Resume: 26.0 points (4th in league), 13.3 rebounds (2nd in league), 39.0 minutes (2nd in league), 48 double-doubles (1st in league), 379 free throws made (4th in league), 460 free throw attempts (5th in league), 45% FG, 37% 3PT, and 82% FT… Team record in games played: 24-31 (2-9 without)… All-Star, 6th in MVP Voting, 2nd Team All-NBA
We’re just a single week away from the 2012-13 NBA season, and unfortunately, three of my top 12 players in the league won’t even be in uniform when their team opens the season. Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose have already been covered in the countdown, and next up on the list is Kevin Love, who broke his right hand doing knuckle push-ups during a personal workout. Totally tragic, but in the big scheme of things the injury isn’t nearly as career altering as the ones that Nowitzki and Rose have suffered. However, this knuckle injury is putting a momentary damper on a year where Kevin Love transformed himself from a “Hey, that guy is pretty damn good” type of player to “Holy crap, this guy is a freaking superstar” level, despite having such limited natural ability.
Let’s flashback to one year ago, well actually, ten months ago since the owners and players tried to put me in a mental institution with the whole lockout situation. Ten months ago we were entering a season where Kevin Love was the reigning runaway winner as Most Improved Player of the Year, after ripping off a record setting 53 straight double-doubles in the 2010-2011 season. That stretch didn’t even include the most eye-opening stat line of the year, Love’s 31 point, 31 rebound game vs. New York. Needless to say, there was a whole bunch of “It’s time for Kevin Love to make the next step hype.” That hype was vindicated when Love put together an eight month stretch of basketball where he solidified himself as the best power forward in the NBA and one of the best basketball players in the entire world. If you’ve never even seen him play all you need to do is like at the stats above and it’s blatantly obvious that he’s an elite player. Look at all of the categories Love had top ten finishes in last year. Points, rebounds, double doubles, free throws made and attempted. Stats don’t always tell the clearest story, but in this case the message is received.
There was hardly any talk of the Timberwolves making the playoffs last season, especially compared to the warranted discussion they have generated this year. When you look at the Timberwolves record last year (26-40), it doesn’t look like one that belongs to a playoff sleeper. But you have to consider two things: Kevin Love missed the last seven games of the year (eleven overall) and the Timberwolves were 2-9 in those games. The second thing to consider is that Ricky Rubio tore his ACL on March 9th. Going into that game vs. Los Angeles, the Timberwolves were very much in the playoff race, sitting at 21 wins and 19 losses.
Despite little media love (pun intended) due to a small market and a not quite elite team, Kevin Love delivered some of the more memorable regular season moments and stat lines in 2012 that most likely will only stand out to true NBA geeks like myself. One of the defining images of the season was Kevin Love with his arms raised soaking in the collective shock of the Staples Center crowd after he hit a DEEP game winning three pointer. This game stands out so much that I can remember being home writing my “Who Should Be On Team USA” piece as Kevin Love put the dagger right into the chest of the Clippers. I can remember switching from the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 games to watch the double overtime Timberwolves/Thunder game that doubled as the most exciting NBA regular season game in recent memory. The Timberwolves, shorthanded due to the loss of Rubio two weeks earlier, needed a big time performance from Love who delivered in a humongous way by putting up a 51 point, 14 rebound, 7 three pointer, one game tying three pointer performance that doesn’t even sound as impressive as it was to watch at the time.
The defining moment in Kevin Love’s eight month stretch of basketball brilliance came in mid-August, not in an NBA game, but in the Gold Medal game of the Summer Olympics. The biggest stars of the day were Kevin Durant (30 points), and LeBron and Chris Paul, who shared closer duties for the game, but the telling story of the Gold Medal game was this: The line-up the United States went to war with in the fourth quarter was Paul, Kobe, LeBron, Durant and Kevin Love. Sure, Dwight Howard was injured and that spot most likely goes to him if he was on the team, but Coach K opted to go with Kevin Love over the other options (and he had options).
I’ve mentioned before that I try not to put too much stock in international play. And the way that Love played in London didn’t change his ranking at all. But Coach K’s decision to have Love in the line-up to close out the Gold Medal game speaks volumes about the way Love has evolved since he came in to the league, and it provides justification that he is without question a full-fledged superstar.