With the news that Kevin Love wants out of Minnesota (shocker, I know...) fans and media members of teams around the league started speculating as to where Love would end up. I've seen rumors about the Warriors, Knicks, Bulls, Suns, Lakers, Cavs, and Celtics. One other team that's been cranking up the proverbially rumor mill has been the Houston Rockets.
With two stars already in place, cap space, and an aggressive front office willing to make the necessary moves to clear the balance sheet, the Rockets are an interesting destination for Love. Pairing the defensively-challenged Love with Dwight Howard would be a dream frontcourt, and both guys have offensive games that complement each other. James Harden running the pick and roll with Love as the "pop" guy would be devastating, and while Terrence Jones showed flashes last season Houston has an opening at power forward for a star heading into the summer. And while Kevin Love will be dangled in front of savage GMs like a raw steak gets dangled in the cage of a lion, another superstar, Carmelo Anthony, will become a free agent, as well.
Anthony would be the late game offense that Houston desperately needs. He can stretch the floor as a power forward and take some of the offense-generating responsibilities off the shoulders of Harden. In addition, he can play the 3 or the 4, offering the Rockets some lineup flexibility and allowing McHale to go traditionally big or modernly small. Both guys would be excellent additions to the Rockets, but which guy would be better?
Let's start with the offensive end of the court because, well, it's more fun. Both guys are elite offensive players, but I give the slight edge to Carmelo. Anthony shot 45% from the field on a robust 21 attempts per game, 40% from 3 on over 5 attempts per game (that's E-LITE!!!), and just shy of 85% from the free throw line at 7 attempts per. In comparison, Love shot 45% from the field on an impressive 18.5 shots/game, 37% from 3 on over 6-and-a-half shots per, and 82% from the foul line on 8 attempts per game. These lines are similar but Anthony gets the advantage because of scoring diversity. This clip does a great job of highlighting his complete scoring arsenal (h/t Bleacher Report):
Melo can score from anywhere on the floor: he's a solid finisher at the rim, and an elite shooter from both midrange and behind the 3 point line. He can be either person in the pick and roll, spot-up shoot, score and create off the bounce, and post-up. Really the only reasonable knock on Anthony's offensive game is that sometimes he stops the ball trying to get isolation; but I'd bet every player in the league would do the same thing if the other options were Ray Felton, JR Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr., and the ghost of Amare Stoudemire.
Love, to compare, is nearly as efficient as Anthony, but he's limited in the spots on the floor where he can be efficient from. He's good in the post and very good from 3, but he lacks the midrange that Anthony brings to the table and can't create his own shot off the dribble on a regular basis, though he can take advantage of match-ups. Love continues to improve as a passer within an offensive system, but he's not a Noah/Gasol type facilitator just yet and goes through his own bouts of holding the ball for 10 seconds at a time. The biggest thing Love has going for him compared to Melo is that Love's game still has the chance to evolve while we're pretty sure we know who Anthony is at this point. Having said that, I still give the edge to the sure thing of Anthony's top 3 offensive capabilities over Kevin Love and his projected incremental improvements.
Trying to figure out individual defense within the collective scheme of two teams that were generally atrocious at that end of the floor is admittedly murky, but let's give it a shot. The Knicks, for the entire season, allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions as a unit and "only" 105.9 points per 100 when Carmelo Anthony was on the court. In a nutshell, that means Melo helped New York's cause on defense to at least a small degree. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves allowed 104.1 points per 100 as a whole, while allowing the same number with Love on the court. That comparison suggests that Love did nothing to improve Minnesota's defense, which, conveniently, is what the Eye Test tells me – sometimes it looks he's defending on ice skates.
Everyone points to Kevin Love's shiny rebounding numbers, and rightfully so, but there are several times a game where he'll turn to box out as his man is shooting and sacrifice a wide open shot in order to be in better rebounding position. Love's prowess as a rebounder is a large part of what makes him so valuable as a player, but too often he's overly concerned with being in a good position over closing out on shooters and contesting shots. He's an elite rebounder even with the nit picking, but he's a below average defender that has zero shot at offering any rim protection.
Comparatively – and I'm about to be alone on an island with this next statement – Carmelo is an underrated defender. Look, he's never going to be a lockdown perimeter defender like LeBron or Paul George, but he can be functional within a team concept, works for position against bigger opponents, and can guard multiple positions. Anthony doesn't get embarrassed on defense like Kevin Love does, and has much better footwork than Love. Neither guy is going to be the defensive anchor that wins you a title, but Anthony is a superior defender to Love thanks to his athleticism, willingness, and basketball IQ.
Even though I've given the edge to Carmelo Anthony at this point in their careers, obviously it'd be better to have the next 8 years of Kevin Love's career compared to Melo's. Anthony's improvements will be minimal, if at all, over the next 2 years and he has a TON of miles on his soon-to-be 30 year old body. Love, 25, is still growing as a player and has an outside chance of becoming a better offensive player than Anthony ever was at some point (though I doubt this). In a vacuum if the Rockets had to choose which player to grab for the next 5 years the answer would have to be Love. Now brace yourself for the big 180°...
HOWEVER, we don't live in vacuums. First, that'd be weird. Second, we have to factor in other NBA-related variables. The biggest thing is that Anthony is going to be a free agent. He can sign a deal with the Rockets and Houston wouldn't have to forfeit any assets other than clearing the cap sheet to be able to afford him. Love, on the other hand, will only be acquired via trade. Given the latest rumors of him wanting out, somebody is going to trade for him and offer him a max contract ASAP. The only way Kevin Love gets to Houston is if the Rockets make a deal to get him from the Timberwolves. The going rate for superstars is, understandably, crazy high and this acquisition would require parting with some combination of Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, and draft picks. And that's to say nothing of the "Love Tax" the Rockets would probably have to pay in the form of taking on a terrible contract Minnesota wants to get rid of.
As a fan, I get it. Every time a new big name becomes available it's exciting to picture him on the roster. But in this case the Rockets would be better off using all their energy to sign Anthony outright rather than try and trade for Kevin Love. I'm sure Daryl Morey will be inquiring about both guys, if he hasn't already, but Anthony is the summer splash Rockets fans should be clamoring for, not Kevin Love.