Superstars are tough to replace and Kevin Love is no exception.
Love, who’s been recovering from a broken right hand since initially injuring it during the preseason, has reportedly broken the same hand that shelved him for the season’s first few weeks again. He injured it last week against the Nuggets, and will be out for a “number of weeks.” Translation: The Minnesota Timberwolves could be in deep trouble.
The Timberwolves don’t have anyone capable of filling the void to be sure. Nor will they find someone handy on the weak free agent list. Instead, they will have to utilize their internal options, such as Derrick Williams, an underachieving No. 2 pick.
However, don’t panic quite yet. The Timberwolves have in fact survived without last season’s version of Love. They just haven’t realized it yet.
Love missed the Wolves’ first nine games with a broken hand and Minnesota treaded water quite well with a 5-4 record. With him, in hindsight, they’re an even 9-9. They’ve been slightly better without Love this season, but don’t read too much into small sample sizes.
However, you’d actually have an argument if you were to say that the Timberwolves have been better without Love this season.
For one, the dominant rebounder isn’t as lethal from 3-point range as he usually is. He’s shooting just 21.7 percent from downtown, compared to a 37.2 percent mark last year.
Love wore a brace on his injured shooting hand for a few games when he returned so it can be assumed the injury has hampered his shooting from distance.
It’s not just his 3-point shooting that’s taken a dive, however. The Timberwolves also have a better effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for 3-point shooting, and true shooting percentage, which likewise accounts for 3-point shooting and adds the effect of free throws, without Love on the floor.
Conversely, both categories saw an upswing when he was on the floor last season.
And Love’s futile shooting may have more of an effect on the Wolves than you might think.
Not only does his pedestrian 3-point shooting hinder his average post-up game, as opposing defenders can slack off him more, but it also effects the Wolves’ already substandard offense that ranks 20th in the NBA in points per game.
Instead of having Love as an option to receive the ball on drives-and-kicks or picks-and-rolls, he isn’t as much of a threat to make teams pay from downtown or in the mid-range. At least not this year.
Love was–and still is–one of Minnesota’s superior shooters. But Love’s outside shooting woes limit the opportunities for slashing point guard Ricky Rubio in the two-man game.
Perhaps the biggest area where the Wolves are better off without Love is on defense. Their defensive rating with him on the floor this year is 101.8, while with him on the bench, it’s a much more respectable 99.0 So, replacing his mediocre defensive contributions with someone who’s more proficient on that end of the floor could compensate for his prolific rebounding, which will undoubtedly be a huge loss.
To be sure, Love’s sturdy defensive rating of 99 is unclear. According to Synergy Sports, his defensive rank is 344th in the league. His better-than-average defensive rating, though, doesn’t portray that ranking. Instead, it has a lot to do with Minnesota’s team defense rather that what Love is actually doing individually.
Due to his defensive flaws, the Wolves’ overall net rating with Love on the floor is worse than it is without him on the floor (with: minus-1.7, without: plus-1.1). Maybe if he had played a few more games, his net rating would reach an equilibrium more suitable for his typical production, but the numbers don’t lie.
In short, the Timberwolves can survive. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible.
Five weeks–or in that range–is a long time and it will pass more slowly if the Timberwolves go into a funk over Love’s injury and his absence from the lineup. But if Minnesota can stay somewhat close to the eighth seed in the Western Conference while Love’s hand mends, it has a fighting chance to compete for one of the lower seeds.
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