Loving Love’s Passing – The Versatility of Kevin Love’s Passing Game

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Love’s excellence in the passing game makes Minnesota’s offensive weapons even deadlier

As unfair as it is, Kevin Love is doing yet another thing at an elite level: passing. While Love has always garnered some recognition for his passing acumen, this marks the first year he is posting truly elite numbers. Love is currently sporting an assist percentage 1of 20.9%, a mark that’s second among power forwards this season, trailing only teenage heartthrob Josh McRoberts, and would’ve tied for the highest mark last season (again among power forwards).

So…what happened, did Love just suddenly develop into an elite passer this season? As you’ve probably already guessed, the answer is no. Rather, Love’s distributing numbers are benefitting enormously from his playing with Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, two wings whom are quite adept at moving without the ball, both in transition and in the half court.

However, don’t get the idea that Martin and Brewer are superficially inflating Love’s assist numbers. More precisely, they’re showcasing Love’s passing. Love is and always has been an excellent passer; he now finally has teammates that can take advantage of that fact.

For example, take his much lauded outlet passing:
 

While Brewer is undoubtedly due credit for his both wily and devastatingly quick leak outs, Love’s passes themselves deserve equal praise. As shown in the video, the speed and accuracy at which Love throws them is incredible. The moment he snags a rebound he begins to scan down court, and often in less than a second a pass is heaved. From then on, Brewer rarely needs to deviate from his current speed and course, as Love’s passes hit him perfectly in stride, and he has an easy two points. If this somehow isn’t impressing you, this gif perfectly encapsulates the difficulty level of Love’s passes:

Throwing lobs 94 feet over the outstretched arms of countless defenders is hard, and Love does so perfectly.

However, Love’s passing isn’t limited to transition, as he does plenty of damage when the game settles down. Rick Adelman’s vaunted corner offense often has Kevin Love stationed at the elbow; according to SportVU player tracking data, Love ranks third in the league in elbow touches per game, and he thrives there, outperforming even the original Adelman high post specialist himself, Chris Webber. The corner offense requires plenty of motion and Love draws inordinate amounts of attention with the ball in hands, which, as you can imagine, creates a floor ripe for backdoor cuts, especially with Martin and Brewer:
 

Once again, Brewer and Martin – especially Martin – deserve credit for their commitment to slipping backdoor at every opportunity, but once again Love deserves equal, if not greater, praise. As with his outlet passes, his work out of the elbow is superb. He rifles passes with laser precision past thieving arms and through narrow windows gifting Martin and Brewer countless layups. While they make the layups a possibility, Love creates them.

Furthermore – showcasing his versatility – in addition to operating out of the high post as a new age power forward, Love can bruise in the low post like the big men of yore: 22.6% of his plays are categorized as post-ups and he does a very solid job of distributing out down low.
 

Thanks to his arsenal of fadeaway jumpers and hookshots, Love is a force to be reckoned with and appropriately draws the defenses attention. Teams send players off of weakside shooters to double him in the post, and Love is an adept enough passer to launch two-step passes across the court to the open shooter. He’s even able to engage in some big-to-big action with Nikola Pekovic. His man is often concerned with shading over to Love, allowing Pekovic to slip by his man or seal him off behind him, resulting in satisfying short range passing.

And then you have passes like these:
 

Yes, those are for the most part basic passes, but hitting the basic passes carries far more value than you think. When a shooter is an extra pass away, Love dutifully swings the ball sacrificing a good shot for a great shot. When tasked with throwing entry passes, Love doesn’t half-ass them; he throws excellent passes that allow Pekovic to quickly score. When he attacks a spot up, he doesn’t get tunnel vision en route to the rim; if a defender sags off his man on the weak side, Love will hit the open shooter.

In short, Love constantly makes the right pass, and it helps the Minnesota offense thrive with, but sputter without, him. When Love is on the floor the Timberwolves score 110.0 points per 100 possessions, which would rank second in the league this season; when he’s on the bench they score a miserable 86.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks last in the league by a mile: the difference between the Timberwolves offense with Love on the bench and the worst offense in the league (Milwaukee) is the same as the gap between the first ranked Portland Trailblazers and the 16th ranked Toronto Raptors.

 

***

 
Clearly, Love is an excellent passer, yet another reason why he is the best power forward in the NBA. He just dominates almost every aspect of the game: Scoring? He nets 24.9 points per 36 on 57.8% true shooting percentage 2, only LeBron James and Kevin Durant can score as much as efficiently. Rebounding? He’s posted a total rebound percentage of 20.7% this season, third in the league. Passing? As previously said, he ranks 2nd among power forwards in assist percentage at 20.7%. Defense? Okay, he may not dominate defensively, but he’s hardly a sieve; when he’s on the court Minnesota’s defense gives up only 0.1 points per 100 possessions more, a minuscule different. While relying on simple on/off splits is not an exactly desirable method 3, in Love’s case it accurately assesses his defense: not good, but not bad; he’s essentially a neutral on that end, and he’s so dominant in all the other areas of the game that it’s all he needs. In short, Kevin Love is really damn good, and his passing is a reason why.

 

Statistical support from Basketball Reference and NBA Stats.

 2861 Oranges Squeezed

Notes:

  1. Assist percentage is a metric that estimates the percentage of a team’s field goals a player assisted on while on the floor. It’s useful because in addition to adjusting for usage (how often a player handles the ball) and pace (how fast the game is played at; a fast pace inflates regulars statistics), it also adjusts for the “shot making ability” of teammates.
  2. True shooting percentage is a shooting efficiency metric similar to field goal percentage, except that it take into account the added value of three pointers and a player’s ability to take and make free throws. League average is ~53.0%.
  3. It’s fairly noisy due to the fact that, well, there’s more than one player on the court for that. Normally we have xRAPM (regularized adjusted plus minus) for that, but it hasn’t been updated for this season yet.
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