Kevin Love is the unexciting superstar, a performer of mundane methodology. There is no sky-walking monster jam in his highlight reel, no ballet in his jumper. His most charismatic signature move on the basketball court, the rip-and-spin outlet pass that perfectly leads a dashing teammate for a layup at the opposite basket without so much as a dribble, necessarily takes him out of the picture.
But Love has successfully committed himself to mastering the blueprint for offense in the modern NBA. He knows that the three most efficient places to score are down by the rim, out beyond the three-point arc and at the free-throw line after he’s drawn the foul. With an unspectacular but relentlessly successful mix of grit, poise, touch and cunning, he gets to those places and wears out the opposition.
For the hoops geek, it is a style of play to be savored.
A checkered history
For the vast majority of their 25 seasons of existence, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been defined by the absence or presence of their original superstar, Kevin Garnett. With Garnett on the roster, the Wolves went to the playoffs for eight straight years. Without him, they have never won so much as 40 percent of their games in a full single season.
The emergence of Love offered, and still offers, a chance for the franchise to transcend the sobering duality of KG’s legacy in this town. The current season is especially pivotal in this process. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Wolves amassed a collection of complementary talent worthy enough to create a preseason consensus that they could end their long playoff drought.
What has ensued during the first three months of the season should be painfully familiar to longtime Wolves fans. Their resident superstar has shone brightly, yet the team as a whole has only fitfully lived up to expectations, leading to two strains of speculation among the national pundits: Why can’t the superstar lift the franchise beyond mediocrity? And when will the superstar finally leave that frozen tundra for a more glamorous environment?
There are differences, of course. When Garnett was here, the elusive benchmark was getting past the first round of the playoffs; during Love’s tenure, it is simply landing a spot in the postseason. And Garnett was a better, more dynamic and well-rounded player as a Timberwolf than Love, for all of his remarkable accomplishments, has been thus far.
But perhaps the biggest difference has been the relationship between the superstar and the team’s front office. Yes, Garnett expressed enmity toward Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor after he was traded to Boston, and there was certainly frustration and turmoil during his final two seasons in Minnesota. Yet from the moment Flip Saunders took over from Bill Blair as coach during Garnett’s teenage rookie season in 1995-96, KG was explicitly groomed to be the centerpiece of the franchise. His first non-rookie contract set such a generous precedent in a small Midwestern market that it compelled Taylor’s fellow owners to negotiate a new NBA collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. And Garnett infamously held ample influence over his surrounding personnel, helping to get fat contracts for Troy Hudson, Trenton Hassell and Mike James, among others.
By contrast, after Kevin McHale (who acquired Love in a draft day coup) was fired after Love’s rookie season, Love long faced an uphill battle just to earn his due respect within the franchise. President of Basketball Operations David Kahn said he wasn’t good enough to be the best player on a championship team and then hired a coach, Kurt Rambis, who started Love only 22 games in the course of a wretched 15-67 season.
Although Love was finally a regular starter his third season, he was still averaging a mere 28.5 minutes a game — Rambis penalized his playing time in an attempt to motivate better defense — before he became the first player in 28 years to have more than 30 points and 30 rebounds, versus the Knicks in mid-November of 2010.
Then came Love’s first non-rookie contract negotiations. By this time, he was a two-time all-star, a gold medal Olympian and the clear-cut pillar of the roster. He asked for the security of a five-year contract, a plum that can only be granted to one player per franchise, according to the latest collective bargaining agreement. Kahn countered with a four-year offer, and gave Love the option to terminate the deal and become a free agent after three years. Kahn says he was following Taylor’s directive. Either way, it was an act of colossal stupidity, essentially telling your superstar ready to commit for a maximum amount of time, “No thanks. And there’s the door if you want to leave early.”
Injury was then added to insult. Before the 2012-13 season began, Love broke his hand doing knuckle push-ups, an explanation met with disbelief by some members of the Wolves community. Stung, Love pushed back in a cantankerous interview in the national media that took aim at Kahn, the front office, and even his teammates. He came back too soon from the first injury, played poorly, and was injured again, suffering through easily the worst season of his career.
