Timberwolves outlast Grizzlies in overtime

Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo were traded for one another this past draft night and so it was inevitable that their first meeting would be, for the media at least, a festival of tortured comparisons (see below). But although both rookies played well, Al Jefferson was the head fellow in charge. He made use of his full array of spins, hooks and face-up moves in abusing the huge but rather slow-footed and not very physical rookie, Marc Gasol. Then, relishing the chance to be matched up against a smaller guy after fouling out the Spaniard, Big Al brought the pain on Darrell Arthur, another rook. Jefferson scored 38 points (and hauled in 16 boards) and hit seven of eight shots in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was another fine lesson in simplicity for the Wolves: Al Jefferson is, by far, your best scorer. It stands to reason, then, that you should give him the ball. See how easy that is?

Harder Than You Think

As for the Love/Mayo showdown, little was resolved. As Love repeatedly points out, the two  play such vastly different styles that comparisons are a little tricky. Still: by draft day, Mayo had begun to be regarded as an almost certain star in the making, a late addition to the Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley echelon. And his play so far this year has borne those predictions out. Mayo is a barely 21-year-old guard who is averaging over 20 points per game and shooting over 46%. He is both graceful and explosively athletic, possessed of a gorgeous shot and nasty handle. He can do things like this:


Most surprisingly to those  who hadn't seen his game in person, Mayo is a patient player, taking most of his shots within the flow of the offense. Against the Wolves, he waited until the last minutes of the fourth quarter before taking over, which he did with ease against the over-matched Kevin Ollie.

Love is a very different player at a very different stage of development.  The rap on Love before draft night was his lack of raw athletic ability. This has turned out to be an accurate assessment. He is undersized for his position (6'8"); he's not a strong leaper; he's not terribly quick or nimble. Unlike many of his peers in the lottery, Love still has an un-toned, teenage body and so is considerably less strong than almost all of his opponents. He makes up for some of it with his anticipation and his quick, strong hands, both of which have made him a precocious rebounder (7.8 per game, 4.4 offensive, in only 22 minutes per game). Still, his physical shortcomings have made it hard for him to turn these rebounds into points--not to mention severely hampering him on the defensive end. He's shooting barely 40% from the floor (very low for a forward); he often gets muscled out of position and his shot gets blocked with frightening regularity. I suspect that this will improve as he gains strength and learns the craft. But I think its safe to say that Love will never be a dominating scorer.

So what do we make of this? The story goes that Memphis initiated the trade and that the Wolves initially balked. It was the inclusion of Miller and his outside shot, they say, plus the benefit of added salary cap room that made the deal happen. But unless we think that Miller, now 28, will be a major contributor in however many years it takes this club to be a playoff contender, or that the Wolves will be able to land a significant free agent with all of that cap room (not typically a strong suit up here on the tundra), I think we have to see the trade as, essentially, a swap of Mayo for Love.

Burn Hollywood, Burn

Love's main attributes are the kinds of things basketball coaches and TV announcers (especially college coaches and announcers) tend to slather over. It was impossible, last year, to watch UCLA play, or hear any assessment of the draft, without hearing the talking heads obsequiously laud Love's work ethic, his intelligence, his toughness, his unselfishness.  These traits, you might be aware, also happen to be the ones that Minnesota sports fans go apeshit for.  For a franchise losing ground daily to the local hockey teams (where work ethic and toughness are the coin of the realm), whose fans cheer more loudly for hustle plays than they do for dunks, a team without a real local celebrity save for Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen, an earthbound cheerleader beloved for his ostentatious displays of effort and positive attitude, Love is plainly a perfect fit.

And O.J. Mayo?  Mayo, according to the conventional typology, is not a  hustler, but a scorer (read: selfish). He played for three different high schools (itinerant, disloyal); he's had brushes with the law (angry, undisciplined); in choosing USC for college, he went looking for the big stage (selfish again, and self-promoting--never mind that Love went to UCLA). You see where this is going, right?  In the great, complex multi-dimensional graph of basketball style, race is possibly the most basic axis.  Kevin Love--with his passing skills, his underdog's body, his work ethic, not to mention his upper-middle class upbringing--is seriously white.  And Mayo, with his on-court charisma, his devastating skills, his athleticism--we take a quick look at the highlights and headlines and think to ourselves: dude is black.

I don't mean to suggest that these players' respective races had anything to do, on any conscious or explicit level, with this trade--although I can imagine that the Wolves' front office might have seen Mayo as a tough sell (see: J.R. Rider or Randy Moss). What I do want to point out is how explicit the veiled, between-the-lines racial language has been in defining these two players (not to mention how amazing it is that the two of them happened to be traded for one another--the dynamic would be a lot different if Love had been traded for Rose, a natural point guard, or Russell Westbrook, a defensive stopper) and how that language has obscured some really important facets of their games. Like, for instance, the fact that, at this point in their young careers, Mayo is actually the far better decision maker, that he shows a much better understanding of the pro game than does Love. Or that, so far, Mayo is a better passer and a more efficient shooter.

Wolves fans (or not): thoughts on this trade? as it relates to basketball? race? the team? Holler at me.  

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