Kevin Love says he didn’t know he was capable of becoming this type of player.
The kind that could erupt for 81 points, 27 rebounds, and 10 three-pointers over a two-win span while matched up against power forward luminaries like LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin. Someone ever-increasingly hailed as a legitimate MVP candidate, the game’s top big man, and the best white American since Larry Bird.
Whether or not Love was actually unsure of whether or not he could reach these heights doesn’t matter. He’s up there now and he’s there to stay.
What’s maddening about this newfound, league-wide, almost Linsanity-like love for Kevin (pun!) is that it’s long overdue. He was this player last season.
And Saving the Skyhook has the graphs to prove it.
Love is averaging a career high 25.4 points per game this season, a mark that ranks fourth in the NBA and makes him by far the game’s top frontcourt scorer. That’s all great, and his big scoring numbers – especially of late – have been the engine driving the Love-train (The O’Jay’s pun!) to speeds we never thought it would hit when he was drafted in 2008.
That’s the thing, though – Love was doing all of this scoring last year in a more efficient manner. The basketball world just didn’t realize it because his archaic per game averages weren’t what they are today.
Love is taking nearly the same amount of shots from 15′ and in this season, but has attempted far more threes and long twos than at any other point in his career. Those shots look awesome going in – Love’s got one of the prettiest releases and ball-flights in the league – but actually did so more frequently last year. The numbers from three: 35.3% in 2012 versus 41.7% in 2011. The numbers from 16′-23′: 31% in 2012 versus 34% in 2011.
Which brings us to Love’s true shooting percentage. As the graph above indicates, he was a far more effective shooter last season. His mark this year, 56.8%, is solid and ranks ninth among PFs, but pales in comparison to the 59.3% he put up in 2011.
The next argument supporting Love’s 2012 improvements is “But he’s doing it in isolations this season as a primary scorer!” Well, yes, but he’s played that way far more often in his career than he’s given credit for. Love’s been assisted on a career-low 56.1% of his makes this season compared to 60.8% last year, indicating his new comfort operating in isos. But considering in 2010 he was assisted on 57.4% of baskets, his improvement here is hardly as staggering as fans and media like to portray it.
The bars on the left in the graph above further illustrate Love’s efficiency was higher last season than this one, and that he was at least just as effective a scorer then as he is today. But you know that by now, and the point we’re currently driving home is that since 2011 Love has always been comfortable in one-on-one situations.
Which is where free throw rate comes into play. Love leads the NBA in made free throws this season, a noteworthy feat for a player previously thought incapable of creating his own shot with consistency. But guess what? He got to the line more often in 2011. Love took .49 free throws for every shot attempt last year, compared to .46 free tries for every shot in 2012. That’s an admittedly small discrepancy, but the point remains – the constant rhetoric among talking heads and analysts that Love is so much better this year because he creates his own shot more than he ever has just isn’t true.
Just for good measure, it should be noted that Love rebounded and assisted far more often in 2011 than he does today, too. A lot of this is due to the presence of Nikola Pekovic limiting his opportunity for boards and his increase in shot attempts, but this – along with every metric and graphic above – still goes to show Love was at least this player in 2011, if not better.
This is not at all meant to detract from the awesome season that Love is having. He’s been absolutely fantastic in 2012, and deserves all of the attention and accolades he’s getting and is sure to receive at season’s end.
Instead, Love’s 2011 season and how it was perceived versus his 2012 season and how it is being perceived serves as a great opportunity to harp on an undeniable fact: team success unfairly colors our perceptions of a player’s game.
After taking all the above stats into account, is there any other logical conclusion? Consider for a second that Love shot better from the field, averaged more points per shot, had higher rebound and assist rates, and was at least just as effective a primary scorer in 2011 as he’s been this season. So, then, why all this talk of MVPs and “best big in the league” now? The guy put up three straight 20-20 games almost exactly a year ago! He’s been this incredibly good for a long time!
Right. The Wolves are winning. They’re 20-19 (51%) in early March as opposed to 15-49 (23%), so Love is lauded as opposed to largely ignored. No matter that the presence of Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic has more to do with Minny’s dramatic 2012 winning boon than does the much ballyhooed but not factually supported improvements Love has made to his game over the last year. The Wolves are relevant league-wide and Love is tangentially as a result.
One wonders how we’d be reacting to Love’s second straight awesome season if the Timberwolves weren’t unexpectedly in the thick of a crowded western conference playoff race. If 2011 is any indication, stretches like his incredible last two outings would serve as a small blip on the national radar as opposed to the beginning of a unanimous media campaign to get Love mentioned in MVP talks. And that’s a disheartening thought, because players like Love having seasons like his last two deserve the type of attention he’s finally getting whether their team is winning or not.