From the time that the Timberwolves chose Kevin Love over O.J. Mayo, the critics have been slamming the choice. There is a lot of sentiment for why Mayo is the best rookie in the league
this year, but I just don’t see it. Before I get to my reasons why I’m not a big fan of O.J. Hellman’s, let me quickly discuss how statistics in basketball have merit.
In the latest issue of ESPN the magazine, Bill Simmons has a really interesting piece about how the current statistical approach doesn’t really work with the NBA. I think his points have a lot of merit, but having said that, there are stats out there that give a fan a better view of what a player is providing his team. Just like in baseball, where batting average and home runs had too much power in player evaluation until the past decade or two, points and rebounds have been overrated as well. There are stats, though, that do give a better understanding of what a player provides to his team. And now we get to the Love versus Mayo debate.
The most important figure in statistical data for the NBA is ESPN’s John Hollinger. While his player efficiency rankings aren’t a perfect system, it does give a more nuanced view of the game than what you read in the typical box score. I’ve always found Mayo to be a player who is more flash than substance. In Hollinger’s rankings of the NBA rookies, his player efficiency rankings demonstrate my beliefs. Love ranks 2nd on this list, with only Marese Speights of Philly ahead of him. I would argue that since Speights only plays 15 minutes per game, he skews higher than he should, so according to this system, Love ranks number 1. Where is Mayo on this list? Number 17.
Now before you state that this is one fucked up statistical system, let me offer this up. When you look at how it ranks all players in the league, his first 6 players are Lebron, Wade, Paul, Howard, Duncan, Kobe. You might put them in a different order, but it’s hard to argue that these aren’t the 6 best players in the league. Let’s look closer at why Love and Mayo have such different results, despite what the public perception is.
To begin with, Mayo plays 12 more minutes per game, which gives him a chance to score more points per game. The thing which is lost about Mayo is that he’s just not a very good shooter. Sure he makes some great athletic moves, but during my time watching the guy, he jacks up a lot of shit that he shouldn’t. In truth, the best rookie on Memphis is Mark Gasol. What makes Love such an underrated player is the rebounding prowess the guy brings to the game. In rebounds per minute for players who average at least 20 minutes per game, Love is tied for 3rd in all the NBA. Here is what Hollinger wrote about Love before the season.
Scouts have issues with Love for a number of reasons: He’s not a great athlete; he’s not in great shape; he’s had some knee problems; he seemed to tire incredibly easily at UCLA, even with timeouts every four minutes in the college game.
These all are relevant issues, but let me tell you why I liked Love so much and had him rated second on my draft board after Michael Beasley: His skill level is off the charts. His third-year pro PER projected into the high teens, far beyond that of players — like Russell Westbrook and O.J. Mayo — who were considered in the same tier on draft day.
Love basically projects as the new Brad Miller — despite his size he has an outstanding shooting range and will be deadly on the pick-and-pop; he’s a skilled finisher around the basket, and he’s an unbelievable outlet passer whose rebounding numbers should hold up fairly well as a pro.
I think this projection has held up. The 2008 NBA draft was not a particularly great one, as I think the only player who had superstar potential was Derrick Rose. After that, only Beasley and Love seemed to be sure bets for being high quality type players. I don’t believe ranking Mayo 17th is completely accurate, but I do think it does demonstrate some of his weaknesses. While Mayo might be the best rookie on the defensive end this year, it isn’t like the guy is the second coming of Bruce Bowen. For those who believe Mayo has been a superior player to Love, don’t believe the fucking hype. It takes about 3 years to determine who rated out well in a particular draft, but I’m confident by then that Love will be recognized for his abilities. There is little doubt that Kevin McHale has consistently shit the bed as a GM, but in this case, I think he will be proven out.
Johnny Cash doing a Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire. Sublime.