Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 1/25/12
When Kevin Love stepped out behind an exquisitely set screen and launched a 3-pointer that settled through the net at the buzzer, sinking the Clippers on national television Friday night, he turned his back on the rest of the Timberwolves, set his jaw firmly and threw his arms wide. It didn't take long for Love to be swarmed, his teammates rushing to show him some, well, love. Five days later, when it was the organization's turn to do the same, it was not quite the same unbridled embrace. Love was rewarded Wednesday by Minnesota with a four-year, nearly 61 million contract extension that beat (by 13 hours) the deadline that would have allowed Love to become a restricted free agent next summer. But the deal was something of a compromise under the new labor agreement, which promises shorter contracts and more reasonable terms for teams. The Timberwolves did not give Love a fifth year like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose recently received allowing them to save their one-time "designated player" contract for another player, perhaps Ricky Rubio. But Love has the option of opting out after the third year, if he does not like the direction the franchise is headed. As he gathered his belongings and left the visitors' locker room Friday, Love was asked if the shot that beat the Clippers, his first professional game-winner, might have helped his bargaining position, too. A money ball, as it were, in every sense of the word. "It couldn't hurt," he said with a smile. Neither did his 39-point, 13-rebound performance Monday in a loss to Houston. You'd like to think that such decisions are not made on whims, but these are the Timberwolves, so you never know. They curiously drafted three point guards in the first round of the 2009 draft and then shortly after hired Kurt Rambis to run a triangle offense, which has little use for a traditional point guard. Minnesota, since jettisoning Kevin Garnett, has been so dreadful that when it finished last season with the league's worst record capping it with a 15-game losing streak this actually represented a two-game improvement from the previous season. Asked if he would have been agreeable to an extension a year ago, Love thought the question over for a moment. "Maybe not," he said. Now, with the arrival of the charismatic Rubio, a competent coach in Rick Adelman and that long-absent ideal hope it seemed as if the Timberwolves could not afford to lose Love. Adelman expressed hope a deal would be done so the prospect of Love leaving this summer was not "hanging there" for the rest of the season. Yet, while Love, 23, is an All-Star and a candidate to make the United State Olympic team, he is not the sort of dynamic, dominant force that might be expected from a 15-million a year player. He is not Rose or Westbrook, two players who have received max contracts, five-year deals worth about 94 and 80 million, respectively. (Rose could earn more because of a stipulation that allows more money for a player who earns an MVP award on his rookie contract, as Rose did last season.) The appreciation of Love must be found in his substance rather than the spectacular. He is a determined rebounder, a precise passer, an accurate shooter and a willing worker. Those are valuable qualities, but a cornerstone player? "Definitely," Kahn said recently. "We all understand we probably need to identify one more player like that and maybe that player is currently on the roster and maybe he's not. Yes, I hope he's with us for numerous years and somebody who is identified as one of the faces of the franchise." Kahn said the quality he appreciates most in Love is his diligence. After taking just 19 3-pointers (and making 2) as a rookie, Love improved to where he shot 42 percent from behind the arc last season and now takes more than five 3-pointers per game. This season, he arrived 25 pounds lighter "He looks like an underwear model now," said teammate Wesley Johnson and no longer runs out of gas down the stretch, playing a league-leading 39.4 minutes per game. And yet, in spite of the numbers Love posts 24.9 points and 13.9 rebounds he is not the center of the offensive orbit. When Love re-entered the game against the Clippers midway through the fourth quarter, he did not touch the ball (except for a defensive rebound) on six consecutive possessions with the game in the balance. When he finally did, he missed a 3-pointer and then an uncomfortable hook shot over Blake Griffin. What was absent, as Adelman and Kahn acknowledged, is a go-to move that will enable Love to create his own shot in the fourth quarter, when everyone knows where the ball is going. "He's a guy that we center around," Adelman said. "We didn't know it, but Ricky Rubio is another guy that's what we had to find out when I took this job. I had no idea who our go-to guys were. What were we going to do when the game was on the line? We're getting there, we're figuring it out." He is not the only one. Love will be assessing as well. His option to opt-out arrives in 2015, when the contracts of Rubio and Derrick Williams and Adelman expire as well. So, if the Timberwolves can exhale, having secured Love by standing firm at four years, it will not be for long. Players like the rookie Williams must be developed, a supporting cast must be established, and victories must follow in the next three years. The clock is ticking anew.
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