Wolves have work to do if they hope to retain big man Love
BOSTON -- There is no style to Kevin Love's rebounding -- no flash, no flair. He doesn't yank down one-handed boards, doesn't elevate and catch them above the rim. He doesn't overpower anyone in the trenches either, not at a listed 6-foot-10 (yeah, right) and with a body that could use the Tony Horton treatment. For the 22-year-old Love, rebounding is a science, a mixture of technique, intelligence and tenacity that he has blended together to transform himself into the best rebounder in the league.
Indeed, keeping Minnesota's Love off the glass has become a virtually impossible task. Big teams, small teams -- no one has had much success. He yanked down 31 rebounds against the Knicks in November on his way to becoming the first NBA player in 28 years to have a 30-point, 30-rebound game. About two weeks later, he grabbed 22 against San Antonio; three nights later, he grabbed another 22 against Golden State. He hasn't had a single-digit rebounding performance since before Thanksgiving, and his average (15.6) is more than two boards per game better than No. 2 on the list, Dwight Howard (13.2). In Monday's 96-93 loss to the Celtics, Love had more first-half rebounds (15) than everyone else combined, and he finished with 24 to go with 12 points. It marked his NBA-best 30th double-double and set a TD Garden record for most rebounds.
"Guys like him," said Shaquille O'Neal, "come around once every 10 years."
Love is the franchise player the Timberwolves have sought since they shipped Kevin Garnett out of town in 2007. He has drawn comparisons to Dennis Rodman and Jayson Williams and, in fact, may be more skilled than both. He is years away from his prime and his developing offense -- his scoring (20.6 points per game) and three-point shooting (42.5 percent) have skyrocketed this season -- suggests the best is yet to come.
The question is, Will those years come with the Wolves?
It hasn't been a smooth two and a half years for Love in Minnesota. He has clashed often with second-year coach Kurt Rambis -- mostly over playing time -- and although Love says the relationship has improved and that the two "are far more on the same page than we were," there are still rocky moments. With two minutes to go in the third quarter against Boston, Rambis sent rookie Wesley Johnson in for Love. An exasperated Love, who felt he had a good matchup with rookie Luke Harangody, argued with Rambis on the sideline until Rambis waved him toward the bench.
The losing has worn on Love, who desperately wants to win. And while Rambis points to the progress Minnesota has made this season and GM David Kahn talks about making the playoffs next season, the Wolves still have a long way to go. The core of the NBA's youngest team includes the unpredictable Michael Beasley and the unproven Johnson. They have lost all confidence in the No. 6 pick in the 2009 draft, Jonny Flynn, and plan to replace him with Euroleague superstar Ricky Rubio next season.
Love sees all of this, has absorbed it, processed it. Which is why he is complimentary of the Timberwolves' progress -- "I can see a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "I couldn't see it last year" -- but he stops short of saying he plans to be in Minnesota for the long term. Love is eligible to sign a contract extension this summer but admits he does think about free agency, about having some control over his future.
"We'll see what happens with what David Kahn and the front office want to do," Love said. "If it's right, it's right. If it's not, it's not. I could end up somewhere else. I just want to play for a team that wants to win at this point. At this point, I just want to win now."
Wherever Love goes, he won't come cheap. The five-year, $60 million extensions signed by Joakim Noah and Al Horford last year will likely be Love's starting point in negotiations. And his deal could be bigger. When asked what kind of contract Love could be in line for this summer, one league executive's answer was succinct: Max.
Then there is this: Love told SI.com that during last summer's World Championship in Turkey he had conversations with USA Basketball teammates Russell Westbrook (who played with Love at UCLA) and Derrick Rose about the possibility of someday teaming up in the NBA. Oklahoma City's Westbrook and Chicago's Rose are also permitted to sign extensions this summer.
"We all talk about playing together," Love said. "It's fun to talk about. When the time comes, we'll assess the situation and figure it out."
Minnesota will have to assess the situation, too. Quickly. The Timberwolves have one more year until Love can become a restricted free agent, one more year to shore up the roster. If they don't, it won't be long before the team Love will be controlling the boards against is them.