“He doesn’t even know how to post up” can be heard just about anytime Barkley’s mouth is moving on TV, and with good reason. Today’s NBA offenses are predicated more than ever before on the pick-and-roll, sideline activity, and cutters, which has effectively killed the 80′s and 90′s inside-out style of play. So what does this mean for the league’s bigger guys? Is there nothing to be excited about?
Talking about the game’s top centers actually isn’t that thrilling of a topic, and some of that does have to do with the offensive abilities and styles of play at hand. But if we look to the top centers — Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, and Dwight Howard — something else is apparent: we already know who all these guys are. These players are already in or past their primes, and their games have been unwavering for several years (note: Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan are definitively centers at this point. Basketball-Reference estimates they played 97% and 100% of their time at center last year, respectively).
But at the power forward position, the discussion gets juicier. Amongst the most elite are players who are either young and raw (Anthony Davis), or players who are entering their primes and have yet to tap into their full potential (Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and the arguably still-improving LaMarcus Aldridge). Despite their less-than-perfect post games, these guys are really, really good — the power forward position is young, uber-talented, and fun (especially if you factor in Ibaka), and with the surging of Western Conference teams where they’re all stationed, there’s been lots of buzz concerning who might be the best.
Personally, I don’t think it’s that close. This is largely due to these twelve bits of information regarding Kevin Love:
1. Kevin Love’s Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus rating has been superior to other power forwards. In 2011-12 (his last healthy season), Love’s RAPM was 5th best in the league at 6.2; Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin and Lamarcus Aldridge posted a 5.9, 5.6 and 3.2, respectively. David Lee was almost off completely off the map at 0.6.
2. Kevin Love leads all power forwards in scoring, and does such from inside and out at a highly efficient rate of 56.5% TS. (On each end of the TS% spectrum sits “soft so touch” Dirk Nowitzki and “does that cheeseburger come with a long two?” LaMarcus Aldridge.)
3. With his uncanny timing, great understanding of angles, strong hands, and quick leaping ability, Love is amongst the most elite rebounders in NBA history. He’s currently 4th in the league in rebound percentage, while LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and the others don’t even crack the top 20.
4. Kevin Love has a Player Efficiency Rating of 25.6, good for 5th in the league. Aldridge sits at 19th in the league with a 20.6 rating, and Blake again doesn’t crack the top 20. (We should also take time to appreciate sophomore Anthony Davis, who has posted an incredible 28.3 PER so far.)
5. Kevin Love’s PIE rating is better than any other power forward at 17.7%. For reference, Aldridge is scoring a 15.7; Blake a 14.5.
6. Kevin Love’s Win Shares/48 Minutes sits at 6th in the league (.237). Aldridge and Blake again don’t crack the top 20.
7. Kevin Love’s assists per game leads all power forwards, easily, at 4.1 per contest. Blake Griffin and David Lee embody similarly skilled half court passers, but Kevin Love’s long-distance passing is second to none. Davis’ and Aldridge’s simply passing do not compare.
8. Kevin Love puts the opposition in foul trouble. He takes 7.6 free throws per game, good for 3rd in the league in total attempts. No other power forward does this — Griffin comes closest at 6.2 FTA per contest (and misses half of them).
9. LaMarcus Aldridge is an absolute master of shooting long twos (note that he does take a few too many), but Kevin Love has a unique ability to stretch the floor past the three point line. He’s connected on the 11th most threes in the league (40). Only Dirk Nowitzki has Kevin Love beat here.
10. Kevin Love’s above average defense has contributed to his team’s 8th-rated defense. While Love won’t block or steal much, he understands angles very well, rotates hard and consistently, and smothers the glass. He also fouls infrequently (credit to Aldridge, who fouls even less).
If you’re familiar with Synergy Sports, you may notice that the majority of Love’s submitted defensive “plays” on Synergy are post-ups. Kevin is formidable in this regard: he is able to use his physical nature and good instincts, allowing only 0.75 points per play, which is good for 30th in the league. We can also look to the fact that Love is in the top four of Minnesota’s top five defensive units, or that his Opponent Counterpart Production is kept to a 17.1 PER (Aldridge, Lee, Davis fare better here and Dirk, Griffin worse) — which is actually a better marking than Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets (19.2).
Kevin leaves things to be desired on defense: he doesn’t cover the most ground or bother the most shots, and his aggression is not at a level where it will jar his opponents. But defensive output hinges a lot on intelligence and effort, and Love is solid in those aspects. It’s no coincidence that publicly available metrics — RAPM, defensive rating, ASPM, defensive win shares — all describe Love as a positive on defense.
11. 82games.com states Kevin Love’s On/Off Rating is a +27.1 (!). This is in part due to Minnesota’s inferior bench, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that Love’s otherwordly offensive output would greatly elevate any team. Blake Griffin (+20.4), Dirk Nowitzki (+22.4), and David Lee (+16.5) also appear to be integral parts of their squads, with LaMarcus Aldridge (+8.2) and Anthony Davis (+9.2) also scoring clear positives.
12. Similar to RAPM is a metric called Individual Player Value (see: Talking Practice Blog) — alike in nature but less reliant on box score data. Kevin Love’s value is currently at 7.1, which tops the league. Blake Griffin sits at 9th, but only scores a 4.3.
In sum, Kevin Love’s basketball IQ, rebounding, scoring, and passing make him an absolute force offensively where only Dirk Nowitzki has a chance of challenging; his imperfect but intelligent defense outshines that of David Lee and Blake Griffin, and the numbers tell the rest of the story: Kevin Love is not only the best power forward, but a top five player in the NBA.
*Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, 82games.com, NBA.com/stats unless otherwise specified