By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Oct 19 2010 8:47PM
Kurt Rambis gave a quizzical look. "What's that mean? What d'ya mean?" the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach said, a few days before 2010 training camp opened.
Well, the imagery that had just been offered up -- Vultures have been circling for Kevin Love -- seemed straight-forward enough to many folks following along over the past year or so. In print and in Internet reports, there was a growing sense that Love wasn't thrilled with what he felt was a limited role on a woebegone team and that, if it persisted, he might be acquirable. Either sooner, via a trade, or later when he hits free agency as his door out of Minnesota.
So vultures, as in rival teams just waiting to pounce.
Rambis wasn't buying it. "Well, I guess I don't understand that," the Wolves coach said. "Kevin Love is going to show an awful lot, with his experience with the USA team. ..."
See, that's the point. Love had a strong but somewhat under-the-radar season for the Wolves in 2009-10, averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds in just 28.6 minutes. Of his 60 appearances (he missed an early chunk of the season with a hand injury), all but 22 came off the bench. For a team that won just 15 games.
It's one thing for role players to grumble and disrupt things when a team is purring along toward the playoffs. But for the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 Draft and a productive player -- we're not talking Kwame Brown or Darko Milicic here -- to be relegated to Sixth Man status on arguably the league's worst team seemed, well, inexplicable. The term "Pearl among swine" came to mind more than once.
Sure, there was positional overlap with Al Jefferson, Minnesota's resident 20-10 man in the low post. But Jefferson logged significant minutes at center, prior to and during last season, yet Love's time on the floor together with him was scarce. To many, it seemed as if Minnesota was trying to show Love who was boss. Or was handicapping itself to land a few more Draft-lottery balls.
To Love, it just seemed frustrating. And he let his feelings spill over at times, in words, in expressions and in body language. Fans generally took his side, despite some obvious areas (shooting accuracy, defense, conditioning) for improvement, but the unhappiness didn't do Love or the Wolves any good. The team's comments about Love and his impatience of youth seemed like empty pats on the head. Even the lottery went against them -- again -- when they slipped to No. 4 while earning the second-most chances.
This summer, Love was invited to the Team USA tryouts and earned a frontcourt spot on a squad that needed his size and play in the paint. His final stats looked meager -- 8.9 minutes per game, 5.7 points, 4.9 rebounds -- but pro-rate those numbers and Love again was a double-double machine.
And this time, he was doing it among some of the best players in the NBA, against many of the best in the world, on a world stage. Not on a sub-zero, snowy, nothing night in January in downtown Minneapolis. No way Wolves coaches or management could hide his light under a bushel in Istanbul.
"I always knew I belonged," Love said. "Just being able to make the team felt great, but being able to produce on that team was something special."
Ever so briefly overseas, Love felt frustrated again and he admitted that he felt more appreciated by this volunteer team of relative strangers than by the employers for whom he had busted his butt for two years. But then he came back to the States and reported for duty at Wolves training camp. His tone and words had changed.
"Just having that positive energy," Love told reporters at the team's media day. "Last year, I stepped away from that. I was, I guess the word is [whining] that I wasn't starting and [was] getting less minutes. With this year there's really no excuse. It's different than the last couple years because now we really have a young team and we really need to start building from here. Because if we can't do that, there's really no purpose."
Between those lines, and within Minnesota's many offseason changes, it's clear that Love assumes his role will be greater in 2010-11. Jefferson is gone, traded to Utah, and even with Michael Beasley brought in to plumb for talent that Miami never fully tapped, Beasley is the one who might be shifting to an unfamiliar spot; Rambis and Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn believe Beasley can play effectively at small forward.
Love, meanwhile, seems encouraged that he still is standing in Minnesota -- he and Corey Brewer are the only players left from the team Kahn took over just 16 months ago.
"I think I'll play a bigger part than I did last year," Love said, vowing to bring more leadership this season. "Regardless of what happens, I need to be here for these guys. I can already tell with the guys we have and the personalities, we're going to grow with this team and we're going to be a lot better. It might not show in wins and losses, but I feel like we're going to be together a lot more than we have my first two seasons."
It sounds copacetic now. Let's just say that, if it doesn't show in wins and losses, any change in Minnesota had better show in Love's minutes and starts. When he talks about togetherness this season, he most definitely means on the court, not the bench.
1. BEASLEY PLAYS AS PROJECTED
Projected in 2008, that is, when some considered him to be a better prospect than that point guard coming out of Memphis (Derrick Rose).
2. DARKO GETS SET FREE
Milicic, a bust in Detroit and a disappointment in second, third and fourth chances, got another nice contract as Minnesota rolled dice.
3. KAHN SLOWS DOWN AS WHEELER-DEALER
Fifteen trades in a GM's first 15 months on the job is no way to establish stability. Now that contracts are cleared, stick with a plan.
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LAST YEAR: 15-67, 5th in Northwest
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
COREY BREWER, GUARD
13.0 PPG | 43.1 FG% | 34.6 3FG%
Transformed himself as a shooter, after hitting 37.4 percent of his shots overall and 19.4 percent from the arc two years earlier.
LUKE RIDNOUR, GUARD
10.4 PPG | 4.0 APG | 90.7 FT%
Mentored Bucks' Brandon Jennings for a year, but at 29, Ridnour still wants to play. J. Flynn's hip surgery provides shot.
KEVIN LOVE, FORWARD
14.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 28.6 MPG
One of 15 players to average a double-double -- playing a little more than half each game. Antsy in his third year for a bigger role.
MICHAEL BEASLEY, FORWARD
14.8 PPG | 6.4 RPG | 1.03 SPG
Beasley has the skills to play SF, Wolves believe, and time on his side – he's still 21 – in the maturity department as well.
DARKO MILICIC, CENTER
8.3 PPG | 5.5 RPG | 1.4 BPG
Swell skills and yet another chance. Just don't compare his early career to Chris Webber's the way David Kahn did.
|Wayne Ellington||6-4||200||G||Second half of season, hit 48 percent from arc.|
|Jonny Flynn||6-0||185||G||Not much development as rookie due to "triangle."|
|Lazar Hayward||6-6||225||F||No. 30 in first round, possible sleeper find.|
ADDED: Wesley Johnson, Lazar Hayward, Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, Darko Milicic, Anthony Tolliver, Michael Beasley, Martell Webster, Kosta Koufos, Sebastian Telfair
LOST: Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson, Ramon Sessions ,Ryan Hollins, Delonte West, Greg Stiemsma
KURT RAMBIS, HEAD COACH
Rambis' pedigree is impeccable, from his "Showtime" playing days under Pat Riley to his service alongside Phil Jackson on the Lakers bench. But his triangle-based offense fuels skeptics and last season's defense was a mess (29th in NBA and worst in Wolves history). Minnesota needs to add at least 10 victories.
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