After the NBA community saw one of its idols fall victim to a terrible tragedy this January—one still shaking the foundations of the league—it got me to thinking.
Instead of an outpouring of grief or sadness from Kobe Bryant’s passing, it sparked me to use this time as an opportunity to show appreciation for those basketball players who were such a profound influence on me.
Last week, I wrote about my favorite player growing up and the guy I modeled my own playing career after: JJ Redick. This week’s attention turns towards the star whom I most admire and the player whose example, sacrifice and narrative cannot be undersold when telling the story of his greatness: Kevin Love.
The son of NBA player Stan Love, Kevin was drafted fifth overall in 2008 after a successful year at UCLA. He was a first-team All-American and took the Bruins to the Final Four. The Minnesota Timberwolves landed his services in a draft-day trade, and his impact was felt immediately. He averaged 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds as a rookie, learning under the tutelage of former NBA low post warrior Kevin McHale, the team’s then-head coach and general manager.
By his second pro season, Love was averaging a double-double and was an All-Star by his third. He established a reputation as a polished scorer on the block and a menace on the boards. During the 2010-11 campaign, Love averaged a league-high 15.2 rebounds per game, including a whopping 4.5 offensive rebounds. He recorded an incredible 53 consecutive double-doubles.
The numerical output was insanely high, but Love was essentially a one-man show with the Timberwolves during the early stages of his career.
The organization struggled to land high-quality scorers, much less pieces that exacerbated his strengths. They futilely tried resurrecting the triangle offense under coach Kurt Rambis and general manager David Kahn, despite not having the personnel to properly do so.
(Even after Rambis/Kahn were fired and a more cohesive plan put in place, the Wolves could never keep Love or his supporting cast of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Andrei Kirilenko or Nikola Pekovic healthy at once.)
Nonetheless, Love quickly joined Tim Duncan among those days’ best back-to-basket scorers and did so while carving up defenses from the left offensive block. Love was a little undersized at 6’8″ (though he was listed at 6’10” back when you could still fudge the numbers) and wasn’t blessed with great length.
Instead, he used his strength and broad shoulders to create space and leverage instead of leaping over people. The whole reason he gravitates towards the left block is so he can use his right hand when going middle and get off a smooth-looking righty hook:
Love’s patience was aided by his high-level passing ability, so teams couldn’t overcommit to him on double-teams or renegades trying to swipe at the ball as cutters passed through. Love has always had a tremendous feel for the game, and with a strong lower body, he couldn’t get bumped off his spots.
Low post catches meant highly successful moves.
If Love was ever bumped off his spots or wanted to change things up, he would face up and go to a Duncan-esque shot off the glass. His touch was evident at a young age and flashed the beginnings of what would make him an elite stretch big:
The key to being successful on the block is having a robust array of counter moves. Tendencies and top options can be taken away by scouting or heady defense.
What does a player do when their bread-and-butter is taken away? Good ones will move the ball and concede the possession. Great ones have a plan of attack.
When facing up, Love would opt for a pump fake if he felt his defender ready to bite and contest the jumper. His shooting form is smooth and a tad above his forehead. In order for a shot fake to be believable, Love needs to show the ball in that space to trap his defender into jumping. He does that with ease, then prances to the bucket:
Love needs a counter for operating with his back to the basket, too.
Since his money is made by going to his right-hand hook, defenders sit hard on his left shoulder. Any move Love makes trying to dribble to the middle would be blocked in that scenario and he’d be forced back to the baseline.
That’s not necessarily a win for the defense. Love’s innate feel and broad shoulders aid him here.
As soon as he identifies a defender sitting on that inside shoulder, he’ll whip his right leg backward and initiate a spin move. That wide frame acts as a shield to prevent defenders from reaching around and poking at the ball as he swirls around.
Love also perfected using his right elbow to elongate that shield and carve out more space:
Some defenders would try their hand at guessing this move and lunging baseline as soon as they sit on the right shoulder. Jared Sullinger of the Boston Celtics got caught here once. He’d try to force the baseline spin, then knowing it would come, jump hard to the baseline and cut Love off from spinning to the hoop.
Not when Love sees it coming…
The last move in Love’s post arsenal was the icing on the cake and made him truly unguardable.
Elite post scorers only need two go-to moves on the block to be effective, but elite isolation scorers must add something else. Love sprinkled in a Dirk Nowitzki-like turnaround jumper.
