What Kevin Love's career playoff absence means

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

How much blame should Kevin Love shoulder for his lack of playoff appearances  (USATSI)
How much blame should Kevin Love shoulder for his lack of playoff appearances? (USATSI)

Kevin Love was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers officially Saturday. Read more on the big trade here.

The conversation around now-Cleveland-Cavaliers star Kevin Love tends to steer one of two ways when we talk about him in the broader sense. First, he's a great player, a tremendous rebounder, an unbelievable outlet-passer, a gifted scorer, and an all-around tremendous talent.

The second is that despite all that, he cannot be that good. After all, he never made the playoffs with the Timberwolves.

Not once.

Not a single year has Love made the playoffs. And because this statement covers several seasons, and in doing so spans a wide range of factors and elements, the idea is that there is no way to get around it. The paradigm suggests that it's OK to reduce all of the elements that go into this concluding statement, based on the simple result.

How great can a player be if his team never made the playoffs? This naturally has implications for the Cavs as they traded for the 25-year-old Saturday. He never made the playoffs, can he really be that good?

This creates a fantastic little circular logic chain that chews up major radio time and fills column inches like a volcano of hot takes spewing molten reductive arguments down the hillside and covering the village of Nuance in ash.

Kevin Love isn't that great because he's never made the playoffs because he isn't that great.

See the problem, there?

But let's go a little bit further. It's easy to reduce something to its simplest arguments and dismiss it. Let's actually explore if there's something to the idea that a player's worth can be determined in part by his team's playoff success, and what the ramifications of such an assertion would mean.

THE ATLAS STANDARD: (Funny note, Atlas wasn't actually made to hold up the Earth by Zeus, he's actually holding up the celestial spheres, and was originally tasked with holding up Uranus. Small(er) world.)

The idea of the modern superstar has evolved somewhat. The narrative started with Bird and Magic (as before the league a. had very few teams and b. was kind of a joke on account of instability and rampant, insane drug abuse) and featured the idea that true superstars came in and immediately made their teams contenders. Nevermind that the Celtics had been good for three decades and the Lakers already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Then the Jordan narrative established itself, and we see this today: it's the model all stars are held to. Player is drafted, player struggles to win, player finds greater understanding of what it means to be part of a team, player lifts his own game and wins a title. LeBron James' departure for Miami seriously screwed with this concept, which is part of why so many people freaked out over it.

That Jordan element still exists today. You're supposed to find ways to do it on your own. What's interesting is that this goes into direct opposition with the idea that if you're a true competitor, you'll do whatever it takes to win. Isn't getting yourself the best supporting cast necessary, in the modern environment?

Jordan, Bird, Magic, never left and never really considered it, in part because the very idea was foreign at the time. Superstars didn't leave their homes if they had any success. Those players also played at a time when the mightiest of superstars were greater, but the league was also smaller and the athleticism and competitive level arguably lower. It's harder to win now, and especially harder to win in a small market with the kind of management Love toiled under.

Even then, is this Atlas standard reasonable to hold stars to? How can we, as a society, push the idea of teamwork, and how basketball is about five guys on the floor and how they interact, and about how it takes all 12-15 guys to win, and still hold up Love as if he's supposed to be primarily responsible for the results?

The impact of other players is why plus-minus data is so noisy on the surface. It's why chemistry is such a delicate and indecipherable concept. It's why teams are constantly having to tinker to find the right combination. It's what makes the Spurs so good.

I'm not saying it's a binary issue. It can be "the star has to be good and the supporting cast has to be good but the star has to raise them up." But if we accept that Love's individual play has been good, and we acknowledge that his supporting casts have been bad, how exactly do we leap to the assertion that he wasn't good enough? Even if we can't necessarily make the argument that he did do enough, we can at least reject the hypothesis that he didn't do enough, based on his production.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: When has a true superstar ever missed the playoffs like this? Well, instead of taking this as a cumulative body of work, since seasons aren't contiguous, let's look at them individually.

2010-2011: This was Love's first real chance to shine after coach Kurt Rambis and GM David Kahn constantly held him down, asserting he was a bench player and not as good as he obviously was. He had a stellar season and established himself as a true star, averaging 20 points and 15.2 rebounds on 47 percent shooting.

Unfortunately, the second-leading scorer on that team? Michael Beasley. I'm not even going to go on to the rest of the roster, except to say that the fifth-highest scorer was Darko Milicic. Now we're really, truly done here.

2011-2012: Love only played 55 games and the Wolves won just 26. Luke Ridnour was their second-leading scorer, it was Ricky Rubio's rookie season. Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams, Pek's first season, Martell Webster, Beasley... yeah, again, let's just move on.

2012-2013: The first season you could make a legitimate argument that he had supporting help to make the playoffs. Oh, wait, he broke his hand twice and played just 18 games. Kind of hard to blame him for not magically healing his hand, right?

2013-2014: Here's the one season you can make the argument he had enough help, played enough games, and failed to miss the playoffs. As we chronicled last year the Timberwolves not only had to play in the Western Conference of death and destruction, where 48 wins wasn't good enough for the Suns to make the playoffs, but they also had unbelievably bad luck in close-game situations. You can pinpoint some of that on coaching, the players, execution, even Love himself, but when you lose as many games as the Wolves did in close scenarios, there has to be some misfortune. The Wolves finished 16-25 in games inside five points in the last five minutes. The Philadelphia 76ers had a better close-game record than the Wolves. Factor in the awful personal circumstances that Rick Adelman was having to coach through and you've got "just one of those years."

But are superstars really afforded "just one of those years?"

In 1963, Wilt Chamberlain, who people usually consider pretty good at this basketball thing, had the 11th highest Win Shares in NBA history or a single season according to Basketball-Reference. The San Francisco Warriors missed the playoffs.

The '76 Lakers with Kareem. Oscar Robertson in Cincinnati from '68 to '70. Kevin Garnett from 2005 to 2007. Charles Barkley in '88 and '92.

This does happen. Great players have years, stretches even, where their team cannot reach the postseason. So why then do we assume that absolute "Kevin Love has not reached the playoffs" is somehow more important information than all the supporting evidence we have that he's great?

Now, there's criticism to be made of Love. His defense, both effort and execution wise, has been sorely deficient throughout his career. He targets rebounds, even to take them from teammates. His leadership has been highly questionable, and Ricky Rubio even made such comments about him. He's not absolved from the fact that his teams haven't made the playoffs. But his playoff absence throughout his career can't be used directly as a criticism of him, not with any logical weight.

The Cavaliers have landed a true superstar. And while superstar teams have indeed taken time to gel to reach their apex of excellence, there's every reason to believe that not only are they better with the addition of Love, but that he makes them a contender. His lack of playoff history can be treated as an absolute for maximum hot take effect, but if you reach into the nuance of the situation you realize it's more complicated than that. Get out of the logic circle and embrace the talent level of these Cavaliers.

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