Sunday, October 19, 2014

Kevin Love, Part 2: Is Love Even Good?

If you missed Part 1, of my Kevin Love triple-header, click here to see why the Minnesota Timberwolves lost their franchise player to begin with.

An interesting thing happened in the weeks leading up to the Love trade. The trade became a culmination of peoples' opinions on love, a referendum of sorts. This makes sense - it was fans' way of inserting themselves into the trade, figuring out what Love is worth, and what assets they would demand (or give up, from various suitors' perspectives) for the All-Star. What I didn't expect was an outpouring of disdain mixed with disappointment, and maybe even hostility, from some Timberwolves fans. These fans, pointing to the zero times a Love team has made the playoffs, seemed to cast doubt on Love's stature as a franchise player, with some indicating the franchise might be better off without their star.

This reaction caught many other basketball writers off guard as well. This launched a whole series of articles either trying to gauge Love's value or coming to his defense (here, here, here). ESPN's David Thorpe even posted a cryptic article directed at supposed Kevin Love "haters."

I don't want to add mindlessly to a growing list of articles evaluating Love's skills, but wanted to provide some context using numbers. We hear all the time how Love is a fantastic rebounder, 3 point shooter, passer, etc., but how good is he really compared to his peers?

The first comparison I ran pits Love against his contemporaries, namely power forwards who have made an All-NBA team in the recent past. I used All-NBA as a criteria because Basketball-Reference's player comparison tool only allows for a few entries - given Love has made 2 All-NBA teams, this is an adequate bar over which I can pull Love's peers. All-Star teams can be influenced by fan votes, which are interesting, but perhaps misleading (Yao Ming a starter?). I focused my analysis on those players whose natural position is power forward, eliminating guys like Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan who move naturally to center (I did include Bosh, even though he plays center for Miami - I see that as more a necessity to fit LeBron rather than a true fit to Bosh's skills). All-NBA does not distinguish between forward spots, so this was also important to remove small-ball 3/4 types like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony. David Lee is the only guy I left out, which I don't really have a problem with.

The list of peers I developed is: Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, and Blake Griffin. I broke the analysis down into 3 categories:

  1. Traditional "counting" stats (such as points, rebounds, assists), but using %s instead - i.e. Assist % being the % of teammate baskets assisted.
  2. Shooting stats, including attempts from 3.
  3. Synthesized ratings such as PER, win shares, efficiency.
I recognize that Love and Griffin are the youngest of this bunch, so I used numbers from each players first 6 years in the NBA (the exception being Blake, who has played only 4 seasons, but as you'll see, it won't be material to the analysis). 


Again, I'm comparing Love to the very best power forwards over the last few years. Even so, Love has a reputation as an outstanding rebounder and above average passer. Of course, he's also known as a defensive sieve and I expect his block numbers to be low. What do the numbers say?

All numbers from Basketball-Reference's Player Comparison Finder. See the results for this table in downloadable format here

Monster rebounding numbers, as expected. Love may give up on defending the paint to corral defensive caroms, but that has to be made up somewhat with by the sheer number of boards he gets. The difference between Love at 29.8% of all defensive rebounds and 2nd place Griffin's 23.7% (6.1%) is almost as big as the difference between Griffin and last place LaMarcus Aldridge (6.9%). Even more astounding is the 12.3% offensive rebounding rate, which is notable given how much time Love spends on the perimeter as a 3 point shooter. His total rebounding rate of 29.8% leads 2nd place Griffin by 4.3%, this time bigger than the difference between Griffin and last place Nowitzki (4.1%).

The rebounding are so far and away above this peer group that I just had to break form and look at Love compared to some centers (again, from their first 6 years, so this is young Timmy and Dwight):

This data table can be found here

Holy cow. Love isn't just a fantastic rebounder for his position. He's a fantastic rebounder, period. I tacked on a few efficiency stats at the end just show how thinks like PER and Win Shares don't adjust for defense fully. Even so, his defensive rating of 106 is far and away the worst of the center group (Duncan and Howard lead at 94 and 99, respectively).

Anyway, back to the PF comparison. I expected Love to have the highest assist rate of the group with his ability to facilitate from both the block and elbow, but Griffin is a surprisingly good passer. Unsurprisingly, Love doesn't contribute to many other facets of the game, though he does have a pretty good turnover rate for his level of usage. It is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser that Dirk's cominbed 3.6 STL + BLK % ties for the lead with Bosh and Aldridge.

One last thing I will note about the assists - last year Kevin Love assisted on 21.4% of his teammates' baskets while he was on the floor - this blew away his previous career high of 12.9% and is higher than any individual Blake Griffin season. In fact, his assist % was actually higher than his rebound % of 18.6%. Some of this is personnel - Corey Brewer probably had one layup a game from Love outlets, but I have to believe that some of it is Love's development. He may not have a usage rate north of 20% in Cleveland, but this is the making of an elite rebounding and passing big man. I did a quick query of all starter seasons (bench players can have weird rate stats) with assist and rebound numbers that matched Love's last season and came up with this group:

Data found here; query is for single season with total rebound % >= 18.6, assist % >= 21.3, games started >= 10

Minnesota had two of the best Kevin's to every play the game and traded both.


Dirk and Kevin are the shooters. Dirk leads in TS% due to a prodigious 3-point attempt rate coupled with the highest make percentage. Kevin is just behind in him most categories, although he's one of the poorer finishers, evidenced by a low 2P %. However, he generates a ton of free throws and makes them at a fantastic rate. His 5.8 free throws made per 36 minutes leads the group with only Chris Bosh (5.6) above the 5.0 mark. I know a lot of people (including myself) that associate free throws with athleticism (Derrick Rose, Russel Westbrook, LeBron James) or crafty ballhandling and shooting (Kevin Durant, James Harden, Steph Curry) or post behemoths (Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin). Kevin Love doesn't fit any of these stereotypes. Possible explanations for Love's high free throw rate include fouls on Love in the post (where he's pretty effective), fouls on putbacks and other offensive boards, and fouls on big men trying to close out the 3 point line, but otherwise, I don't have an obvious answer as to why he's able to generate almost 1 free throw for every 2 field goals.


Efficiency numbers all have to be taken with a grain of salt since our ability to measure offense trumps defensive analysis by a wide margin. Even defensive rating is somewhat amorphous - Bosh is clearly a better defender than Love and is asked to do much more in Miami's frenetic scheme, but his rating is the same, largely due to the Heat's somewhat lackadaisical attitude to regular season defense, with their overall defensive rating of 102.9 only 4 teams ahead of Minnesota's 104.1. There are stats on how well guys shoot with a said player in the vicinity, but I wasn't able to find them for this group.

That said, Love's rebounding, shooting, and assisting prowess translate super well to PER but less so to win shares. His win shares total is lower than the other players due to games missed from injury, but his WS/48 is second behind Dirk's first 6 years (the big German was pretty good). Still, I'm not sure how much more this chart is able to tell us.


Kevin Love clearly belongs in this group and is one of the best at his position right now, evidenced by his inclusion on the All-NBA 2nd team following 2 out of the last 3 seasons (left off the 2013 list due to hand injury). He's not an all-around player, but the things he does are extremely important in the modern NBA: rebound, pass, shoot, and avoid turnovers. You can argue which of the myriad counting and rate stats are the most important - in fact, the upcoming Part 3 will take a dive into this. And you can cherry pick individual season stats for almost every good NBA player. But I just wanted to leave you with one last nugget:

Data link here

Yeah, Kevin Love is pretty good. And the Cavs now have two of those guys on their roster.

You make the calls #YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls

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