Best Power Forward in the NBA 2013-14

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There was a debate raging on my Twitter feed @DoubleDribbleWP this weekend regarding who the best power forward is today. I did not take part in the discussion because I thought the topic deserved more than 140 characters worth of thought.

The debate centered around LaMarcus Aldridge, the long-armed forward-center post-up and spot up jump shooting specialist for the ass-kicking Portland Trailblazers, Kevin Love, the rebound savant with killer 3 point range and tremendous passability, and Blake Griffin, the multi-time All-Star with a great motor and all-around game who is best known for his devastating above the rim finishes.

The debate omitted the actual best power forward in the league. You know the guy. Won back to back MVPs and Finals MVPs the last two years. Took his talents to South Beach a few years back and now he starts on a front line next to Shane Battier and Chris Bosh and leads the team in rebounds per game. There’s a decent chance you’re wearing his best-selling jersey right now. LeBron James is in fact a power forward this year, as he was last year, and almost indisputably he’s the best player in the league. So while I guess it’s possible to define the role of a power forward and create some criteria to discredit LeBron, let’s just save the time and agree that he’s the best, and we’re actually debating who the second best in the league and first best in the West is.

If we ignore LeBron and look west, and also omit Kevin Durant, who does give minutes at the PF but starts and plays most of his time at the SF, then LaMarcus, Love, and Blake are the best candidates for the top PF spot.

The BBR stats are here.

Per Game:

Player Age MP FGA FG% 3PA 3P% FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
LaMarcus Aldridge 28 37.1 20.6 .472 0.2 .000 4.9 .801 2.4 8.4 10.9 2.9 1.1 0.8 1.8 2.0 23.4
Blake Griffin 24 36.6 15.9 .524 0.5 .375 7.3 .700 2.3 8.3 10.6 3.1 1.1 0.7 2.9 3.4 21.9
Kevin Love 25 36.3 18.6 .464 6.5 .386 7.7 .833 3.7 10.1 13.8 4.2 0.8 0.3 2.5 1.8 26.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/30/2013.

Advanced:

Player Age PER TS% eFG% FTr 3PAr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg WS/48
LaMarcus Aldridge 28 22.5 .514 .472 .236 .008 7.2 24.5 15.9 13.9 1.5 1.5 7.2 28.7 110 104 .165
Blake Griffin 24 21.5 .574 .530 .459 .031 7.2 24.6 16.1 15.1 1.5 1.5 13.1 26.7 110 101 .177
Kevin Love 25 28.4 .595 .532 .412 .351 10.3 31.4 20.3 20.6 1.1 0.7 10.2 28.0 122 102 .278
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/30/2013.

Great per game stats for everyone. Each player is putting up 20 PPG and 10 RPG.  Each player is maintaining at least a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio which is what we expect from a big man in the NBA.

Statistically there’s no question that Kevin Love comes out on top. Love plays the shortest minutes and amasses the highest points, rebounds, and assists per game. His field goal percentage is the lowest of the bunch, but that’s only because more than a third of his shots come from beyond the three point line. His TS% is much better than the others at a beefy 59.5% thanks to his great three-point shooting and a high free throw rate (2nd highest of the group behind Blake).

In terms of play-style, Love has no real historical comparison. His rebounding and passing are reminiscent of Charles Barkley, but he lacks Barkley’s ball-handling skills and low post dominance. He makes up for those two failings with Dirk Nowitzki like shooting touch and basically limitless range. No one has ever done what he’s doing.

The easiest argument against Love is that his team isn’t winning as much as expected (I guess Love isn’t ALL you need – sorry). Even that you could counter with the fact that Kevin’s raw plus / minus is the best of the group:

Love +7.7
LA +7.1
Blake +5.1

It’s kind of hard to fault Kevin for his team’s lack of wins when he puts up the fantastic stat line he does and has the highest on-court point differential (which is all that an unadjusted +/- really shows us). Also when you look at the advanced team stats, Minnesota is actually rated higher than you’d expect. They are a .500 team, but their SRS projects them to be a top 5 in the West, behind both the Blazers and the Clippers but ahead of current playoff-bound teams such as the Rockets and Suns. Maybe the lack of actual wins when the team is performing well on paper should be placed on Love’s shoulders. Perhaps this is one of Bill Simmons’s leadership issues where a team falls apart in key moments. On the other hand it might be what happens when your point guard is the worst shooter in the last 50 years.

The real counterargument to Love’s statistical dominance is the matter of defense. He’s not great at it. The question is whether or not Blake or LaMarcus is significantly better on that end of the floor.

Until the adjusted plus / minus stats are available, it’s tough to credit LaMarus with an overabundance of defensive potency. His team’s defensive rating of 107.6 is in the bottom 10 leaguewide. His personal DRtg isn’t bad at 104, 3.6 points per 100 possessions, better than his team’s average and 1.3 better than the league average; however, both Love and Griffin rank better than him in DRtg. Where Aldridge does surpass them is in versatility on defense because he can defend both the PF and C positions one-on-one. This could be a major advantage in a defensive system that refused to double the post.

Aldridge’s best quality is probably his one on one scoring, which is excellent and the best out of the three. His efficiency marks aren’t as good as Love’s or Blake’s, but in terms of getting a bucket one-on-one against a set defense, he’s probably the best low post scorer in the league behind Brook Lopez. He’s also got that Kevin Garnett / Tim Duncan mid-range jumper game that opens things up for his teammates on pick and pop possessions. He has the type of game that impresses analysts who are former players or coaches because it translates to the post-season where transition scoring is more difficult and half-court buckets against a set defense become a real premium.

Blake Griffin is the only player of the group that the stats really support as a plus defender. His team defensive rating is top 7, just ahead of the Miami Heat, and his individual DRtg of 101 is 4 points better than league average and 2 points better than his team’s average. The Clippers play a couple different styles of defense on the pick and roll, sometimes asking Blake to drop back into coverage and sometimes asking him to show so hard that he actually switches for short periods (just like Kevin Garnett did for Boston under Doc Rivers). His blocks and steals still seem a little low for a player with his athletic gifts, but overall I think he ranks out as the best defender of the three, at least until the adjusted plus minus numbers become available and give some additional clarity.

Offensively Blake is the bottom of three statistically. This is primarily due to his lower usage and higher turnover rate. The Clippers do play at a pretty high pace, 6th fastest in the league, and high pace can lead to more turnovers and a more even distribution of usage. That said, the Timberwolves have an even faster pace than the Clippers do, and Love’s usage and turnover rate don’t suffer.

Blake’s in an odd position in that he plays with a ball-dominant, pass first point guard. On the one hand this can be very good for a player statistically. Karl Malone and Amare Stoudemire both had amazing stats while playing with two of the greatest pick and roll point guards of all time in John Stockton and Steve Nash. But playing with Chris Paul, who controls the ball for 80% of each possession and maintains a fairly even shot distribution for the team, takes opportunities out of Griffin’s hands or puts him in position to have to make snap decisions should Paul get him the ball late in the clock. It’s tough to tell if we should hold him more accountable for any inefficiencies since he has the best point guard in the league setting him up or forgive him for not doing more since he doesn’t have the ball as much. Griffin has certainly expanded his game and improved his mid-range jumper to help the team spacing and take advantage of Paul’s half court game. Blake is also probably the best playmaker of the bunch. Love may be a better passer and more prolific assist-generator, but Griffin is able to create shots for teammates out of the post or on the move and has shown great ability to read the court in transition and find the open man.

All three players definitely have their strengths and weaknesses. Love is the best shooter and rebounder. LaMarcus is the biggest and the best at creating points in the half court. Blake is the most athletic and most dynamic on the move. My inclination is to give the title of best PF in the league not named LeBron to Kevin Love. He certainly still has some things to prove on the defensive end and in terms of team wins, but his on court ability is just so remarkable. Like Barkley and Garnett before him (sorry Minnesota – I lived in Minneapolis during the KG era), Love may need to go to a new team before we can see how good he really is when playing with high caliber teammates, but the tools are all there to be an MVP type player.  I’m not sure I’d say the same for Griffin and Aldridge, though Blake is still developing.

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