For the majority of players in the NBA, a 30-20 game is a career-defining moment. For Love, it seems like just another day at the office. Since 2008, when Love was drafted, he has had 7 such games, leading the league in that statistical category. Dwight Howard is in second place with 3.
Indeed, Love is a stat geek’s dream. Last season he broke Moses Malone’s run of 51 consecutive double-doubles, while also becoming the first player since Malone to score 30 points and 30 rebounds in a game. This year Love is fourth in the league in scoring (26.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (13.8 rpg).
Love’s numbers over the last two seasons have indeed been jaw dropping, but good statistics alone in the NBA do not necessarily equate to undisputed greatness. If that were so, Chamberlain would have gone down in history as a better player than Russell (not the case) and the likes of Tyreke Evans and Monta Ellis would be MVP candidates every year (definitely not the case). For Love, however, his numbers do not deceive. He is too dominant, too consistently good. In short, Love in the best power forward in the game today.
It is an assertion that has been contested fairly regularly until now. It is an interesting debate, but with respect to other great power forwards like LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Bosh, the subject is often argued with another young, dynamic player in mind.
Kevin vs. Blake
The player whose name has been evoked most frequently this year, to challenge Love’s supremacy as the league’s best power forward, is Blake Griffin. The reasoning for this is fairly logical. They are close in age (Griffin was drafted a year after Love), fantastically talented, and have both been hugely responsible for positive turnarounds in previously struggling teams.
Griffin is indisputably the most exciting player in the league. His freakish athleticism and ability to unleash instant pandemonium in any NBA arena by dunking on some hapless defender (sorry Kendrick Perkins) is unmatched. Love cannot come close to Griffin in the ‘You have to watch this on YouTube right now!’ category. In the less aesthetically pleasing, but more important facets of basketball, however, Love has a clear edge.
Simply put, Love is a better all-round basketball player than Griffin.
Offensively Love’s biggest strength is his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, a rare attribute for a big man in the NBA. Love can knock down the mid-range jump shot with ease. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive, before pulling up and hitting the jumper. This season Love has also added a devastatingly reliable 3-point shot to his arsenal. This allows the Timberwolves to spread the floor to great effect, creating more space for other players. Love’s outstanding range creates mismatches all over the court. It draws opposing big men away from the basket and opens up the lane as a result.
Griffin, in comparison, does not come close to Love in shooting ability. His mid-range game is a work in progress and he certainly does not posses the ability to shoot from beyond the arc. Defenders can afford to give Griffin space 12-18 feet from the basket. They do not have that luxury with Love. Compounding the Love-Griffin shooting mismatch is their respective free throw percentages. Griffin’s is abysmal, while Love shoots at around 80%. In the final two minutes of a close game, which guy would you rather have on the floor?
As well as Love’s superior shooting abilities, he is also better than Griffin at creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. Love has become a solid passer and playmaker, a fantastic skill for a power forward to possess. The ability to pass well becomes all the more important for franchise players, as opposing teams attempt to stifle them by double-teaming.
All this is not an attempt to disparage Blake Griffin’s game and portray him as a sub- standard player. He definitely is not that. At this point in time, however, Kevin Love is just superior in most tangible aspects of the game.
In one such aspect, Love is not only better than Griffin, but is better than almost all the players in the league. That, of course, is rebounding.
Pounding the Boards
As I alluded to earlier, Love is not the most athletic big man in the league, not by a long shot. He is not the strongest or most physically imposing player at his position, but being able to rebound well is as much about timing and good basketball I.Q. , as it is about being able to physically overwhelm opponents.
Love seems to possess the uncanny ability to read where the ball is going almost as the shot goes up. He himself has stated that 80% of rebounds are snared below the rim, so anticipation and positioning are essential. Like the great rebounders of years gone by, (think Rodman, Moses Malone and Ben Wallace) Love’s ability to box out and hold off opposing players in the paint is something to behold. He is particularly devastating on the offensive boards, keeping possessions alive after missed shots and scoring many points himself through put backs.
Charles Barkley, a great rebounder himself, has often said that the ability to rebound sets great forwards apart from those hiding behind gaudy offensive numbers. Any semi-talented player on the right team, taking enough shots, can put up 20 points a night. Snaring 15-20 rebounds consistently, however, is an altogether more difficult task. It requires a rare dedication and willpower, and the ability to withstand bruising punishment in the paint. Love possesses all of these intangibles.
Like any young player, Love still has elements in his game that need work. Despite his ridiculous rebounding abilities, he can struggle defensively at times and should, in truth, be blocking more shots than he currently does. Offensively he also has room for improvement. Although Love can score close to the basket, he usually thrives when facing up and hitting the jump shot. The all-time great power forwards, like Tim Duncan and Kevin McHale, could manufacture a variety a shots with their back to the basket. Love’s post-up game is definitely a long way off from those aforementioned greats, but at just 23, he will only get better.
Carrying the Load
Love’s scoring and rebounding abilities alone solidify his status as the number one power forward in the league, but his performances become all the more impressive when you consider the relatively poor teams he has played for.
Last year Love broke Malone’s record while playing on the worst team in the NBA. The Timberwolves finished a dismal 17 and 65, but were in many close games thanks to Love’s impressive play. The NBA’s other elite power forwards such as Gasol, Aldridge, and Bosh, all play on teams with far more firepower. This season, on paper, the Clippers are a better team than the Timberwolves, possessing a perennial all-star in Chris Paul. Read into it what you will, but Love’s Timberwolves have beaten Griffin’s Clippers three times this year.
Compared with last year, of course, Minnesota has drastically improved. With exciting rookie point guard Ricky Rubio running the offense, the team had a legitimate shot at the 8th seed, but when Rubio tore his ACL against the Lakers it appeared the Timberwolves’ playoff chances had all but evaporated.
Since Rubio’s injury, however, Love has elevated his play to new heights and carried his team in the process. They will likely still miss out on a playoff place, but Love’s performances since the loss of Rubio, and more recently starting centre Nikola Pekovic, has generated some deserved MVP chatter.
Realistically, unless LeBron James or Kevin Durant inexplicably vanish for the rest of the season, Love will not win the MVP. It is also necessary to state that George Karl’s recent comparison of Love with Larry Bird was definitely hyperbolic. Love’s fantastic numbers and the leadership qualities he has exhibited playing for an exciting, but very inexperienced team, make him a top ten player in the league. Nevertheless, we should ease up on the Larry Legend comparisons for now.
It is definitely safe, however, to say that Love is the top power forward in the NBA. That is not hyperbole whatsoever.