By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
MINNEAPOLIS — The sweat and sacrifice that Kevin Love put himself through over the last four years to reshape his body and his game have brought him to this point.
The doughy 19-year-old is now a lean 24. The dreaded “tweener” has now become by most accounts the best power forward in the game. The stat-monger who lost 230 games in four seasons now has an Olympic gold medal around his neck.
He spent the summer surrounded by stars whose individual accomplishments have translated into team success. As he prepares to begin his fifth season in the NBA, Love knows now is the time for him to do the same with his Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I feel like I’m ready to break through,” Love said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I feel like I have a sense of accomplishment in this league for what I’ve done, but the next step is the playoffs. The next step is really looking at team goals.”
The London Olympics weren’t all fun and games for Love.
Sure, he got to see the sights, play a crucial role on the best team in the world and bring home the gold, his first real taste of championship-level basketball since he left UCLA after his freshman season. But he took plenty of grief from his hyper-competitive U.S. teammates. Love was the only NBA player on the roster without a playoff appearance, and he heard about it all summer long.
But while many of his fellow Olympians had teammates with them in London, either on the U.S. squad or playing for another country, Love has largely been on his own. The Wolves went through a massive rebuilding phase when Love entered the league, bringing in young players, many of whom lacked his desire and work ethic.
“The locker room being so young, I think losing can really take a toll on a team,” said Love, whose Timberwolves open the preseason Wednesday night against Indiana in Fargo, N.D. “Guys at the end of the season just kind of dove into that burden of losing and just stayed there.”
Despite the lack of success, Love pushed to get the maximum five-year contract extension last January. So when the Timberwolves wouldn’t budge on their offer of four years and more than $60 million, he begrudgingly accepted when the team included an opt-out after the third year. The whole negotiation didn’t sit well with Love, who had emerged early in the lockout-shortened season as the new face of the franchise.
“That’s because I wanted to be here,” Love said, slapping his hand on the arm of a chair to stress the point. “I wanted them to say, ‘When people think Minnesota Timberwolves, they think Kevin Love.’ And I felt with my contract we didn’t really do that.”
Owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations David Kahn wanted to keep maximum flexibility with the payroll. So they were hesitant to offer the five-year maximum to Love or any other player, for that matter.
“There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that people didn’t know about and they will never know about,” Love said. “A lot of people looked at me and said, ‘Oh, he doesn’t want a four-year deal?’ No. I wanted to be the guy. I wanted to be THEIR guy. The fact that I worked as hard as I possibly could and made my mark in many different ways, even after last season, I felt I was a little bit slighted. At this point I’m past that now.”
Love’s disappointment has been quelled by the massive facelift Kahn and coach Rick Adelman presided over this summer. Gone are Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph and Michael Beasley, three players Love didn’t think had the focus needed to make the team competitive. In their place are headliners Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko along with role players Dante Cunningham and Lou Amundson, all the type of experienced, professional veterans that Love begged for when last season closed.
He also has dynamic point guard Ricky Rubio when he returns from a knee injury, one of the rising young centers in the league in Nikola Pekovic and Derrick Williams, last year’s No. 2 overall pick, there to give him some help.
Love said hearing his Olympics teammates talk about the postseason made him think, “Man, I’ve got to make it to the playoffs.”
“A lot of people could look at me and say he hasn’t led his team to the playoffs,” he said. “In the past few years, we needed veterans, we needed talent and we needed guys that weren’t going to make mistakes all the time.
“That comes with being young, myself included. I’m not saying I’m better than everyone. It was tough going through all that losing. I think we made the right moves. I think we have a lot of veteran players that know how to play and our staff is just awesome.”
Each year Love has managed to add something to his game to become a more complete player. When asked what he could do to improve this season, Kahn was almost at a loss for words.
“Hard to say because so much of this has been an astonishing and, relatively speaking, rapid ascent for him,” Kahn said. “Just when you think there isn’t really that much more to come, I think Kevin has been able to . prove his doubters wrong.”
Love wants to work on his passing — but mostly his winning.
“It’s just something I’ll always have to fight against the grain on is people doubting me,” Love said. “But I’m going to do as best I can to put on a show for this city, this organization, myself, my family, my friends. Whatever it takes, I’ll do.
“The chase for it all is always the best part.”