Editor’s Note: The Diss is very happy to feature a piece from guest contributor “Butt” Hans Peterson. Hans and yours truly went to college and played frisbee together. Though very tall (6’5”ish), I never saw him play basketball. I’m not even sure he can. Can you, Hans? Anyways, Hans, a Timberwolves fan, offers us statistical and historical perspectives on the present peculiarities of Minnesota Timberwolves star power forward Kevin Love.
For the first time in quite some time, there is something exciting happening in Minnesota’s Target Center that has nothing to do with monster truck rallies. And regrettably, despite an enormous increase in fanfare, enthusiasm, and head coaching competence, it is not the competitive viability of the Timberwolves. Although the Timberwolves have replaced a coach responsible for a truly embarrassing coaching effort in Kurt Rambis, and although they have added what appears to be two legitimate impact NBA players in Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams, they are still two or three quality players away from playoff contention (I’ll avoid a diatribe about how two of those players could already be on the roster had Kahn not bungled two lottery picks on Syracuse disappointments Wesley Johnson and Jonny Flynn).
No, the most incredible act in Minneapolis at the moment is that of Kevin Love. There are no shortage of writers and journalists leaping over each other to heap praise on the new “great white hope” in the NBA. But my interest is not just limited to Love’s rapid and perhaps surprising (at least to me) rise in the NBA’s top 20, or perhaps even its top 10. What I really want to discuss is how incredibly unique Love’s talents appear to be.
Perhaps more than any other major US sport, NBA basketball invites comparisons. It is a particularly stylistic and exposed game. Players are recognizable not just for their abilities and effectiveness, but for the athletic and stylistic similarities to former greats. Despite the fan’s delight in identifying perfect comparisons between past and present athletes, in my 20ish years as an NBA fan, I have seen few players who stand as alone as Love. Minnesota’s prior star was often the subject of similar complements. Garnett’s combination of height, length, athleticism, handles, and mid-range game seemed unusual. And though he strikes a far more usual silhouette than Garnett (Love = taller Chris Mullin?), Love’s statistical impact is even more unprecedented than the Big Ticket’s.
Love’s rebounding alone puts him in very unique company. Through eleven games this season, he is continuing his torrid pace from his breakout season, averaging 14.7 rebounds per game (second in the league). Aside from Dwight Howard (15.2 rpg, good for first), no other player is even in the same discussion as Love in terms of volume of rebounds collected (the third place player is DeMarcus Cousins at 11.0 rpg). Unusually as Love’s rebounding prowess is, it is absolutely historic when combined with his shooting touch from distance. Currently he is tied for ninth in the NBA with 22 three pointers through eleven games, and is hitting them at a healthy 40% rate. I’m aware of the misleading nature of small sample sizes, but through the full 2010-2011 season he is ranked 14th among all players with at least 100 attempts in terms of three-point percentage. The primary difference in his shooting thus far this year is that he’s showing signs of evolving from a spot-shooter to a player capable of creating his own space off the dribble.
The best way to emphasize how remarkable Love’s simultaneous usefulness as a long-range weaspon and rebounder is is by comparing his performance to his NBA peers. When he shot 41.7% from three out of 211 attempts last year, Love edged out J.J. Reddick, who shot 39.7% on 219 attempts. He also had a better percentage than Kyle Korver, Daniel Gibson, Derek Fisher, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki. And let’s look at the numbers this season. Love is second in the league in rebounds, sixth in scoring, and eighth in threes made. If you look down the rebounding list, you have to go all the way down to #25 on the list (a tie between LeBron James and Channing Frye) to find the next best rebounder capable of effective three-point shooting with volume. That is absolutely astonishing. Dual threat players almost universally have related threats. Great passers can supplement their assist numbers with scoring and steals, but they don’t grab double digit rebounds. Likewise, great rebounders can often block shots and score, but they don’t stretch defenses with effective long-range shooting. Kevin Love is elite in two, completely unrelated, even perhaps contradictory skills. The three point line ranges from 22 to 23.75 feet in the NBA. I probably don’t need to explain that very few rebounds are captured 22+ feet from the rim. But Kevin Love has, presumably through mysterious devilry, found a way to rank highly in the NBA in threes made while still serving as its leader in overall rebounding, and in the top 5 in terms of offensive rebounding.
My basketball knowledge is far from comprehensive or even elite, but I simply cannot think of a player with a comparable skill set to Kevin Love. Among current players, Channing Frye, a 6’11” center, has equivalent abilities as a shooter, but collected fewer than seven rebounds per game last season. Looking back even further in NBA history, it is difficult to find Love’s statistical soulmate. He’s like some sort of freakish Moses Malone double-double machine, but instead of collecting points on dunks and put-backs, he does so with finesse shooting from mid and long range. And admittedly, instead of displaying superlative defense, he has, historically, defended like Manny Ramirez fields (although this new, skinnier model of Kevin Loves shows increased defensive prowess).
I hesitate to say it, as exasperated by the racially defined comparisons in sports–especially in Basketball (David Lee is much more a sexually active version of A.C. Green than Brad Miller, Jimmer Fredette is much more a poor man’s Ben Gordon than a destitute person’s Steve Nash), but the shooting and post-game makes me think of Larry Bird.
Relax. Do not overstate this. I am not saying Kevin Love is destined to be a top 5 NBA player. He will almost certainly never develop the supernatural court vision that Bird exhibited (barring some sort of Rubio brain transplant). He may never have the mid-range game Bird mastered — although he has a great deal of time to do so. Bird’s superior assist numbers will always have more value than Love’s rebounding advantage over Larry Legend. But the comparison is not as ridiculous as you may think. There are very few 6’9”+ players in NBA history capable of double-digit rebound averages and 20+ points collected heavily through mid-to-long range shooting, and the only other one that came to my mind was Bird. The slightly awkward and doughy stature and the underrated athleticism of both Love and Bird only strengthens the link.
But to summarize a very long-winded point, I don’t really wish to emphasize Love’s comparisons to others, but the lack of an appropriate comparison. I will leave it up to better basketball minds than mine to assess how valuable his unique skills (and defensive limitations) make him and how he will someday, perhaps, rank among the all-time greats. But the fact remains that he has given a downtrodden fan base, and basketball connoisseurs everywhere, a reason to care about the Wolves.