Kevin Love drew a box on the wall of his childhood home in Lake Oswego, Ore., and when he couldn't find a pick-up game he threw passes at the box. "Bounce passes, shovel passes, behind-the-back passes," Love said. His middle name is Wesley, after Wes Unseld, a Hall of Fame power forward whose outlet passes were aerial fast breaks. Love took his namesake seriously, studying tapes of the Showtime Lakers and the Celtics passing drills. He grew to be a power forward, just like Unseld, flinging inbounds passes that often traveled half the court. "I know people want the dunks, the crossovers, the sexy stuff," Love said. "But everything for me was based around the fundamentals."
After his rookie season, 2009, the Timberwolves drafted three point guards. Love assumed that at least one of them would share his old-fashioned sensibilities. But the first, Ricky Rubio, stayed in Spain. The second, Jonny Flynn, preferred to shoot. The third, Ty Lawson, was traded to Denver. Over the next two years, Minnesota lost 132 games, most in the NBA.
Love watched Rubio at the 2010 World Championship in Turkey and marveled at his darting eyes, his pinpoint passes. He daydreamed about a point guard who could create for others. Love saw Minnesota general manager David Kahn at a hotel in Istanbul and told him: "Ricky Rubio was a good pick. I like him." He asked Kahn when Rubio would report to the Timberwolves. Kahn told Love to expect him in 2011. "I'll believe it when I see it," Love replied.
Last June, Love walked into Target Center for a workout, and Rubio was finally waiting. "Do you believe it now?" Kahn cracked. Love and Rubio are two of the great specialists in the NBA, the premier rebounder and sublime passer. But Love has demonstrated this season that he does much more than box out. He is scoring a career-high 24.9 points per game, thanks in part to Rubio, who looks for him the way few ball-handlers ever have.
Love played with better point guards at UCLA -- Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison -- than in his first three years in Minnesota. He was left to create his own shot, never his strength, and coaches griped about his conditioning. Love has now lost more than 40 pounds since he left UCLA, the rare power forward who can run with Rubio, but also pop out for three-pointers. On Friday, he sank a game-winning 27-footer at the buzzer against the Clippers, before falling into Rubio's arms. Among Western Conference power forwards, Blake Griffin obviously has the superior vertical leap, but nowhere near the range.
The play was drawn up by Minnesota head coach Rick Adelman, who has known Love since he was on the Lake Oswego High School basketball team with Adelman's son, Patrick. After the Rockets fired Adelman last spring, and the Lakers passed on him, he decided to take a year off. But he was drawn to the Timberwolves, especially Love, who hasn't really been featured since he left Lake Oswego. Unlike most NBA coaches, Adelman does not rely on isolations and pick-and-rolls, forcing players to cut and pass. The style is as suited to Love as it is to Rubio. "I've never had a coach of his caliber," Love said of Adelman. "It's all reading and facilitating." He thinks of himself as Chris Webber and Rubio as Mike Bibby, in a remake of Adelman's Sacramento days.
Minnesota is 7-10, hardly the 2002 Kings, but perhaps more potent than even the commissioner expected. The Timberwolves' first-round draft choice this year, which they sent to the Clippers, was a key trade chip in the Chris Paul deal with New Orleans. It was one of the reasons David Stern approved the Clippers' offer for Paul and rejected the Lakers'. But Clippers general manager Neil Olshey never believed the pick was as valuable as others did, not with Adelman, Rubio and a trimmed-down Love.
"I'd be very surprised if we didn't make a big jump," Love said last month, when I was at training camp for a feature about Rubio in the current issue of the magazine. On the fourth day of practice, Rubio came off a high screen by Love, and fired a no-look pass to the three-point line. Love, who saw teammates nearly impaled by Rubio fastballs, had his hands up. He drained the three and pointed at Rubio, the partner he has sought for most of his career. "Everybody is telling me, 'He enjoys finding you,'" Love said. "I hope he always does."
By Wednesday, Love must sign a contract extension in Minnesota or become a restricted free agent this summer. There is much debate over whether he deserves a maximum contract, but no question about his value to the Timberwolves, who lost Kevin Garnett four years ago and will always struggle to land top free agents. Love's situation is far different than Garnett's, because the Wolves have given him a real chance to succeed, with Adelman on the bench and Rubio at the point. Love may not find as conducive a coach and point guard anywhere. He acknowledged that Rubio is a reason to re-sign.
Love's father, Stan, was a NBA player. Rubio's father, Esteve, was a coach. Although Rubio didn't grow up with a box on his wall, he used to throw passes at a makeshift net in Spain. He and Love come from different continents but similar backgrounds. "I'd rather make two people happy than one," Rubio says, explaining his basketball philosophy. In other words, he would rather feed Love for an uncontested layup than make one himself.
A lot of long NBA relationships have been built on less.