Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Theoharides on Learning to Love K. Love

Alex Theoharides (@Minne_Pop) weighs in on Charles Barkley's recent claim that Kevin Love is the best power forward in the NBA.

Learning To Love K. Love

by Alex Theoharides

Wolves Latest (1/17/12): After 13 games, the Wolves have 5 wins and 8 losses. Despite playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, they continue to struggle to finish games. In particular, they struggle to score easy buckets in the fourth quarter. Their top trending story lines: Is Ricky Rubio, in fact, the Spanish Justin Bieber and will Kevin Love agree to their max offer before the January 25th deadline.

Two weeks ago, Charles Barkley (the Round Mound of Rebound himself) proclaimed Kevin Love to be the best power forward in the NBA, sending a brief murmur across the world wide web as bloggers scurried to defend or declaim Sir Charles’ assertion. A slight caveat before I begin to examine his argument: Like all of us, Charles Barkley does not always think before he speaks. In his prime, he was a dominant and complete power forward, who retired as one of only four players with over 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. Clearly, Barkley knows something about playing the power forward position. However, now he works as a talking head for TNT. Whereas his earnings were once based on points and rebounds, he now makes money based on his ability to entertain the masses. From time to time, it’s possible to imagine that Barkley just might stretch the truth to make his talking points more entertaining.

His assertion that Love is currently the best power forward in the NBA is clearly presumptuous. Love is only in his fourth season in the NBA. Last year, he made major strides, winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. This season, he’s lost weight and added new offensive moves such as a step back three and a poor man’s Kevin McHale up and under move to his game. After ten games, he is leading the league in rebounds per game (14.7) and doubles doubles (with 10), and is 7th in points scored per game (23.7). By all accounts, he is a fantasy basketball monster.

A closer look at Love’s statistics indicates that there are still holes in his game. Take the Wolves recent loss to the Toronto Raptors. Against the Raptors, Love scored only 13 points and collected 14 boards, with a +/- of - 20. He also struggled with his shot throughout the games, going only 3 for 16 from the field and 5 for 10 from the charity stripe.

To be fair, it was not Love’s best game; he made uncharacteristic mistakes, particularly as the game stretched into the fourth quarter. In the long, compressed NBA season such games are bound to happen and generally Love should be lauded for his consistency. However, the result does indicate a major weakness still present in Love’s game. He is not a natural scorer. His 13 points against the Raptors came from two open three pointers in the first quarter, a five-foot hook shot, and five foul shots. He didn’t make a single field goal after the first quarter. In several situations late in the game, the Wolves passed him the ball in one-on-one situations and he struggled to find a consistent scoring move.

When he entered the Toronto game with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Wolves were leading 80-78. Take a look at his ensuing plays on the offensive end.

Kevin Love offensive rebound
James Johnson blocks Kevin Love's 5-foot two point shot
Kevin Love misses 17-foot two point shot

And that was the extent of his role on offense in the 4th quarter. Despite the Wolves pressing need to score baskets in a tight game, Love continually was stymied from getting easy looks at the basket and passed the ball out of the post instead of trying to make an aggressive move to the hoop. I’m not sure Love will ever become a true offensive force. As detailed last week, his main offensive skills are putting back offensive rebounds and hitting open three point shots.

In the fourth quarter of close games, teams generally increase their defensive intensity, leading offensive possessions to become slower and more difficult. Love still lacks a consistent, go to post move that can give him easy looks at the basket. Traditionally, the best post scorers all had a signature move: Hakeem Olajuwon’s spin move to the baseline, Patrick Ewing’s fadeaway jumper, Kevin McHale’s up and under.

The question is: Does Love need to become an effective offensive player? Or is it enough for him to be the league’s best rebounder and a player who can score “easy” baskets earlier in the game. Strangely enough, the historic player this skill set best compares to is Charles Barkley, a player known for his rebounding and basketball acumen, who scored in a variety of ways early in games then relied on talented scoring teammates such as Dr. J or The Mayor, Kevin Johnson to close out teams.

Reputedly, Wolves’ brass are set to offer Love a maximum contract offer by the 11 P.M. deadline on January 25th. It’s a lot of money for a player who isn’t yet a go to scorer late in games. Still the offer seems like a good idea. Take a look at look at Love’s competitors at the power forward slot (positions as listed on ESPN.Com):

Dirk Nowitzki, Maveicks. 33
Pau Gasol, Lakers, 31
Kevin Garnett, Celtics, 35
Blake Griffin, Clippers, 22
Zach Randolph, Grizzlies, 30
Chris Bosh, Heat, 27
Amare Stoudemire, Knicks, 29
Luis Scola, Rockets, 31
David West, Pacers, 31
Paul Millsap, Jazz, 26
Serge Ibaka, Thunder, 22
Josh Smith, Hawks, 26
Lamar Kardashian, Mavericks, 32
Kris Kardashian Humpries, Nets, 26
Jan Vesely’s girlfriend, Team: Presumably supports the Wizards, Age:Unknown
Kevin Love is only 23 years old, which makes him the third youngest player on this list. Although I would still rate his overall floor impact beneath that of Dirk, Pau and KG, if Wolves’ G.M. David Kahn tried to trade Love straight-up for any of the other players on this list the only teams that would say no would be the Mavericks, the Clippers (no way they’d consider shopping The Blake Show), and probably the Lakers (they need Pau’s size).

Incredibly, Kevin Love still has tremendous upside. During the past two off seasons he has significantly improved on his game, including taking major steps to ensure his long-term health in the league. For the first time since Kevin Garnett left the team, the Wolves have a player they can build around. With the complementary skill sets of talented and promising rookies Ricky Rubio’s and Derrick Williams, the Wolves are building a nucleus that should be able to compete in the Western Conference for years to come.

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