Kevin Love's defensive woes are overstated

Aug 5, 10:43 PM

Two overarching narratives have come to define All-NBA forward Kevin Love's career - an inability to make the playoffs, and a supposed inability to play defense.

It's true; Love isn't a good defender, especially not at guarding the rim. He allowed opponents to shoot 57.4 percent at the rim last season, an embarrassingly low mark for a guard, let alone a 6-foot-10 power forward. As a whole, the Minnesota Timberwolves conceded the second highest opponent field-goal percentage in the restricted area last season. That falls in large part on Love.

And while rim-protection is hugely important - especially for bigs - it's not everything. Say what you will about the validity of advanced defensive metrics in basketball (sample size issue, steals and blocks are inaccurate indicators), Love still managed to rank in the top-25 in both defensive real plus-minus and defensive win shares among frontcourt players.

Love grades decently in catch-all defensive metrics because he is an average defender. Not great, but certainly not terrible either. He can't guard the rim, but he makes up for it in other ways.

One way is by defensive rebounding. Coaches stress the importance of rebounding ad nauseum for a reason; defensive possessions aren't over until the rebound is secured. 

Love happens to be an elite rebounder, especially defensively, where he grabbed nearly 30 percent of all available defensive rebounds last season, the third-highest mark in the league. Love might not be good at preventing opponents from connecting on their attempts, but he is fantastic at limiting their chances. 

The retort here is the myth that Love willingly concedes shots in favor of rebounding opportunities. There's little evidence to that theory, as Love challenged an average of 9.1 opponent field-goal attempts at the rim, a mark that ranked ninth last season. He simply couldn't have snagged so many rebounds, while challenging so many shots, especially not if he allowed so many to drop. The math doesn't check out.

Rather, the critique is likely rooted in Minnesota's defensive strategy, which prioritized turnover generation while keeping fouls to a minimum. That trade-off is reflected in discrepancy between their 12th-ranked defensive rating (an possession-independent stat determined by turnovers and defensive rebounds) and their abysmal 28th-ranked raw points allowed per game.

However, that also masks one of Love's hidden defensive talents - he rarely commits fouls. His average of 1.8 personal fouls per 36 minutes ranked as the fifth-lowest mark among all forwards and centers. There's value in not conceding easy trips to the line, and in being able to stay in the game. 

On a less abstract level, Love also holds his own in the post. According to Synergy Stats, 40 percent of Love's defensive possessions came in the post, where he allowed just 0.72 points per post-up, a mark that ranked 43rd in the league. Love leverages his strong base into being able to hold his ground on the block. 

Where Love truly struggles, aside from rim-protection, is on help-defense scenarios, where he's often inattentive, thus causing him to lose his man or be caught out of position. That's reflected in his rather average mark on defending spot-ups and plays off screens. 

Overall, Love's defensive grade is ultimately a reflection of the test itself. If you're looking for elite rim-protection and timely help defense - the Tyson Chandler archetype - Love fails miserably. If, instead, you value rebounding and disciplined post-defense, Love fares much better. The truth is somewhere in-between: he's not awful, and he's not great. He's just average.

Feature photo courtesy of Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters