Kevin Love trains every summer at a high school gym in Santa Monica with Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, peers who can push him even when the workouts are over. All three were picked in the top five of the 2008 draft, but Rose and Westbrook went before Love. All three made massive leaps last season, but Rose and Westbrook reached the conference finals while Love fell short of the playoffs. And all three were due contract extensions by Wednesday. The Bulls signed Rose last month for the maximum five years. The Thunder signed Westbrook last week, also for five years. The Timberwolves did not sign Love until Wednesday morning, about 12 hours before the deadline, for four years.
Only in the fun house of professional sports could a four-year, $60-plus million windfall be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. But in the NBA, where perspective is often suspended, players know each other's contracts. Love acknowledged Wednesday that he asked for five years, and when the Timberwolves balked, he considered becoming a restricted free agent after the season. "It was something I felt strongly about," Love said. In the end, he took the four-year pact, with an opt-out after three. The Wolves, who struggle to attract premier free agents, must hope any awkwardness fades by 2015.
Love said he cannot compare his situation to Rose's or Westbrook's, and in Rose's case, he is right. Rose is the reigning MVP on a championship-caliber team in a top-three market. But Westbrook is still the second-best player in the NBA's smallest market.
Love, despite the mania around Ricky Rubio, is the reason Minnesota has become competitive. Only 23, he is the league's second-leading rebounder and fourth-leading scorer. He has maxed out for the Timberwolves, dropping 40 pounds over the last two years, and becoming as potent from the three-point line as the paint. Rubio enjoys passing to him and Rick Adelman wanted to coach him ever since Love played with Adelman's son, Patrick, at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon.
Of course, small-market teams cannot contend unless they are careful with their resources, and Minnesota was uncomfortable awarding a fifth year to a player who has only excelled for a season and a half. Because the Timberwolves hedged on their commitment, Love did the same, insisting on the opt-out.
Love is obviously encouraged by the club's direction -- he has never had a coach who features him like Adelman or a point guard who spots him like Rubio -- but he is not yet convinced. "I'd like to see where this organization is headed," he said. "I want to see improvement, with myself included."
The re-signing of a franchise player to a long-term deal is typically a cause for celebration, and this is no exception. A year ago, Love seemed ready to become a free agent, and Minnesota braced for another Kevin Garnett experience. The Timberwolves have since built around Love, but instead of a five-year window, they've given themselves only three. Love can opt at the same time Rubio's contract expires. That's no coincidence. The Wolves are on the clock.
Minnesota can at least assume Love won't be the kind of player who fattens up after his first big payday. If anything, he sounds like nearly $62 million will make him hungrier.
"I always play with a chip on my shoulder," Love said. "That's not going to change."