Using Math to Change the Kevin Love Playoff Narrative
It's always difficult to evaluate an individual player in a team sport. In a team-less sport like golf, it’s easy – how many wins and majors do you have at the end of your career? But even having one extra person on your team introduces a large amount of variables.
And even in the context of a team, it’s difficult to navigate through good context and noise. For example, many basketball fans and analysts have criticized LeBron James over the years for creating his super teams. "If he was truly one of the greatest ever, he wouldn’t need superstar teammates to win a title!" people exclaim. "He should be like Michael Jordan, who stayed and won championships in Chicago."
Well, if we look at the statistics, they tell a more interesting story. In Dwyane Wade's four seasons with LeBron, he had 12.8, 7.7, 9.6, and 5.5 win shares, respectively. During that same sort of age stretch for Scottie Pippen, from 1993 to 1997, Pippen posted win shares of 11.2, 11.8, 12.3, and 13.1. Dennis Rodman posted 12.6 win shares in his best season; Chris Bosh had 10.3 win shares in his best career season.
Context is key. LeBron didn’t have the luxury of having the Cavaliers draft a player the caliber of Pippen. Even a guy like Horace Grant (over 10 win shares in three of his Chicago seasons) would have been by far the best player, other than LeBron, on those early Cavalier teams. Mo Williams' 9.8 win shares in 2008 were as good as it gets. The Bulls consistently had many players better than that.
The Playoff Narrative
Kevin Love has been another guy who has been criticized for team play and lack of playoff berths despite having limited help from teammates. Love posted 14.3 win shares this season, which was third best in the league. The next best Timberwolves player? Both Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio were tied for 59th in the league with 5.9 win shares. Portland’s entire starting five all ranked higher.
Despite these stats, there are critics who claim that a superstar-caliber player should at least drag his team into the bottom of the playoffs, if he’s really that good. And that’s an interesting point. According to advanced stats, what would it have taken to make the playoffs in the Western Conference last year?
Let's look at a list of the 10 best seasons ever, in terms of win shares, per basketball-reference.com. Then we'll compare these all-time great seasons to Kevin Love and see whether he is truly at fault for the Timberwolves not making the playoffs.
Most of these best-ever seasons came early in the history of the NBA when there was less competition. The only two modern players (1985-present) to have a 20-plus win share season are Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Now let’s do some math.
How Does Love Stack Up?
The Timberwolves won 40 games this year with Love. If we had a machine that let us jump into a parallel universe where 1988 Michael Jordan (his best statistical year) switched places with 2014 Kevin Love (in this hypothetical, ignore positions. This is solely about math.), the Timberwolves would’ve won approximately 47 or 48 games. The Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs with 49 wins.
Sure, the Timberwolves lost a lot of close games and you can try to claim the “clutch factor” or something that would vault them even higher. Even so, with the best player ever, in his best statistical season ever, the Timberwolves still would’ve missed the playoffs last year.
Although Kobe Bryant fans will gasp at this, last year's Kevin Love would've been the best player on those Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol-led championship Laker teams. In fact, no season of Kobe's ever would have been good enough to take the Timberwolves to the playoffs. Context.
Perhaps if we substituted 2014 Kevin Love with 1972 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Timberwolves would’ve made the playoffs. However, that's assuming Kareem would have the same impact (not likely, in my opinion), and even so, it would put the Timberwolves at 51 wins – tied with Golden State for sixth in the West. I repeat, the greatest win share season in the history of basketball in an age of less competitive basketball still would have barely made the playoffs and not been above a six-seed.
Thus, the argument that Kevin Love is somehow a bad player because he never made the playoffs is officially over. There is just zero math that backs it up.