Posted Apr 4 2011 10:40AM
It won't appear on the Map of the Stars, or anyone's tour of Los Angeles, or make your must-see list on your next trip to the coast. It's nothing but an old dusty gym, requiring an open window and a breeze to stay comfortable in summertime, which made it the perfect spot for Kevin Love to spend his offseason.
"It's an unassuming place, certainly not the most glamorous," he said. "You would never expect to walk in the door and see three All-Stars in there, working hard and going at it."
There was no better incubator for our choice for Most Improved Player than the gym at 110-year-old St. Monica High School in West L.A., where Love saw Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook waiting for him six and sometimes seven mornings a week last summer.
That's where the groundwork was laid for a breakout season, one that will see Love most likely win the rebounding title at 15.2 rpg and also saw him string together more double-doubles than a busy In-N-Out burger joint. He increased his scoring (20.2 ppg) by almost seven points and rebounding by almost five over his career numbers.
All the grunt work, sweat, elbows and ice bags were worth it. Not only for Love, but for Westbrook, who emerged as a top-five point guard this season and a strong Most Improved candidate; and Rose, the favorite for the MVP award.
"We found a rhythm," said Love. "After we began, we looked at each other and said, 'we're not stopping.' So we went the entire summer, non-stop, to the point where it became second nature to us. It became our gym. When we stepped inside, we went to work. It was a purpose. We all improved and it's a testament to the work we put in."
It was a blessing for Love to train with two point guards, instead of a group of power forwards. In order to keep up with Rose and Westbrook, a pair of human blurs, Love had to improve his quickness and flexibility. And because a premium was placed on shooting in those sessions, it allowed Love to be the hybrid he is now, a 6-foot-10 rebounder who can float outside for 3-pointers (where he made 88 of them at 41.7 percent, both career-high stats). The NBA hasn't quite seen anyone like him, part-construction worker and part-dancer, at least not since Bill Laimbeer -- who, coincidentally, is a Timberwolves assistant coach.
Even Laimbeer never had a season like this. Suddenly, Minnesota could count on two guarantees: frigid winters and double-doubles from Love. They took place nightly and became something we all eventually took for granted. Love was that automatic, with 53 straight double-doubles. And it was all fueled on Nov. 12 by the most memorable statistical game by anyone this season, the "30-30" performance Love called "my welcome-to-the-NBA moment," a strange designation for someone in his third season.
His 31 points and 31 rebounds against the Knicks, the first 30-30 in the NBA in almost 30 years, made Love a household name in NBA -- if not quite a star. And that's the dilemma with Love: What exactly is he? A role player of the highest order, or a star who belongs among the very best at his position in the NBA? Even when he was named to the All-Star team as a replacement, it didn't really address the issue.
Some will say Love hasn't been able to elevate the Timberwolves even with his terrific season, and that's the elephant in the room. The Wolves are 17-60, have lost 10 straight and are still stuck in Lousy-ville. They won 15 games last year and will be lucky to get 20 this season. They'd be this bad with or without Love. Is he merely putting up nice numbers on a losing team, which happens all the time in the NBA? Again, until we see him with a winner, we don't know.
But maybe the biggest endorsement comes from the players themselves; after all, they know a solid player when they see and compete against one. And Love gets lots of love from his peers.
"He's for real," said Rose. "He just needs more help."
"A hard worker," said Kobe Bryant. "A good guy to have on your team."
The best players said Love passed their smell test when he trained against them last summer in the Team USA workouts. That allowed Love another chance to size himself against the upper tier and discover where he stood.
"Being able to practice against them, day in and out, at a high level, and also pick their brain on a number of things was very beneficial for me," he said. "A great experience."
There's also the added bonus that comes with Love: His demeanor. He's always upbeat -- no easy feat when you play for the Timberwolves -- and extremely approachable and fan friendly. Along with Rose, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and a few others, Love is part of the new wave of excellent young players who also bring a refreshing vibe that's free of entourages and attitudes. They're marketable and the perfect ambassadors to take the NBA into the next phase.
Speaking of which, what's next for Love this summer? That's an easy call.
"I know I'm going to work hard to get better and I'm going right back to that gym with the same guys and continue to improve," he said.
The next goal for the Most Improved Player candidate is to make the Timberwolves the Most Improved Team. That'll require some overtime by Love this summer. And a 9-1-1 long-distance call to Ricky Rubio.
Others in the running for Most Improved Player:
Rose, Bulls. Went from very good to great, and carried an injured team to the top of the heap in the process. But voters will put him in the MVP discussion.
Westbrook, Thunder. Hard to dismiss a player who arguably is having a better all-around season than teammate Kevin Durant, an MVP candidate.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers. Few enjoyed a mid-season tear quite like Aldridge, although he's averaging fewer rebounds and blocks than ancient teammate Marcus Camby.
Kris Humphries, Nets. Came from nowhere to emerge as one of the league's better rebounders and is averaging a career-high 10.4 rpg.
Wesley Matthews, Blazers. Campaign has slowed a bit upon the arrival of Gerald Wallace, but he helped the Blazers immensely when Brandon Roy limped in the season's first half.
Dorell Wright, Warriors. He may score more total points this season than his first six seasons combined, not easy on a team with Steph Curry and Monta Ellis. He's averaging 16.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg, but the telling stat is 183 -- his league-leading total of 3-pointers made.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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