Just in time, help has arrived for Wolves’ Love

MANKATO, Minn. — Andrei Kirilenko will be the first to tell you: Kevin Love is a superstar. Ask the veteran forward why he chose the Timberwolves, and he’ll give a number of reasons. Every time, he lists Love among them.

Why? Because, of course, he’s a superstar.

At the end of last season, president of basketball operations David Kahn and coach Rick Adelman began almost immediately to discuss the changes they needed to make in the offseason, and as they rattled off their list of needs, they peppered it with a new hope. With Love’s breakout season, they reasoned, the Timberwolves were perhaps becoming the kind of team other players would want to be part of.  In the course of a season, Love went from a talent to one of the league’s best, a carrot to dangle in front of prospective free agents.

The Timberwolves were getting what they wanted from Love. They were getting the attention and some weird kind of cache. They were getting the second-most minutes per game of any player in the league. They were getting 26 points per game, a player who carried a mediocre team on his back through a season. In many ways, it looked like Love was getting the rough end of the bargain.

This season, that’s poised to change. Yes, Love will make almost $13 million, but still, it’s OK to feel a tiny bit sorry for him. Or at least it’s OK to understand why he might be getting frustrated. He deserves to win as much as any player in the league — in fact, one could argue, he might deserve it more than many — and when he said last April that he was tired of playing Superman, it was his first peep of complaint about the burden he’d shouldered all season. Yes, that burden increased after point guard Ricky Rubio’s season-ending injury on March 9, but really, for the past four seasons, the Timberwolves were more and more Love’s team to carry — or cross to bear.

So as the 2012-13 season begins, we can’t help but wonder: What skill will Superman add next? Every season, it’s been something new, from increased scoring to outside shooting to a radical physical redefinition. This year, there are his assurances that he wants to improve on defense and as a leader, but the tone is different. Addressing deficiencies has become almost impossible, Kahn pointed out, and the chatter surrounding Love is different. Instead of wondering what he can do for his team, his team is now perhaps positioned to do something for him.

“Last year we relied on him so much, for so many things,” Adelman said. “He had to get his 26 points. He had to get his 12 rebounds. He had to be a focal point, especially when Ricky went out. We’re really hoping that doesn’t have to be the case this year.”

Love is the kind of player who will do it all if he can, who even can enjoy being so put upon. But the kind of production that’s exhilarating in the 10th game of the season is grating in the 80th, and if the Timberwolves can work to lessen that load, winning should come more easily. Adelman says he wants Love to become more of a facilitator and a passer, which are developments that would enhance his game even further. Sure, the statistics might dip, but they’ve always carried something of an asterisk. Love was never a real contender for league MVP honors because he played on a losing team, and there was always the question of how such numbers would translate to a team with the depth to make the playoffs. This year might be that test for Love, and if the past is any indication, he might be able to do it all. Except now, doing it all will be so much easier.

“All the guys, they just get it,” Love said. “Now that Ricky’s into his second year, Derrick’s into his second year, Shved having been in the Olympics and played around AK, it’s not just me. We have different guys that can step out there and be vocal and come to make a real difference on this team. It’s not just me. It’s all of us together.”

Us, team, different guys — all words that Love hasn’t been able to use as frequently as he’d have liked throughout his career. But here they are, presenting themselves to him now, as his fifth season begins and he’s just turned 24. This might not be too little, and it’s certainly not too late. When it comes to Kevin Love, it’s time for the dialogue to change. Let him carry the team still, but let the burden be lighter. That’s the key. He’s still the face and the soul of the Timberwolves, and even their new veterans aren’t disputing that. He’ll still be largely responsible for their fate, but for once, he shouldn’t be pushing against a force that’s impossible to stop.

So let’s stop asking what Love has added and start focusing on what his team has changed and will continue to work on. Let’s not think of it as Love and the rest but rather as a team that will defend as a unit and run a system as a unit. That’s not taking away from everything he has done for the franchise. Rather, it’s allowing his efforts to finally matter.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.