traded Cole’s rights to Miami for the 31st pick (Bojan Bogdanovic), a future second-rounder and cash, then traded Bogdanovic to Brooklyn for a future second-rounder.

So if you’re scoring at home …

The Timberwolves turned a potential Rubio/Curry/Lawson windfall into just Rubio (who didn’t come to Minnesota for two extra years); two years of Flynn (played in Australia last year); backup guard Malcolm Lee; three injury-plagued years and more than $15 million of damaged goods (Webster and Roy); and nearly $6 million of Webster/Milicic buyouts. They also briefly had and lost Motiejunas (a promising rotation guy for Houston), Parsons (no. 48 on the trade value list), Mirotic (Chicago’s best prospect overseas) and Cole (a rotation guy for a 66-win team); and they have Memphis’s 2013 first-rounder (near the bottom of a dreadful draft) and Brooklyn’s 2013 second-rounder to show for their troubles.

The crazy part? All of this, the failed drafts and signings (Darko Milicic, Brandon Roy, JJ Barea, etc., etc.), do not even compare to Kahn's ultimate indignity, the one that got him fired and the real reason Kevin Love is getting traded. No, that story is even crazier:

In 2012, Minnesota became eligible to offer Love a contract extension off his rookie deal. These things can be tricky - you can get tremendous value like the Wolves/Celtics got for Curry/Rondo, or you can get stuck paying the max for a useful but overvalued young player that never develops (Andrea Bargnani, Eric Gordon - see this Zach Lowe post). At that time, Love was a rebounding and post-scoring big man who had improved every year and was developing into a freasome shooter. He was a certainty. Rubio had played only 56 NBA games by that point after tearing his ACL in year 1 - here are his stats from those games:

Professional numbers from

Basically half a season of below-average play. Minnesota's brain trust decided that a rookie PG with no shooting ability whatsoever was a better long-term play than a 7-foot, glass cleaning, post behemoth. A rookie coming off ACL surgery. In January 2012, the only hope for Rubio was this:

The difference is Rondo improved steadily his first four years in the league plateauing as an 18-19 PER guy while Rubio's PER regressed in Year 3 to 15.35. Look, I'm not trying to pick on Rubio. There may be more than meets the eye when it comes to the young Spaniard. I hope he turns into the All-Star David Kahn thought he was, but that does not excuse the Wolves for essentially passing on Love to reserve a super-max contract for Rubio. Love just came off a year booking 20 and 15 a night in his second year of starter-level minutes. Oh, and he shot a cool 41.7% from range. But forget the 3s - here is a list of guys in the shot-clock era that put up Love's point/rebound numbers by year 3:

Link to the data

That's 8 Hall of Famers, 7 members of the 50th Anniversary Team and Kevin Love (oh, and Love is the youngest of that bunch to do it). That's why Kevin Love is leaving. That's why he signed a contract with a mysterious 3 year out. That's why you would leave, too.

You make the calls. YMTC.

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