The word “valuable” has long made the MVP debate more complicated than it should be, because “most valuable” does not simply mean “best.” The notion of value allows voters to introduce the murky concept of what a particular player means to a particular roster of teammates — the “What would happen if you removed Player X from Roster Y?” test. This is basically how Derrick Rose won the MVP last season, despite LeBron James’ far superior numbers and mountains of evidence suggesting that Chicago’s defense was more responsible for its league-best win total.
James is clearly the best player in the NBA this season. But he has two All-Star teammates, including the guy ranked second in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, and so the thinking goes that perhaps LeBron is not as valuable to this Heat team as he was to the 2009-10 Cavaliers. The problem with that thinking is that the best player always brings the most tangible value to a team, regardless of roster context. James provides the league’s most prolific combination of points, rebounds, assists, defense and positional versatility — things with a combined value you can actually quantify, starting with his massive lead in the PER rankings and his monstrous on-court/off-court plus/minus numbers. It doesn’t matter, in theory, if James brings that value to a good roster or a bad one. Taking an otherwise good roster from 50 wins to 60 wins (in an 82-game season) could well be as difficult a task as turning a 20-win team into a 40-win team.
That said, my thoughts about the MVP — formed by my own research and talks with lots of folks around the league — boil down to three assumptions:
• The best player should win the MVP.
• The best player can absolutely be on a so-so team.
• There is a middle ground in which roster context can be a decisive factor in awarding the MVP to someone other than the league’s best player, but that middle ground is narrow and the circumstances underlying it rare.
Which brings us to Kevin Love, who is putting up insane numbers in keeping a depleted Minnesota team alive in the Western Conference playoff race. Love ranks fifth in PER, and his recent tear — an average of 32 points on 49 percent shooting over his last 14 games — has gotten him within a single PER point of Kevin Durant, who sits in the No. 3 spot and is the most likely candidate to seize the MVP that James probably deserves.
Love passes just about any statistical test you can devise for MVP candidacy. He has taken on a much larger scoring role this season, and in doing so, he has sacrificed only a bit of his shooting efficiency. His true shooting percentage, which takes three-pointers and free throws into account, has dropped from 59.3 percent last season to 57.4 percent, well below the ridiculous 60-plus numbers James and Durant are putting up. But that 57.4 mark is still way above the league average (52.6 percent). It’s higher than those of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, and beats out just about every power forward who has played major rotation minutes this season. He’s getting to the free-throw line more, shooting 38 percent from three-point range on a huge number of attempts and rebounding everything in sight.
If value is your thing, Love is fine there, too, because the Timberwolves basically die without him. The Wolves score about 107 points per 100 possessions when Love plays and about 97.5 when he sits, one of the largest on/off differentials in the league – and the rough equivalent of the gap between the league’s fifth-best offense and one that would sit somewhere between those of the 29th-ranked Wizards and the historically awful Bobcats.
This data reflects how valuable a weapon Love has become even when he doesn’t have the ball. Power forwards who can shoot threes have unique value in creating chances for others. When Love works as the screener in a pick-and-roll play, his defender is often terrified to slide even a foot away from him, a fear that leaves easy driving lanes for Minnesota’s ball-handlers. And just by standing along the perimeter, acting as a decoy and potential spot-up option, Love drags an opposing big man away from the paint.
Those who still think Love can’t create his own shot are rehashing last year’s storylines. He ranks as the eighth-most-efficient isolation scorer in the league this season after shooting just 29 percent on such plays last year, per Synergy Sports. He ranks among the league’s top 40 post-up players in terms of efficiency. He can hurt you on the block with a face-up jumper, traditional back-to-the-basket moves and via creative plays coach Rick Adelman has drawn up to get him into deep position on the move.
Love’s crunch-time scoring numbers are solid, if not outstanding. In the last five minutes of games in which the scoring margin has been five or fewer points, Love has shot 24-of-54 (44 percent), compared to Durant’s 39-of-95 mark (41 percent). Durant has the edge as the minutes left in the game and scoring margin both drop, but Love’s percentage remains just fine by the NBA’s low standards in these situations. And Love has been automatic from the foul line in crunch time: He’s 13-of-13 from the line in the last three minutes with the scoring margin at three points or fewer, per NBA.com’s stats tool. He has made several crucial last-second shots, including a buzzer-beater to win a game against the Clippers and a game-tying three with one second left to force overtime against the Thunder last Friday.
