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January 9, 2012
Is Kevin Love Worth the Max?

by Bradford Doolittle

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The howl is back in the Minnesota Timberwolves for the first time since the days when Kevin Garnett graced the Target Center with his primal screams.

After six straight losing seasons, the last four of which have featured less than 20 wins per campaign, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and the T-Wolves have become one of the most exciting teams in the league. Rubio has already ascended to rock-star status in the Twin Cities, a perfect storm of charisma, flair and productivity. Love, already one of the game's most productive players, has gotten even better and has cemented his status as one of the NBA's 10 best players. The fans have noticed, too. Attendance at the Target Center is up nearly 2,000 fans per game over last season and, at an average of around 17,100, is at a level not seen since the Garnett-led teams were in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.

Sadly, there may be a wolf of a different sort lurking in the shadows of this fairytale. Peter Vecsey of the New York Post recently reported that Love has not yet been offered the contract extension for which he will soon be eligible.

Let's leave aside the question of whether that report is true and instead put on our general manager's cap to look at whether Love is worthy of a max contract.

The GM's cap we're stealing in this case is that of the Wolves' David Kahn, who has earned a reputation for erratic behavior (most notably, his bizarre penchant for collecting point guards, which began in 2009 when he took three of them in the first round of the same draft). This reputation is at the root of whatever anxiety Wolves fans may be feeling about the team's resurgence. But we have to remember that whatever path Kahn has taken to get here, the bottom line is that he has the Timberwolves in a very good place.

The question Kahn faces about whether to offer Love a max extension is not as clear-cut as it may seem. One of the lesser-publicized aspects of the league's new collective bargaining agreement is that it limits the length of a max extension to a player coming off his rookie contract to four years, with one exception. That exception is that the team can offer a fifth year to one player. A team is not allowed to have more than one player on the roster who has received this extension.

The one-max-player clause is a complicating factor for Taylor and Kahn, who will also have to extend Rubio and fellow rookie Derrick Williams during the period in which a Love extension would still be in effect. Williams looks like he's going to be an excellent NBA player, but you'd have to think that Love's proven production would trump any worries about stepping on his toes. Rubio is a different case. He required plenty of wooing just to get him over from Spain in the first place, and the team's bump in fan attendance can be largely attributed to his arrival. Wolves fans love Love, but they go bananas whenever Rubio comes into the game. Then again, how would it look to Rubio if Minnesota botches Love's situation? It ain't easy running an NBA team.

Here's what has been missed: We don't know if the extra year is even going to be a factor in the Wolves' ability to retain Love. Only Kahn, Love and Love's agent, Jeff Schwartz, can answer that question. If Minnesota were to allow Love to hit the restricted free-agent market next summer, one of two things would happen. Love would receive a max contract offer from several teams -- the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets and Love's home-state Portland Trail Blazers are just a few of the teams that could probably swing such a contract, which would likely be for five years at around $82 million. Minnesota would surely match and the question of the fifth year would be moot. The other thing that could happen is that Love could sign Minnesota's qualifying offer and play out next season as a lame-duck All-Star, then become an unrestricted free agent after the 2012-13 season.

The simplest and most direct route for Kahn and Taylor would be simply to offer Love every dollar and year that the CBA allows post-haste. Assuming Love would sign such an offer, the Timberwolves would have a legitimate franchise player in place for a half decade. There are a lot of other teams in the NBA that can't make the same claim. However, there is also a possibility that Love doesn't even want the extra year. He has deftly sidestepped questions about whether he's seeking a max extension at all. It may well be that Love is willing to hang around a couple seasons to see how things pan out with his exciting new teammates but doesn't yet want to commit to a half decade in the upper Midwest.

Things have changed since the days when Minnesota gave Garnett his landmark six-year, $126 million deal in the late 1990s. That was two lockouts ago, and players coming off rookie contracts can't choke a team's salary cap to the point teams can't surround the player with an adequate supporting cast. Strictly in terms of productivity, Garnett was worth the money, but the market for that level of talent has been capped. With players like Love, you don't have to ask how much they are worth. You simply have to ask whether they are worth the maximum you are allowed to give them.

The clearest part of this murky picture is that Love is unequivocally worth a maximum contract. The stat that's been going around this week is that Love is the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 to have at least 20 points and 12 rebounds in each of the first six games of a season. That's the most superficial way to look at his production, but it underscores what a uniquely talented player Love is.

Our ratings had Love at 16.3 WARP (Wins Above Replacement) last season. As it works out, easy shorthand for the monetary value of one win by this method is about $2 million. That places the value of Love's production in a truly open market at more than $32 million. This isn't unusual -- the league's upper crust is worth far more than what teams can actually pay. However, there are just a few players in that class -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, etc.

It's more than just the raw points and rebounds that put Love in this class. He emerged last season as one of the game's most efficient players. He increased his range and accuracy from 3-point range, making him a nightmarish matchup for opposing coaches. He has been even better this season working the pick-and-pop with Rubio and Luke Ridnour. Love seems to be a legitimate 40 percent 3-point shooter who also posts elite foul-drawing rates in the lane, makes his free throws and is one of the better passers at his position. This is in addition to being the game's best rebounder -- he's averaging 17 boards per 40 minutes so far this season. It's a package that no current player can match.

The knocks against Love are two-fold. One is that he's not an elite defensive player, which is almost certainly true. However, that's also true of Dirk Nowitzki, and no one would argue his status as a championship-level foundation player. Regardless, Love isn't a liability on the defensive end. He's above average in the post and against the pick-and-roll and does a solid job of contesting spot-up jumpers. He isn't a shot-blocker, which will be an issue if the Timberwolves ever try to make him a full-time center, but there is a lot of value in his defensive rebounding rate. Finishing possessions is a crucial part of a team's defense, and Love does it better than anyone.

The other issue people bring up with Love is his middling usage rate, or the number of possessions he finishes, which is a result of not being able to create his shot. This may no longer be an issue. Love's usage rate so far this season is up by nearly 5 percent and it hasn't affected his efficiency one iota. He has dropped 25 pounds from last season, making him more agile on the offensive end, and has improved his back-to-the-basket game to add variety to his arsenal. Love is never going to be a guy who's going to blaze through a defense with a crossover dribble and lightning dash to the basket, but that doesn't mean he's not an offensive creator. Besides, playing alongside Rubio diminishes his need to be one in the first place.

Sometimes, it's important to focus on what a player can do, not what he can't. The full range of skills that Love offers is unique and, yes, it's a championship-level package. He may not be quite at the level of a James or Rose, but he's on the tier a half-step below it. Like Garnett, perhaps the best part of Love's game is his remarkable consistency. As evidenced by last season's streak of 53 straight double-doubles, Love puts up numbers night after night after night.

There is no question he is deserving of a max contract, and probably little question that the Timberwolves will make such an offer. The only thing we don't know is whether Love will sign it.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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