Trading for Love is a no-brainer


Because this is the Internet, camps have formed since the Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James and began exploring the possibility of trading No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a package for Kevin Love. Are you #TeamWiggins or #TeamLove?

Though it's certainly possible to be part of #TeamWiggins because of belief in his upside and the value of his cheap rookie contract, the debate has revealed that not everyone is sold that Love is a superstar. As someone who's on the record believing that Love is a top-five player in the NBA and one of the most valuable to ever hit the trade market, let me explain why he is:

An elite scorer

We'll start with this: Love is not just a good scorer, he's a great one. He has managed to expand his perimeter game without sacrificing his interior scoring and trips to the free throw line. Last season, Love was one of four players in the league to average at least two 3-pointers and six free throws per game. (Love, who averaged 2.5 3s and 6.8 FTs, cleared both marks with ease.) The rest of the group, per Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Because so much of his offense comes in the efficient spots around the basket, at the free throw line and beyond the 3-point arc, Love has pushed his usage rate to superstar territory the past three seasons without sacrificing his efficiency, as measured by true shooting percentage. Here's how the league as a whole rated by these two measures last season:

I've marked on the chart league averages (a 20 percent usage rate, which is listed horizontally on the chart, and a .541 true shooting percentage, listed vertically) and the line that reflects the typical trade-off between usage and efficiency. A player anywhere along that line is approximately an average scorer, and the farther that players are above it, the better they are. Let's zoom in on the top right quadrant, featuring players who are above average in both categories.

This time, I've shifted the line upward to make it easier to separate the best of the best scorers. Durant and LeBron James stand on their own. As I wrote during the season, Durant and James have shattered the previous threshold for the combination of usage and efficiency. Behind them are Harden and Stephen Curry, who are more efficient than any other non-MVP high scorers. Love and Dirk Nowitzki make up the third tier, ahead of less efficient players who use more possessions like Anthony and Russell Westbrook.

More than just a scorer

Love's work on the glass is well established. His rebound totals overstate his ability because Love plays more minutes than rebounding specialists, and spending so much time on the perimeter has made him merely an average offensive rebounder. Still, Love ranked fifth among regular players in defensive rebound rate in 2013-14.

Beyond that, Love improved the passing dimension of his game last season, in part because of the chemistry he developed throwing outlet passes to Corey Brewer. He handed out assists more frequently per play than George Hill or Patty Mills. Among big men, only Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls had a better assist rate than Love.

Numbers don't support Love as a defensive liability

Even the biggest Love skeptic would concede his prowess as a scorer and rebounder -- right before bringing up the defensive end. Here's the thing: It's hard to find statistical support for the widespread notion that Love is a defensive turnstile.

It's possible to highlight stats that showcase Love's defensive shortcomings, particularly as a rim protector. New SportVU player-tracking data on showed that last season opponents shot 57.4 percent when Love was within five feet of attempts near the rim, the league's fourth-worst rate among players who defended at least five rim attempts per game.

However, opponent shooting percentage tells only half of the story. Love's reluctance to contest shots also kept him out of foul trouble and opponents off the free throw line. His 1.8 fouls per 36 minutes were the fewest of any regular big man last season (no one else was below 2.0 per 36), and not coincidentally, the Timberwolves allowed the league's lowest rate of free throws per field goal attempt. The trade-off between not fouling and surrendering layups didn't always work out for Minnesota and former coach Rick Adelman encouraged his team to foul more frequently, but looking at opponent shooting percentages without context is unfair to Love.

There's also the matter of rebounding. For individual players, defensive rebounding is not as valuable as offensive rebounding because many defensive rebounds are discretionary -- another defender will get the rebound if one individual does not -- but it's still part of defense, and the Timberwolves have had a better defensive rebound percentage with Love on the court every season of his career. Last season, per, they rebounded 75.3 percent of opponents' misses with Love and 72.4 percent when he was on the bench.

Add it up and ESPN's real plus-minus shows Love as an above-average defensive player, even for a big man. (Post players rate better on defense in plus-minus metrics as compared to perimeter players.) And despite playing Love with another poor rim protector in center Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota was average defensively last season.

Why Wolves haven't won

The biggest Love criticism isn't defense. It's his team's record.

"Love is so overrated," one NBA executive told Insider's Jeff Goodman last week. "He's never won."

As bad as the Timberwolves have been overall, they have been worse without Love. As the chart at right shows, according to, with Love on the bench, Minnesota has been outscored by at least 4.7 points per 100 possessions -- a mark equivalent to last season's Detroit Pistons -- in five of his six seasons. The only exception was 2012-13, when Love was limited to 18 games after breaking a bone in his hand during training camp.

Last season, the Timberwolves outscored opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor, a mark similar to the Miami Heat with Ray Allen, for one. They were done in by their poor bench -- exacerbated by Adelman playing his starters together, which inflated their ratings at the expense of reserves -- and a historic inability to win close games. Minnesota finished with the league's 10th-best point differential, which would have ranked fourth in the East.

Even discounting those issues, the Timberwolves' combination of a high-rated star and a below-.500 finish was rare but not unprecedented. Love joined five other examples since the ABA-NBA merger, including Michael Jordan twice, of a player posting 20-plus wins above replacement player for a sub-.500 team.

While Jordan's Bulls grew into a contender later in his career (his appearances above came in his first and third seasons), Barkley, Garnett and Malone enjoyed newfound team success after changing uniforms. Malone and Garnett both won championships in their first season with their new teams, while Barkley's Suns reached the Finals in his first season. Barkley and Malone both were named MVP the year after their trades, and Garnett finished third in the voting.

In all those cases, it turned out that the problem was the rest of the team, not the star. The statistical evidence suggests a similar re-evaluation will take place if Love is traded to a team that can better support his unique skills.