MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 1: Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts to a foul during the second half of a basketball game against the Miami Heat at Target Center on April 1, 2011 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Heat defeated the Timberwolves 111- 92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien /Getty Images)
Kevin Love is already an NBA All-Star, but he might soon draw MVP talk as he leads a Minnesota Timberwolves team on the rise.
Kevin Love squelched the concerns long ago. Entering the NBA undersized for a power forward, Love almost immediately cashed the check written by the Minnesota Timberwolves by becoming a stud per-minute contributor behind Al Jefferson. As playing time has opened up in Minnesota, he's taken it to the spotlight, putting up mammoth numbers night in and night out. He won the rebounding title in 2010-11, his first season as a full-time starter. He also earned an All-Star berth and became the first player since Moses Malone to average 20 points and 15 rebounds per game in a season.
But you know all of this. You know that Love is clearly the second-best player from the 2008 NBA Draft, right behind the reigning MVP Derrick Rose. This season, Love is doing it again, with an added wrinkle: he's becoming the most dangerous stretch power forward in the game.
Love is at 25 points per game this season, and he's boosted his scoring by stepping out a bit more. Love is taking five three-point attempts per game, up from 2.9 in 2010-11. And he's hitting them: Love is shooting 44 percent from long-range, up from 41.7 percent last season. The crazy thing about it is that the added perimeter game hasn't affected Love's crazy offensive rebounding at all: he's soaking up 16.6 percent of all offensive rebound opportunities, good for No. 5 in the NBA. He's still above 15 rebounds per game, and is No. 2 in the league in total rebound rate.
Dirk Nowitzki has been the league's most successful stretch four over the past decade and change, but Love is taking it to another level with the deep shooting. It gives Minnesota a dangerous option in transition (which Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio run rather well) and the halfcourt; if you start a pick-and-roll high enough, Love can spring out and spot up extraordinarily quickly.
Rick Adelman, the Wolves' coach, expertly ran the high-post offense in Sacramento with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Brad Miller. None of those three were credible three-point shooters. Love is not quite the passer that the three Kings were, but has solid court vision. Allowing Love to control the ball a little bit up top with the threat of stepping back on motion plays is a real asset for Adelman and the Wolves offense.
Of course, the question that remains about Love concerns his defense. The rub is that his offense is so versatile and all-encompassing that the Wolves can almost afford to allow the team's center to be a defensive specialist. That specialist is going to have to be better at his craft than Darko Milicic is. Chances are, if the Nowitzki mold is followed, that the Wolves will also need a credible defender at small forward. Michael Beasley isn't remotely close to that, and it remains to be seen if rookie Derrick Williams will get there. Adelman's previous successes also relied on sharpshooting from the guard positions -- think Mike Bibby for the 2001-2004 Kings -- and, as of right now, that's on Wes Johnson and Wayne Ellington. But Love is such a good shooter that the Wolves could emphasize defense and playmaking in the backcourt; Rubio is the future at point guard, and offers the latter. Johnson looks like a nice prospect on the defensive end.
Once the core around Love solidifies, we'll have a better view of how the basketball world sees him: a solid All-Star caliber big man, or one of the very best players in the NBA. Based on box scores, he should have been in the MVP conversation -- not the pole position or finalist club, but conversation -- last season. He's improved, and the Wolves will be better, and so he will like belong in the conversation again. Will he get there? Will we someday question the belief that Rose is the 2008 Draft's best player? As of now, it sure looks like it.