SLAM Top 50: Kevin Love, No. 39

Ten years in, it’s hard to imagine a guy who’s been both as over-analyzed AND as overlooked as Kevin Love.

The over-analysis started before he’d played a single regular-season game: Skeptics wondered if the big doughy white kid who averaged 18 and 11 and won Pac-12 POY as a freshman could really translate that dominance to the NBA. Minnesota fans in particular will remember the local columnist who, after no more than one or two preseason games, all but declared that Love would never be able to score against NBA defenders.

Averages of 19.2 points (and a whopping 12.2 boards) in his six seasons in MPLS later, we know how that turned out.

For all their promise, Love never made the postseason as a Timberwolf. So it was, three years ago, that he agreed to the trade that would take him from top dog on a fun but mediocre squad to a vital supporting player on a serious contender. Ah, but how vital?

It’s wild to consider in retrospect, but there was no clear way to predict the pecking order that would emerge when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love joined up on the Cavs. Irving and Love had both been the alpha dogs on teams that couldn’t crack the playoffs; LeBron was LeBron. Maybe they’d take turns at the top (Ok, not really), or at least Kyrie and Kev could split the Robin duties to Bron’s Batman?

The second option is closer to how it worked out, of course, but Love had the rockiest transition. Going solely on the numbers, his first season in Cleveland was his least-productive since his second year in the League. Beyond the stats, he seemed to have the hardest time finding his spot on the squad. The playoff injury that ended with a Cavs flameout against the Warriors in the 2015 Finals ultimately made it all seem pretty forgettable.

His numbers weren’t much better in Year Two—although at 16 and 10, they were hardly bad—and his contributions in Cleveland’s title run were undeniable. He pushed his numbers to 19 and 11 last year, but nothing that he nor the Cavs could do was ultimately going to matter against that super team from the Bay.

And now, after three years of relative stability, Kyrie Irving’s insistence on looking toward the horizon (heh) in search of another alpha dog gig has left the Cavs uncertain and unsettled. LeBron is (still) LeBron. Isaiah Thomas is the unknowable wildcard. And then there’s Kevin Love, which brings us back to the point.

For many around the League, and Cavs fans especially, it’s been hard not to over-analyze every misstep Love has made since landing in Ohio. Every time he’s beaten on D sparks a storm of talk about what a liability he is (even as the stats show him to be a decent, if hardly elite, defender.) Every three-point miss (he’s shot 37 percent from the arc since joining the Cavs) is a reminder of his inadequacy as a true big. He’s too inefficient, and often on the wrong side of bad matchups.

And yet for all that, when recounting all the high points of the Cavs’ three-year run, his value is the least discussed and most easily diminished. As if those 17 points and 10 boards didn’t count in the final box scores. As if he didn’t single-handedly shut down the reigning MVP when it mattered most in 2016. (Ok, it was one play, and he got a little bit lucky, but hey.)

All of this is to say that even before Kyrie left for Boston last month, it was nearly impossible to get a fair reading on where Kevin Love stood in the scheme of things, both in Cleveland, and in the League. If he’s healthy this season and asked to do more for a Cavs team that could well be short-handed, he might (once again) look like a top-20 player. If Cleveland struggles post-Kyrie, he might just as easily be the scapegoat.

The rankings are whatever. A decade in, Love’s attempt to prove he’s (still) among the NBA’s elite players should quietly be one of the more fascinating subplots in the game.

Previous Rankings:
2016: No. 39
2015: No. 20
2014: No. 10
2013: No. 15

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons 
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge