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Steve Aschburner

Kevin Love
Kevin Love is averaging more than 31 points and 14 rebounds a game in March.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Garnett vs. Love: The greatest Timberwolves player ever?


Posted Mar 30 2012 11:37AM

When the Minnesota Timberwolves faced reality, gritted their teeth and made the hard decision to trade away their franchise player in the summer of 2007, they knew the risk involved: It might take decades, certainly a generation or two in NBA terms, to again land a talent as special as Kevin Garnett.

Considering all Garnett meant to the Wolves on the court and off during his 12 seasons in the Upper Midwest -- their only league MVP, the holder of so many club records, the uncommon denominator in their eight playoff appearances and nine .500-or-better seasons (out of 23) -- "maybe never" also was a possibility.

It took all of 11 months. Three hundred-and-thirty one days, to be exact, from the time former Wolves vice president Kevin McHale traded Garnett to the night he acquired the player who would in time replace -- and, some will argue, eclipse -- him.

McHale didn't just fast-track his way to a superstar transplant via free agency. He scouted, then procured a tantalizing rookie who had been neglected by several needy teams. McHale gambled on a June night in 2008 the way he had 13 years earlier, beguiled by the vein of raw talent he saw, at a position he knew so well.

He grabbed another power forward. Another eventual All-Star, MVP candidate and double-double machine. Named Kevin.

"He's so far advanced for a 20-year-old, it's ridiculous," McHale said of Kevin Love early in their first year together. It echoed his thoughts when he walked out of that workout gym in Chicago back in 1995, when a ruse by McHale and Wolves coach Flip Saunders to talk up a 19-year-old high school kid -- to churn the top of the Draft -- turned suddenly serious and they clammed up fast.

The Wolves were fortunate to land Garnett. They got lucky again to land Love. (Remember, the Miami Heat chose Michael Beasley three spots ahead of Love in that Draft.)

But stacking up both of them, separated by those 11 months and, OK, a couple more seasons of development? More like divine intervention.

Rather than just enjoying the sequential wonder of it all, though, Wolves fans have begun hashing out the great debate: Who's the better Kevin?

"It's 'on,' " Timberwolves TV analyst Jim Petersen said Thursday. "I'd been saying KG is still the greatest Wolves player through all of Love's 30 points-and-15 rebounds nights. But after this week, it was 'on.' "

Love's monster week came within a monster month within a Most Valuable Player-worthy season. He scored 51 points in a double-overtime loss at Oklahoma City on March 23, breaking Garnett's single-game franchise record of 47 (set Jan. 4, 2005, vs. Phoenix). He followed that two nights later with 30 points and 21 rebounds against Denver. After going for 28 and 11 at Memphis Tuesday, Love came back 24 hours later with 40 points and 19 boards in a victory at Charlotte.

That's the telecast in which Petersen took the comparison to a new level, wondering if Garnett -- who still figures to be the Wolves' first Hall of Famer -- might no longer be the team's best PF with that particular first name.

It's an intriguing argument, heightened by its timing: Boston plays at Target Center Friday night [League Pass, 8 p.m. ET] bringing together Garnett and Love for only the third time in their careers. And both men are essential to their teams' ambitions, heading into the season's final weeks.

Garnett, frankly, has been a revelation for the Celtics since bending to coach Doc Rivers' wishes post-All-Star Weekend and shifting to the center position. They are 16-7 since the move and his numbers are a big reason why: He's up across the board, averaging 16.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.30 steals, 1.43 blocks and 31.8 minutes, while shooting 53.1 percent. (Before the move: 14.3, 7.5, 2.5, 0.67, 0.79, 30.4 and 49.1 percent). "If you had an All-Star vote at the center spot in the league right now, he'd be right up there," Rivers said.

Love, meanwhile, is wrapping up an MVP month. Through 15 games in March, he has averaged a league-high 31.3 points and 14.1 rebounds, hitting 47.4 percent of his shots overall and 45.1 percent of his 3-pointers. His PER for the month: 30.1.

"If this was Amar'e Stoudemire putting up these numbers with the Knicks around .500, people would be tripping all over themselves to write the stories," said Petersen, a power forward for eight NBA seasons with Houston, Sacramento and Golden State. "If this was Blake Griffin having these kinds of nights and almost singlehandedly keeping the Clippers in contention for a playoff spot, people would be going crazy. ... When you're the only focal point of a defensive game plan but you're still dropping 51 on somebody, that's incredible."

Remember, rookie phenom Ricky Rubio has been done since March 9, his season ended by knee surgery. Against Charlotte, Beasley, Nikola Pekovic and J.J. Barea didn't play either.

Still, the question hangs unanswered: Who's better? Kevin Young or Kevin Old?

Love vs. Garnett
The best player in Timberwolves history is ... ?
Love Garnett
262nd Game 3/28/2012 3/16/1999
Age 23y-6m-21d 22y-9m-25d
Wins 77 124
Losses 185 138
Percentage .294 .473
All-Star Games 2 2
Playoff Appearances 0 2
Starts 180 225
Minutes Per Game 31.6 35.8
Points Per Game 17.2 15.7
Rebounds Per Game 12.1 8.3
Assists Per Game 1.9 3.2
Steals Per Game 0.63 1.42
Blocks Per Game 0.48 1.89
Turnovers Per Game 1.9 2.1
FG-FGA 1513-3293 1737-3562
FG Percentage .459 .488
3FG-3FGA 220-581 18-70
3-Point Percentage .379 .257
FT-FTA 1249-1521 630-856
FT Percentage .821 .736
Double-Doubles 173 90
Triple-Doubles 0 1
30-Point Games 28 5
40-Point Games 4 0
20-Rebound Games 17 1
Source: Minnesota Timberwolves
Through 3/29/12

Actually, a fair comparison isn't Love now vs. Garnett now. It's Love now vs. Garnett then, back when the 7-footer was just four years into his career as one of the NBA's all-time Swiss Army knives of versatility. Love is flexing some of that too, his grunt work under the boards mixed improbably with his feathery touch from the arc. Still, he's not at levels demonstrated at both ends by his predecessor.

Love has the edge in scoring and rebounding [see chart], Garnett to the same point in his NBA travels was the superior playmaker, shotblocker and steals artist. Love dominates the matchup in double-doubles and various "monster" games (nights with 40 points or 20 rebounds).

Garnett has a decisive edge in team success, a 47-game edge in victories and two playoff appearances to none for Love. That, of course, leads to questions about the quality of the Wolves' teams on which each played or plays, the coaches in place and the roster-building done by McHale then and president David Kahn now.

Each player has his "blowout" comparison. For Garnett, it's defense -- and in such a lopsided way that, in my eyes, he still ranks ahead of Love overall, 262 games in. With his wingspan, his instincts, his leaping ability and his quickness to show, recover and help, Garnett already was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate by his fourth season and the quarterback of everything Minnesota did at that end of the court. He could guard five positions -- from Steve Nash or Gary Payton out top to David Robinson or Hakeem Olajuwon up front, with Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki in between.

Love is, let's just say, an improving defender, a guy coach Rick Adelman still would rather hide at that end.

But Love gets a blowout in his "clutch" ability -- and appetite. End-of-game situations with Garnett were very much a LeBron thing; he was most interested in making the "right basketball play" and did not welcome last-shot pressure. That was fine when Stephon Marbury was around, not so fine when journeyman center Dean Garrett was the guy receiving Garnett's passes as the seconds ticked off. One reason Garnett has thrived in Boston is Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have been around to handle those moments.

Love, however, relishes them. He has hit two buzzer-beaters this season, knocking off the Clippers on Jan. 20 and the Sixers on Feb. 19. He seeks out those pressure moments and is willing to score as many points as needed to get a game won on a given night. Garnett often seemed to have a regulator on his scoring, as if too many points might detract from his versatility or make him appear selfish.

Head to head? Here's a simple way to state that: Garnett's team never has lost to Love's team. The headstrong, jaw-clenching Celtics star has refused to lose to Minnesota since the trade, even though he has appeared in just five of the eight games. His averages: 12.4 points and 10.4 rebounds.

Love has flipped that, averaging 10.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in four games, two starts, against Boston. But thanks to various injuries, the two have matched up just twice. Garnett has averaged 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists to Love's 12.0, 8.0 and 2.5.

They'll do it again in Minneapolis Friday night, with an unofficial title -- best Timberwolves power forward named Kevin -- in play, if not exactly at stake.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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