This feature was first published in the 122nd edition (2014 - No. 1) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.
On his Twitter account, Love laughed off the backhanded compliment – or the glorified insult – after being praised for his lack of talent. But his reaction ultimately opened up a can of worms, and paved the way for a more philosophical thought: what, exactly, is ‘natural ability’? What is talent?
Two years ago, Kevin Love was on the fast lane to superstardom, maturing as one of the best power forwards in the NBA and developing into a unique talent that could lead the league in rebounds and win a three-point shooting competition as well. But after breaking his hand twice last season and missing 64 games, the breakout was put on hold. The NBA’s reigning ‘player who makes the most of their limited natural ability’ was limited even further.
Pouring in stats has never been a challenge for Love. Here is a player who once had 31 points and 31 rebounds in the same game. Who had the longest streak of double-doubles (53) since the ABA-NBA merger. Who is well on his way to shattering several statistical records, and creating several new ones.
Despite all the on court production, Love gets underrated, complimented for his achievements with a patronizing pat on the back for being able to do it supposedly with lesser natural ability. We could credit hard work and training of course, but if being able to do what he does on a nightly basis isn’t ability, then what is it?
Love has an uncanny sense of positioning on both ends of the floor, always finding himself at the right place at the right time to grab any loose ball or a rebound. Rebounding is an elite art, where only the toughest survive, and one just doesn’t become one of the top rebounders of their generation without having the natural ability to do so.
And for a player who spends so much effort battling for the boards, Love has the unlikely skill of also stretching the floor like a shooting guard. Any opponent daring to defend him has to be strong enough to handle him in the post and quick enough to chase him to the perimeter. Love has become an elite scorer overall, a near-guarantee to drop 20-25 points on any given night. He is also improving as a passer, with assists numbers nearly doubled this season (4.1) compared to his career numbers (2.1). Those outlet passes have earned some classic Wes Unseld comparisons.
There is another, and more important blemish on Love’s career so far, one which he won’t simply laugh off with a joke on Twitter. Despite his burgeoning superstar status, Love has yet to play a single playoff game in his five year career. He may rank as the best active player in the league today without post-season experience. Playing in the stacked Western Conference hasn’t helped his chances, and although the Minnesota Timberwolves had a decent start to the season, they had settled to .500 mediocrities for the season at the time of writing. That may have been good enough for home court advantage in the weaker East; out West, the T-Wolves will have to continue sharpening their edges to turn those close losses into victories and close the gap against the top teams.
Luckily, this year, Coach Rick Adelman has the roster to do just that. With Rubio and Love finally healthy together, Minnesota can begin to find inside-outside cohesion as the season progresses. In Kevin Martin, the team has found the ideal dead-eye shooter to compliment Rubio on the back-court, and Martin has responded by having a career-best start to the season. In the post along with Love stands strongman Nikola Pekovic, who is quickly developing into a dominating force on both ends of the floor and commands the inside whenever Love stretches the floor to shoot from the three-point line.
In the long run, the Timberwolves have another worry. Love’s contract has an opt-out clause, and while Minnesota concern themselves with the hope of keeping him, every other team with cap space and a bigger market will be wooing him to their shores. The answer to all questions is winning: Love can either move to a winning team or make his current team into winners. The key to both outcomes lie in his own hands for now. And the eyes of the rest of the league will closely keeping watch.
One thing’s for sure: if Love continues to play at an elite level, the honours will eventually have to change, from the overachiever with limited abilities, to one of the most talented players in the NBA.