It used to be a private club of tall white men, an invitation only residence with a list. Dolph Schayes made the list. He was a scorer with a high arcing shot and a rebounder. He once scored 50 points in a game and won a NBA title. Bob Petit made the list too. He was one of the great scorers in NBA history, he scored 20,000 points. Bob has two regular season MVP’s and a NBA title. Dave Cowens made the list. The former Rookie of the Year has one regular season MVP, two NBA titles with the Celtics. Add Tommy Heinsohn to the list. He was Rookie of the Year, he has eight NBA titles. Fast forward four decades and there is racial imbalance in the other direction. Still there is a list, one that it is getting shorter and shorter as white players dwindle. On the list is a name no one thought would ever be there. Perhaps that is why his name is written in pencil and not ink because his accomplishments are still to be determined. He is Kevin Love. He is another great power forward, another white player no one can stop.
He is second in the league in rebounding. He is averaging 25 points a game and doing what no one ever imagined. He is one of the top power forwards in a league of explosive Blake Griffin types, dunkers and slashers and rim finishers. He was not supposed to be able to succeed at this level. Kevin Love had the labels all the white players do and it is a product of perception. Kevin was not athletic. He was not explosive. He would not be able to guard quick forwards in the post- only that much has held true in his six year career- the rest is irrelevant because he can shoot from distance. He is averaging 37% from three. Pencil him in for 25 points a game every night. When he was a rookie he had 29 double-doubles. The next year he had 36 double-doubles. The next year he had 64 double doubles. This year he already has 40 double doubles. There is no greater NBA truth than the game is won or lost by what happens in the paint, by offensive rebounding and blocked shots and scoring at the rim. And yet as great as Kevin Love has been in his career, as great as he is right now, how come the Timberwolves are treading water. Why are they a game below .500?
Often a rookie year resolves the debate on who is a bust, who should have been selected over whom, and the tired- if we were to do the draft again this is how we would change things. Kevin Love was drafted fifth by the Memphis Grizzlies and then traded on draft day for O.J. Mayo who was selected third by the Timberwolves. At the time it made sense, it was the basic eye test. O.J. was a one on one player, a creator, he could beat his man off the dribble or hit a three. He played his college ball in Kobe’s backyard, and played Kobe’s position. O.J. fit the game and rightly so was coveted by Memphis. Paradoxically, this logic was flawed. O.J. Mayo was athletic. Kevin Love was a basketball player.
Persistence often trumps talent. In his second year in the league Kevin was a better rebounder per 48 minutes than Dwight Howard. In his third year he had 30 rebounds in a game, the first time in fifteen years a player had 30 rebounds, the last to do so was Charles Barkley in 1996. Everyone was paying attention then. Kevin had thirteen games that year in which he had 20 or more rebounds. He had 24 rebounds against the Lakers, more rebounds than Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom combined. Against the Spurs he had 22 rebounds. It was the same amount of rebounds Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker had combined. Against the Thunder he had 21 rebounds. It was more rebounds than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green had combined. Still the Timberwolves that year lost 56 games.
We know winning is not about just one person. A front office must display trust. In 2012 the Timberwolves declined to offer Kevin Love a max extension of five years. It was mind boggling in its ridiculousness. Kevin was coming off a great year. He had a 43 point, 17 rebound game. He shot 43% from three. Against the Warriors he had 37 points and 23 rebounds which was his fourth 30 point, 20 rebound game of the season. That year his double-double streak ended at 53 games. He led the NBA in rebounding at 15.2. He was the Most Improved Player. He had a career high in scoring, double-doubles, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, 3 point percentage and minutes. He was the first player to average 20 points and 15 rebounds since Moses Malone in 1982-83. But the Timberwolves refused to acknowledge Kevin’s production, perhaps because it made little impact on wins and losses. David Kahn, the general manager at the time, stormed into the players training room with a contract. It was a dare- sign this or else. Kevin eventually signed a four deal with an opt out clause after three but the bitter feelings between management and player persisted. Still, in January he scored 30 points in three consecutive games, the first time he had ever done that in his career. That same month he went into Staples Center and beat the Clippers with a last minute 3 point shot. In March he had a 51 point game in Oklahoma City. The next game he had 30 points and 21 rebounds. Kevin Love finished sixth in MVP voting.
The Kevin Love argument has long erased the commentary about his race or his athleticism or his explosiveness. But it centers on the question of his ability to lead- not to score, not to rebound- but to carry a team to victory. His Minnesota team cannot win close games, they are 1-5 in games decided by three points or less. They cannot beat teams with a winning record, they are 8-18. Basically they beat bad teams and no one else. It is a bit odd because the Timberwolves have talent in Kevin Martin, Ricky Rubio, Cory Brewer and Nikola Pekovic. Kevin Love is their best player but he has only guided them to 23 victories. What does that say about him as a player? Is he worthy of a max contract? Or is he like Pau Gasol when he was 25 years old, a very good player but not the best player on a championship team?
In sports often you abandon what you see because of all the periphery noise surrounding players who are excellent. It is a necessary evil to pick apart everything they do and put it into some sort of context. Kevin Love whose middle name is Wes, named after Wes Unseld a close family friend, Kevin Love with his family ties to the Beach Boys, Kevin Love who has exceeded every expectation for his career, this 25 point scorer and double digit rebounder, Kevin Love is playing his career out, perhaps the days with him in Minnesota are coming to an end. Perhaps it is true that Los Angeles is his wish list, that he just wants to be a Laker. He would not be the first NBA player to hand pick his destination, to try to control his career on that end of things. But often it is not what the players think it is just because it is so hard to win anywhere. You need luck and an absence of injuries and great role players and defense and a championship level coach and even then you may not win.
This is what there is to know. Kevin Love has told the world: I am in the NBA. I can play. Forget the Dolph Schayes list, the Bob Petit list. I want to be on the Kobe Bryant list. The greatest Lakers of all time. Perhaps he will. Perhaps time will tell and come 2015 Kevin Love will be here.