Injury will prove Love’s value to Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS – There are no simple mathematics to missing Kevin Love.

On Saturday, the Timberwolves lost by five points, 102-97, to the Trail Blazers. Love is good for those five points, easy. He’s good for an average of 18 this season, 30 or more when he’s on. But that comes at the expense, perhaps, of Derrick Williams’ 18 fourth-quarter points Saturday, of Dante Cunningham’s two crucial steals, of a good handful of Nikola Pekovic’s points in the paint. And maybe Love slows the defense. Maybe he’d spark the offense. Maybe he’d, maybe he’d, maybe he’d…

But before you get tied up in complex mathematics that will never yield an answer, know this: The Timberwolves are better off with Love than without him, which is where they find themselves again after he re-fractured his right hand this week. That, I’m afraid, is a thing of black and white. In spite of this slump that for anyone else would be a solid stretch, in spite of his at times strained relationship with the franchise, in spite of everything. The Timberwolves were built around Kevin Love. They are his team, his to take to the playoffs, his to lead and his to be the face of.

Even “slumping” Kevin Love led the Timberwolves in points and rebounds per game before his injury, Williams was quick to point out pregame, just minutes after the power forward’s broken hand was revealed. He’s their vocal leader, too, Williams added, and it’s tough losing a guy like that. It’s a simple equation, and it holds.

On Saturday night, the Timberwolves needed Love. They needed him to log another game, another step toward cracking out of his shooting slump, which has him at 35.2 percent on the season, the lowest mark of his career. He’s had those games where it looks like things are getting better, so many of them that you have to think that things were getting better. They needed him so that they weren’t down by 18 points going into the fourth quarter, so that they didn’t need so massive of a comeback that eventually fell short.

With Love, that comeback might not have fallen short. It might not really have even been of such a great scale. There are no guarantees, but with a player like that, even at his worst, the odds tend to be in a team’s favor, especially when it’s close, especially when its opponent is an utterly beatable team.

There’s been notion, recently, that’s run rampant on Twitter and among some fans. It’s a notion of Love’s expendability, rife with hyperbole and ideas that anyone with half a brain would have called downright mad just months ago. Trade him. Cut him. Who needs him? The ball moves better without him.

And when presented with that notion, that utterly mad, hasty, angry notion that defies numbers and any bigger-picture logic, coach Rick Adelman had some choice words on Saturday.

“Yeah, right,” he said. And he could have stopped there. A two-word scoff conveyed exactly what the Timberwolves coach thinks about that notion. But he continued.

“You don’t replace someone like that. You might be able to do it over a quarter and a half. You try to do it over a five-week period, and it becomes a different animal.”

And that, there, is the crux of the matter. Sure, there are aberrations. There’s a team that went 5-2 to start the season without Love, a team that mounted that successful comeback from 10 points down when the power forward left the game with his hand injury on Thursday in Denver. But things regress to the mean. Now, the Timberwolves are tethered to .500, it seems, unable to break away, and without Love, that looks even more difficult. Without Love, without his minutes and his points and rebounds, players aren’t prepared to play the minutes they’re forced to play for a sustained period of time. Leadership can be lacking, as can energy, when a team is stretched as thin as Love’s absence stretches it.

Because he was going to get better. It was a hand injury, one that was going to take time to ease back from, and it was taking more time than anyone expected. A 24-year-old superstar doesn’t just go from great to good for no reason, not unless he sustains a career-altering injury or event, and this was not that. This was a bump, a hurdle, and maybe it wasn’t being scaled as gracefully as everyone expected. But that’s all it was, and things were going to get better. Now, that’s put on hold again.

“He wasn’t going to continue to shoot like that,” Adelman said. “You saw too many games when he looked like he was about to come out of it.”

“He’s a pretty special player, and it’s just too bad that this (second hand injury) happened in the same year.”

Rick Adelman does not just toss around the word special. He’s much more a man of moderation. He likes solid, and good, and nice and fine. Hyperbole has no value to Rick Adelman. He’s right. Kevin Love is special. Maybe not the way he was playing this season, not with all those shooting struggles. But he was making up for it, rebounding at a better rate than last season, putting in the extra work. But he is special. For anyone who’s paid even a shred of attention over the past years, he is special. He was for so long the only thing worth watching on a moribund team.

He may be a little bit aggravating this year. He may not be producing. He may seem like a bit of a complainer. But he is still special. He is still the beating heart of this team, and Minnesota owes him at least a grace period, at least a few more inches of slack.

Kevin Love isn’t perfect. But give the guy some credit.

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