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For many, love is a four letter word. For NBA stat nerds, Love is a four factor word. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is putting up huge box scores this season and grabbing headlines. However, critics discredit Love because he plays on the league's fastest team and has ample opportunities to rack up rebounds and points. For example, Minnesota has almost eight more possessions per game than LaMarcus Aldridge’s Portland squad. Bill Walton said a double-double is one of the most overrated basketball statistics during the Celtics and Clippers broadcast last week. Maybe he is right. I compared Love to top NBA big men using rate statistics to see how productive he truly is.
Dean Oliver’s basketball research showed four factors play a critical role in deciding the outcome of basketball games. The four factors are effective field goal percentage (EFG %), offensive rebounding rate (ORR), free throw rate (FTR), and turnover rate (TOR). Effective field goal percentage compensates for made 3-pointers being worth 50% more than a successful 2-point field goal. The equation for EFG % = (FG + 0.5 * 3P)/FGA. Offensive rebounding rate is the percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed by a player while he is on the floor. Free throw rate measures how often a player gets to the line per shot attempt and is calculated by FTA/FGA. Turnover rate is the percentage of possessions used by the player ending in a turnover. Oliver’s research focused on team statistics, but this analysis studies the four factors of individual players.
Here is a comparison of the top big men in the NBA using Oliver’s four factors.
*All statistics from hoopdata.com and updated through 2/28*
(Cells in dark tan indicate statistics better than Love’s. The number inside the parentheses is Love’s rank among the listed players.)
Is Kevin Love one of the best offensive players at his position? By statistical measures, definitely. If Dean Oliver adds a fifth factor, outlet passes, he will become a legend.
Determining which of the four factors is most important for big men is difficult, but offensive rebounds are vital. In addition to providing a team an extra scoring opportunity, offensive rebounds are typically secured in areas leading to high percentage shots. Love grabs offensive rebounds at an elite rate, only trailing Z-Bound himself.
Critics will argue Love’s EFG% is greater than other centers because he shoots more three pointers than anyone on the list. This increases his chances of earning a high EFG% and is a valid point. However, Love probably isn’t taking long shots with aspirations of boosting his EFG%. The Wolves simply do not have a guard who can consistently feed Love in the post. Consider the supporting cast of the comparison players. It is almost comical to consider Love’s teammates have the same job description.
League averages show shots near the rim are the most likely to go in, but they aren’t the easiest shots to create. Many of the same skills NFL running backs need to blast across the goal line are also needed to frequently attempt shots near the rim in the NBA. These players need athleticism, size, strength and a high motor. Love possesses the size, strength, and high motor, but many doubt he has the freak athletic ability of other rim finishers. Blake Griffin shoots about 2.5 more shots at the rim per game than Love. Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge attempt at least 1.3 shots more per game at the rim.
Love may be forced outside due to factors beyond his control, but his shooting ability is elite. None of the other players on the list have a three point shot worth comparing. Just because Kevin lets it fly from behind the arc doesn’t mean he automatically increases his EFG%. He still has to make the shots. Love attempts 3.1 three pointers per game. For comparison, Eddie House and Hedo Turkoglu attempt 3.2 three pointers per game. Love‘s EFG% of 64.2% on three pointers is much higher than House’s and Turkoglu’s EFG%’s, 59.0% and 57.8% respectively. An encouraging sign is Love’s knack for knocking down the three will make him effective for years, as it is a somewhat ageless quality. Blake Griffin won’t always dunk ferociously and someday will need to improve his below average shooting from everywhere outside 10 feet. Kevin Love will still contribute in the NBA once his physical skills decline due to his prolific outside game.
One surprising aspect of Love’s game is his ability to draw fouls. He isn’t jumping out of the gym or blowing past defenders on the key. He will never become dunk contest immortality like the comparison players with better free throw rates. Howard and Griffin have higher FTR’s, but Love is considerably better than either once they reach the stripe. Griffin shoots 62.6% and Dwight Howard avoids abusing the rim only 59.2% of the time. Love is making 86.7% of his freebies this year. For Kurt Rambis, that’s amore.
The New York Knicks play at the second fastest pace of any NBA team, using nearly 98.3 possessions per game. As mentioned earlier, the Wolves are fastest team in the league and use 99.7 possessions nightly. It is interesting to compare Love and Stoudemire on per game averages and the four factors. Amare scores about five more points per game, but also attempts five extra shots. Love grabs nearly seven more rebounds and has better numbers in all four factors. Amare is glorified for his offense, but it appears Kevin Love is virtually just as valuable. Both may check in at the other end of the spectrum if defensive measures were included in this analysis.
The Timberwolves decided all they needed was Love and shipped Al Jefferson to Utah in July of 2010. Surprisingly, David Kahn made the correct choice. Love is putting up superior statistical measures in every category besides TOR this season. Love even boasts a FTR twice as large as Big Al’s.
With the departure of Jefferson, Love’s supporting cast is desolate. Many of the top big men in the NBA have teammates who demand attention. For example, Pau Gasol benefits from playing next to Andrew Bynum and having the offense run through Kobe Bryant. Kevin Love does not play with any good players, let alone superstars. Pairing with Darko Milicic doesn’t exactly ease the burden on Love. How many Lakers fans would believe Andrew Bynum is better than manna from heaven?
It is fair to wonder if NBA teams could shut down Love if they had to. Did Phil Jackson fret last night about Love leading the Wolves to victory? Probably not. But who else would they game plan for? Right now, Love is a really good player on a really bad team. Consider he has scored less than 15 points only nine times and has snared less than 15 rebounds just 15 times during his 47 game double-double streak. All of his monster performances have only resulted in 10 wins for Minnesota during the streak.
There is no doubt Love’s defense must improve. Heck, he was benched Opening Night in favor of Anthony Tolliver. He may never be a stopper, but who knows what would happen if he is surrounded by great defenders? If Love can convince David Stern to adapt the old Iowa high school girls’ rules of three players on offense and three players on defense, he may become one of the most productive players in history.
With no help around him and no reason for teams to spend days crafting ways to stop him, it is hard to know just how great Love is. Basketball fans should eagerly wait to see Love’s performance when he plays with competent teammates. Whether this is in Minnesota or another city remains to be seen. Until then, NBA fans should just launch League Pass Broadband and marvel as one of the game’s most productive big men wreaks havoc on NBA nerd’s spreadsheets.