Turning the page
You could tell that both Love and the Wolves management were bound and determined that this season was going to mark a change in their ongoing relationship. After replacing Rambis with coach Rick Adelman two years prior, the Wolves removed Kahn last summer in favor of Saunders, who has gone out of his way to give Love access and input, more along the lines of the old “KG treatment.”
For his part, Love came into this season tight-lipped and businesslike in his relations with the local media, tersely refusing to discuss the previous season and ostentatiously focused on the 2013-14 campaign. Behind the scenes, as Saunders told me in an interview earlier this month, in reference to Love, “I don’t know if I have ever been around a guy, in 17 years, that has been as committed as he has been committed to this organization.”
Sure, there is some hyperbole in Saunders’ comments, fueled by lobbying for his agenda that Love remain with the Wolves and not exercise the option Kahn (and perhaps Taylor) provided him at the end of next season. But an optimist can look at other hopeful signs in the evolution of this relationship.
Love received a surprising amount of blowback from the fans after his negative remarks a year ago, yet it was local fan enthusiasm, brilliantly orchestrated by the Wolves’ public relations and social networking staff, that surprisingly propelled Love past Houston’s Dwight Howard into the starting lineup for the Western Conference at the all-star game next month. It was the most tangible display possible that Minnesota fans had Love’s back.
For his part, Love has steadfastly demurred from the drumbeat of questions posed by lazy pundits working a mob-mentality meme about when he will leave Minnesota and where he will go to play for another team. Because Love would be foolish to say he’s leaving and gets asked the questions even after he claims loyalty to the Wolves, its all gossip-society prattle designed to titillate fans in larger markets with the notion of Love on their ballclub.
For example, Love is most frequently projected to be going to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers, despite the fact that they are paying Kobe Bryant $48.5 million over the next two seasons, when he’ll be 36 and 37 years old and coming off two major surgeries. There is no one else of consequence on the roster and the team has already dealt its first-round picks for 2015 and 2017 and its second round picks for 2014 and 2015. Assuming the Wolves are smart enough to trade Love before the trading deadline next season if it is clear he wants to opt out, Los Angeles has nothing to offer.
Yet there was Love, answering the inevitable question from Jim Rome on a national cable show last week about the attraction of L.A. because of his family ties. That Love pointedly replied that he also has family up in Oregon and “all over the country,” won’t stop the drumbeat.
Wolves fans may remember Garnett endured a similar gantlet of media idiocy. For about six years in a row, Chicago Bulls beat writer Sam Smith banged the drum for detailed trades that would bring KG to the Windy City (because he played high school ball there for a while after leaving his native South Carolina, and because even Chicago writers get to assume smug superiority in comparing their plight to the frigid Minnesota prairie). Toward the end, his breathless scenarios and faux scoops took on an exasperating tone, to the point where he accused Garnett of not wanting to win because he wouldn’t green-light his way to a deal out of Minnesota.
That doesn’t mean Love is going to stay in Minnesota; only that the incessant prattle on the topic won’t divulge or determine anything. Nor should Wolves fans ignore the possibility of Love leaving; on the contrary, they should appreciate his presence with an acuity that doesn’t take him for granted.
By now, any sports fan should realize that what motivates players is money and winning. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the Wolves are still able to offer Love more money on a contract extension than any other franchise. The winning part is more problematical.
My contribution to the media scrum of speculation is that Love is likely to opt out if the Wolves don’t make the playoffs this season. This will require a second-half surge over the remaining 11 weeks and 38 games strong enough to vault Minnesota from 11th to at least eighth place in the Western Conference. It is a stiff challenge given the Wolves’ lackluster showing thus far, but also an early barometer of their long-term future. If they can’t even finish eighth despite a relatively healthy season (notwithstanding the recent injury to Nikola Pekovic) and a talented roster, then Love has a right to question their eventual peak prowess. And the shabby way he was treated early in his tenure here makes it awkward to demand he remain patient now.
A legitimate superstar
Of course there are also fans and pundits who believe Love is overrated, most often using the poor performance of his teams over his career as their primary evidence. Until he finally left Minnesota and immediately won a ring in Boston, Garnett encountered similar skepticism.
Okay, let’s indulge this line of thinking for a moment. Kevin Love has never been a quality defender; in fact often refuses to contest opponents driving to the hoop for fear of foul trouble. He also occasionally aggravates by jawing at referees for not calling fouls when he should be getting back on defense. And, of course, in the midst of his sixth NBA season, he has never played on a winning team.
Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger. At the beginning of this month, the excellent Wolves analyst Ben Polk, who contributes to the website A Wolf Among Wolves, wrote a column pointing out that when Love is on the court, the Wolves’ offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) is better than any team in the NBA, and that when Love sits, Minnesota’s efficiency is worse than any team.
Nearly four weeks later, that remarkable disparity still holds. In the 1,544 minutes Love has played this season, the Wolves score at a rate of 111.9 points per 100 possessions, better than San Antonio’s NBA-best efficiency of 110.1 points per 100 possessions. In the 571 minutes Love sits, the Wolves plummet to 95.2 points per 100 possessions, lower than the NBA-worst Milwaukee Bucks at 98 points per 100 possessions.
Do the math and you come up with a whopping 16.7 extra points scored by the Wolves when Love plays, compared with when he sits. And as a bonus, Minnesota actually allows 1.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Love is on the court, so his defense obviously isn’t that terrible.
Put simply, it is difficult for a franchise to ask a superstar to do more for his team than Kevin Love is doing for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.
Finally let’s consider the question of whether or not Love is too dominant, and thus detracts from the natural synergy of team play. For example, he was the NBA Player of the Month in December, averaging 30 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists, yet the Wolves finished with a losing record of 6-7.
But now flip to January, when Love was clearly part of a process to more fully engage Nikola Pekovic in the offense. For the first 12 games of the month, Pek actually had a smidgen higher usage rate (the percentage of plays “used” by a player when he is on the court) than Love, 25.5 to 25.4. Love’s two-point and three-point shot attempts were his lowest of any month this season, yet his assists held steady and his blocks and steals went up slightly as his turnovers declined.
Bottom line, Love was sacrificing individual exploits in favor of a teammate, ostensibly to improve the Wolves’ play. But Minnesota January record through that first dozen games was 6-6.
Now seems like a good time to mention that Love benefits Pekovic better than vice-versa. Pek and Love are plus 9.0 points per 100 possessions versus the opposition when paired together. For Pek, that is his best performance in any two-player combination — he is plus 5.5 points per 100 possessions versus the opposition overall. For Love, who is plus 8.5 points per 100 possessions versus the opposition, the most productive pairings are with non-shooters like Rubio (plus 9.4 points) and Corey Brewer (plus 9.2 points).
But these are numbers. The better way to viscerally appreciate Love is to watch him in action. So let’s review what he did during the Wolves’ most recent game, Monday night’s win over Chicago.
With Pekovic obviously hobbling from a strained Achilles that sidelined him after just six minutes for the next week or two, Love quickly searched for his shot more assiduously than in previous January contests. After teaming up with Brewer on a pick-and-roll and then a slam-dunk running the floor in transition, he was frustrated a few times by the failure of the refs to call a foul while drawing contact down low. Wolves color announcer Jim Petersen remarked that Love would have to adjust to the officiating, difficult for a player who thrives on drawing whistles.
But Love promptly played through the contact and lack of calls and muscled his way in for a pair of close-in baskets. Less than 70 seconds after Ronny Turiaf replaced Pekovic, Love got the big man involved with a fake hook shot that drew defenders to him but was actually a pass to a wide-open Turiaf for the dunk.
When the Bulls made a run, Love disrupted their substitution rotation by getting their big men in foul trouble, particularly Taj Gibson, Chicago’s best interior defender with Joachim Noah out with the flu. At crunch time in the fourth quarter, he drew a charge with less than four minutes to play and then, with the Bulls closing the margin to five points, bulled his way through two opponents for a clinching layup with 1:10 on the clock.
When it was over, Love had scored 31 of his team’s 95 points, hit all 14 of his free throw attempts and logged a team-high 35:48 minutes. Petersen called it one of Love’s best games as a Timberwolf.
There are 38 of them left this season, beginning with crucial, highly competitive games minus Pekovic against New Orleans and Anthony Davis, Memphis and their tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and on the road to Atlanta with Paul Millsap. He’s the best power forward in the NBA and he plays for the Timberwolves. Enjoy that combination of circumstances for as long as it lasts.