He was so used to double teams in Minnesota that every catch on the block prompted a quick check over his left shoulder to see if help defenders were rushing to him. Love could bait them with a dribble or two, read their intentions and see if they were bluffing.
He eventually got sick of reading the defense and started to dictate. He began using this spin back to the baseline to a jumper as a means of thwarting teams before the double arrived and to keep the ball away from swiping arms in the middle.
It was truly a game-changer:
Part of his emergence as a 22-year-old All-Star was the beginnings of a 3-point jump shot.
Always a smooth mid-range threat, Love saw the importance of stretching the floor. If anything, he should be lauded for his ability to stay ahead of the curve. During the height of his statistical output and recognition in Minnesota, the LeBron James-led Miami Heat were ascending to the NBA Finals with a smaller lineup, revolutionary spacing and no true power forward.
It wasn’t so much that the post-up was a losing style, it’s that playing with another superstar was now required to win. And to be a one-dimensional player who clogs the paint for another superstar isn’t conducive to winning.
The jump in Love’s 3-point prowess opened the door for him to be seen as a guy that could share the spotlight and succeed while doing so. But he also needed to come to terms with decreasing his post opportunities.
Think about all the hours that go into perfecting the craft. All the post footwork drills, the relentless labor with development coaches putting together a package of moves. The time spent executing said moves, finding comfort on the block, practicing night in and night out. Then, suddenly, proactively deciding to change before your twenty-sixth birthday because it will allow you to win?
How do we not celebrate that?
Love changed everything about his regimen to keep pace and make himself into a winning basketball player, evidenced by the summer he was traded from the Timberwolves to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He reportedly obsessed over his diet and transformed his body, shedding nearly 30 pounds and going from the husky, bruiser-like 4-man to a svelt, toned forward. His transformation helped propel the Cavs to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, one victory and countless moments where he was a key part of their success.
When Kevin Love’s name comes up, there’s one thought that should pop into the heads of NBA fans everywhere: outlet passes.
A seemingly mundane, unnoticeable skill was transformed into one of basketball’s most electric plays. Love’s insanely strong upper body and ability to snap passes accurately over long distances found its way into a strategy.
After one of the dozen rebounds he’d snatch a night, Love would quickly see a teammate leak out and throw a Hail Mary behind the defense. Some call it cherry-picking, but it’s undeniably a thrilling sequence.
All these highlights are from one season—just one year. Corey Brewer should have given K-Love a portion of his paycheck that year, or at least a ‘thank you’ note. They ran that play so much. Love would fire these off makes or misses.
His footwork to inbound quickly and strength to fire a dart off his back foot are still unmatched. The vision needed to understand when these plays occur is masterful. And for a struggling offensive team like the Timberwolves, those extra points could swing games in their favor that otherwise wouldn’t go their way.
These outlet passes are a huge part of what made Love and LeBron such an intriguing duo. J
ames would frequently contest shots on the perimeter, then jog through his closeout towards half-court. He’d trust Love would do what he does best and rebound…
Suddenly, LeBron could be seen taking off to the other end.
Love rarely missed him:
Is that fun or what?
The NBA is an “adapt or die” business. When one style of play prevails among the landscape, others try to emulate it. Those who don’t fit inside that emulation are tossed aside (see: Hibbert, Roy).
Kevin Love not only identified the changes he’d need to successfully adapt, but he remained an All-Star while doing so. Few All-Stars are willing to look in the mirror and change their game completely in order to keep up with the times. Even fewer will sacrifice their gaudy Hall-of-Fame numbers in order to play second or third fiddle.
Love did both. He transformed himself from a dominant low post threat to a lethal 3-point stretch big. He sacrificed being the league’s preeminent offensive rebounder to camp around the 3-point line.
He shed weight to increase mobility on defense as his primary defensive assignments became more athletic. He turned away from averaging 19.2 points and 12.2 rebounds in Minnesota at 25 years old to go flank LeBron James and chase championships. And he’s done so all while facing criticism, mental health issues and being an open, honest individual.
While his closing chapter in Cleveland hasn’t been so great, one should expect him to eventually land on another contender as a supremely helpful piece.
Either way, history better look kindly on Love… and his outlet passes. Both are truly unique.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 9, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.