Kevin Love is a unique player. I realize that statement doesn't qualify as particularly insightful. Love is a 6-10 power forward/center who ranks second in the league in rebounding and competed in the Three-Point Shootout. Within the last month, Love has posted both a 50-point game and a 30-20 effort. It doesn't take fancy statistics to realize that few other players could match such exploits. I still think it's worthwhile to explore the unusual skill sets Love has managed to combine.
Let's start with three-point shooting and rebounding, two categories that typically don't go together for obvious reasons. To rate shooting ability, I'll turn to my Shoot metric, which combines three-point percentage and three attempts per minute and adds free throw percentage. Love is at 1.57 this season, placing him in the league's top 50. In the three-plus decades since the NBA added the three, only one other player has achieved a Shoot score better than 1.5 and grabbed better than 15 percent of all available rebounds: Troy Murphy, who did so in both 2008-09 and 2009-10 for the Indiana Pacers.
Until now, Troy Murphy in his prime was the gold standard for stretch big men who also excelled on the glass. Yet there's an important distinction between Murphy and Love. Like most post players who shoot threes, Murphy was a below-average offensive rebounder who did most of his work on the defensive glass. This only makes sense, since stepping away from the basket to stretch the floor takes a big man out of position for offensive rebounds.
Love has indeed seen his offensive rebounding drop from his rookie season, when he led the league at 15.1 percent, and last year, when he finished second at 13.5 percent. Still, Love is a strong offensive rebounder, grabbing 11.4 percent of his team's misses, and he ranks third in the league in total rebound percentage.
Those second chances, along with scores from the post, explain why Love still gets plenty of his points in the paint. According to Hoopdata.com, he ranks seventh in the NBA with 6.8 shot attempts per game at the rim. Of the league's top 10 in this category, six players are not three-point threats whatsoever. LeBron James leads the rest of the group with 2.1 three attempts per game. Love nearly averages that many made threes (2.0) while attempting more than five a night.
Again, we find Love's two skills are out of the ordinary. Combined, Love is averaging 11.9 threes or at-rim attempts per game, which is tops in the league. Just four other players, all of them guards, take double-digit attempts on average from these two locations:
Player RA/G 3A/G TOT
Kevin Love 6.8 5.1 11.9
Brandon Jennings 4.7 6.1 10.8
Derrick Rose 6.2 4.5 10.7
Marcus Thornton 4.5 6.1 10.6
Deron Williams 3.8 6.4 10.2
In fairness, Love is fourth in the league in field-goal attempts, so he's got an advantage over players like Jennings. On a percentage basis, among the league's top 40 players in minutes per game, six players are taking a higher percentage of their shots either at the rim or beyond the arc. With the exception of league leader Gerald Wallace, who swings between the forward spots, the others are all guards--Thornton and Jennings, plus Ray Allen, Ty Lawson and Kyle Lowry. As a big man, Love still stands out.
Now let's add one more similar layer to the analysis: free throw attempts. Love is getting to the free throw line on 14.9 percent of his possessions, which puts him in the league's top 20. In the last three decades, 22 players have matched or exceeded Love in both the percentage of plays used on threes and free throws. Of them, the only true big man is Austin Croshere with Indiana in 2004-05. (Danilo Gallinari, who joined the group last season, might also qualify depending on how much you want to stretch the definition.)
What's remarkable about these different offensive categories is that they all represent Love's ability to score in the most efficient ways possible. From a statistical standpoint, the ideal player would basically never shoot from midrange. Instead, they would focus their efforts on getting to the rim, drawing a foul and shooting free throws or stepping beyond the arc. Those three categories represent 61.7 percent of all Love's plays, a remarkable amount that explains why his True Shooting Percentage is a robust .573 this season.
As Timberwolves radio broadcaster Alan Horton put it when we chatted during Sunday's game at Portland, Love seems to have found a "wormhole" of sorts in the NBA game, exploiting the most efficient opportunities. There's nothing particularly secret about what he's doing, or even revolutionary in terms of intent. Love is simply the first player with the broad combination of skills necessary to excel both inside and out on offense on a regular basis.
The last piece of the puzzle is Love's usage rate. That he would score efficiently in the NBA comes as no surprise based on his performance early in his career, but his numbers did not necessarily portend his ability to be a go-to guy for Minnesota. Love's usage has exploded from 23.0 percent last season to 28.7 percent so far this year, which is the league's sixth-biggest increase:
Player 2011 2012 Diff
Jeremy Lin .157 .279 +.122
Greg Monroe .155 .244 +.089
John Lucas III .179 .257 +.078
Michael Redd .179 .254 +.075
Roger Mason .122 .189 +.067
Kevin Love .230 .287 +.057
Of this group, Love was the only player who started out using plays at an above-average rate, making his leap all the more monumental. The arrival of Ricky Rubio helped, certainly, but Love used an even high percentage of the Timberwolves' plays (31.3 percent) in March, when he carried the team after injuries to Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. Rick Adelman has made use of Love's diverse talents to call a variety of different plays for him, from running a 6-10 big man off of curls to having him create at times from the high post. Love has done it with only a modest hit to his efficiency.
The development Love has made this season led Horton to suggest he should be a candidate for Most Improved Player, having already won the award last year. No player has ever won Most Improved twice in their careers, let alone in consecutive seasons. The odds are against Love pulling off the feat, but it would be perfectly in keeping with this most unique of performances.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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