He has done this, of course, on a team that would otherwise be deep into lottery territory. Three of Minnesota’s four or five most valuable players after Love have missed significant time. Point guard Ricky Rubio is gone (torn ACL). Center Nikola Pekovic began the season as a fringe rotation player and has appeared in just 35 of Minnesota’s 52 games because of injury. Guard J.J. Barea, the most natural pick-and-roll partner here now that Rubio is out, has played in just 30 games. The rest of Minnesota’s wing rotation — Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster — is among the least productive in the league.
Again, it is possible to be the best player in the league on a .500-level team. Michael Jordan probably was early in his career. Kobe Bryant and Garnett made strong cases in the last decade on teams that ranked somewhere between mediocre and decent.
The case against Love has to be better than, “Minnesota is 25-27!” an argument that is really an in-season version of the “Count the rings!” nonsense too many fans use to evaluate careers — a line of thinking that would have rendered Jerry West a loser until he finally won a title at the very end of his (pretty darn clutch) career.
Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, you can make a better case against Love, and it centers on his defense, and especially his defense in crunch time this season. Love is a much-improved defensive player. The idea that he is a liability is also old news, a dated and cliché take that was relevant a year ago but not now. Love has quick feet, and he has become smart about the way he moves around the floor. He can’t jump, but he can slide just fine, and he’s quite good at sliding a bit off his man to contain guards on pick-and-roll plays or darting along the baseline to contest a jump shot. He knows his limitations, and he understands how to play the odds — which shots are worth contesting aggressively, and which aren’t threatening enough to justify yielding his own man too much freedom.
Opposing big men have shot just 37 percent against him in the post, one of the stingiest marks in the league, per Synergy. The Wolves are just about a league-average defense despite the lack of a rim protector now that Darko Milicic is out of the rotation, and they played about as well on defense with and without Love on the floor. But Love is never going to be an elite defensive player — not with his lack of jumping ability and a wing span six inches shorter than Ekpe Udoh’s — and he has contributed to Minnesota’s single biggest failing this season: The Wolves cannot get stops late in close games, in part because they foul way too much.
Minnesota is just 11-13 in games in which the scoring margin has been three or fewer points in the last five minutes — not bad at all, but not good enough to assure a postseason spot. The Wolves have allowed a whopping 112.8 points per 100 possessions in those situations, the sixth-worst mark in the league, and only three teams have yielded more free throws per minute, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. Minnesota opponents haven’t been bad from the floor, either: They’ve posted a collective field-goal percentage of 45.5 in those clutch situations, the fifth-highest mark in the league for team defenses.
This isn’t all on Love, obviously. But I watched all 70 buckets that the Wolves have allowed in those situations and all 57 of the fouls they committed, and it’s clear Love’s worst habits as a defender have hurt them. Love has committed a team-high nine of those fouls in 83 minutes, which is nothing compared to Pekovic’s committing the same number in just 35 minutes. But Love has a weird tendency to swipe at players in the paint, perhaps because he knows he can’t bother them as a shot-blocking threat, and it has cost the Wolves points late in several games: against Oklahoma City on Dec. 26 (shoving Russell Westbrook), the Spurs (slapping Tiago Splitter late in an early January win), the Lakers (swiping at Pau Gasol on the block in a late January loss) and in two recent games against Utah, when Love fouled Gordon Hayward late.
The “play the odds” thing can also hurt against elite-shooting point guards. Love isn’t super comfortable jumping out hard on pick-and-rolls, preferring instead to sag back and protect the paint. That leaves point guards free to shoot open 20-footers, and several such shots have hurt the Wolves late in games. The same sagging strategy made it hard for Love to recover in time to adequately contest a key Paul Millsap pick-and-pop jumper late in a recent overtime loss in Utah.
And while Love brings smart and quick rotations on the back line, they are not rotations that scare elite wing scorers. Love is a charge-taker, not a shot-blocker, and elite scorers, including Rudy Gay and LeBron, have driven into the teeth of Minnesota’s defense late, confident they could evade Love.
None of this is to say Love is a bad defender. He’s not, and he has become quite good at lots of things. He’s probably somewhere around average, and he has been a hair worse late in close games this season. And in this season, with James and Durant playing the way they are, that’s enough to place Love a bit behind them in the MVP balloting.
And that’s not so bad. Love is clearly one of the 10 best players in the league, and any voter who leaves him out of the top five in the MVP race will have some explaining to do.