During his six seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Love was arguably the best power forward in basketball at his peak. However, now playing third fiddle to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the transition from primary option to sidekick combined with the rise in talent at the position has forced the 27-year-old to move down a few spots.
The 2014-15 season was a “down” year by Love standards. His 16.4 points per game was his lowest scoring output since 2009-10 and his 9.7 boards per contest was the first time he’s averaged below double-digits on the glass since his rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, there are no shortage of contenders for the title of NBA’s best power forward. Anthony Davis ascended from rookie phenom to bona fide superstar in just three seasons. Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge annually churn out All-Star-caliber efforts, while Aldridge’s new teammate Tim Duncan continues to be a two-way force at 39 years old. Even cagey veterans like Zach Randolph and Pau Gasol can make cases for being among the league’s elite.
A testament to how far Love has fallen from the top spot can be found in SI.com’s list of the top 100 players of 2016. Love is ranked 17th overall, which is 10 spots lower than the previous year. He’s also sixth among power forwards behind Draymond Green, Aldridge, Duncan, Griffin and Davis.
That begs the question: Is Love still a top five power forward?
Despite SI’s rankings, the answer is yes. For now.
Few players in the entire league — let alone at the power-forward position — can match both his versatility scoring the basketball and his tenacity on the boards. Love has converted at least 36 percent from behind the arc in three of his last four seasons. Additionally, his career average of 11.8 rebounds per game is second only to Dwight Howard (12.7) among qualified active players, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Even as he shared touches with James and Irving last season, Love still managed to produce 115 points per 100 possessions, which was his fourth-best offensive rating of his seven-year career. Here’s how that stacked up among other elite power forwards:
Love’s defense, which has been a problem area since he entered the league, showed slight improvement, as well. His 2.9 defensive win shares were the second-best mark of his career. Opponents also shot 56.6 percent from less than six feet with Love defending, which was a minus-2.8 percent drop from their normal average of 59.4, per NBA.com.
Love will never be a game-changing rim protector like Davis, and he still has a ways to go before he’s even in the discussion with someone like Duncan or Gasol, but the increased effort is a promising sign.
The biggest key to Love rising up the power-forward rankings will be staying healthy. While the former UCLA standout only missed seven games during the regular season last year, the dislocated shoulder he suffered during the playoffs proved costly to the Cavs’ championship hopes.
In an appearance on “Late Night with Seth Myers” in early September, Love gave an update on his recovery:
“I feel great. I actually spent three weeks in Park City, Utah at the Olympic training facility there. I rehabbed my shoulder, got in great shape and I feel great. I’m probably about a month, month-and-a-half away. I don’t want to set an immediate deadline now, but I really feel great.”
According to Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com, Love is expected to be ready for the start of Cavs training camp on Sept. 29, albeit in a limited role. Assuming he can stay healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how he improves now that he has a full season with his new team under his belt.
Love’s prowess as an inside-outside scoring threat, rebound machine and outlet pass maestro will keep him among the NBA’s best, but his grip on the top five is loosening. With rising stars like Green and Derrick Favors nipping at his heels, Love will need to flash the dominant form from his Minnesota days to avoid falling further down the power-forward pecking order.