Love has the chance to win he's longed for

BY foxsports • September 25, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS Kevin Love put on his gold medal and shrugged. The ribbon was twisted.

"I didn't put this on the first time," he quietly joked.

It's been nearly two months since Team USA won gold in London, since the flags and the podiums. And so Love shrugged and then smiled, Minnesota's sweetheart returned to his winter home.

But this isn't about mugging for the cameras right now for Love. It's not about the Olympics. It's about his new team and the future, because right now the 24-year-old Timberwolves forward is getting the chance he's been requesting for months, to be the backbone of a team that might actually be able to contend.

This summer was peppered with Kevin Love news from on high, from Las Vegas and Los Angeles and London, where apart from his team and his coach, the pragmatic demands he'd been making all last season sounded somehow different.

Love had been asking for veterans to surround him, for a renewed commitment from owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations David Kahn to his team. The world nodded and agreed, especially after the taste of how fun this could be last February and early March. Love and his teammates need that kind of commitment for the Timberwolves to win, and his words made sense.

But then this summer the comments were presented like new news on a national stage, a bit petulant, a bit combative. And maybe they were more forceful than April's locker-room soliloquies, but it was the same message, a realistic one.

And in the months after free agency started, the message seemed to work. The Timberwolves added — not to the level of the Lakers, but in an aggressive and informed fashion. Love has gotten some semblance of what he asked for, and that's why, right now, he's wisely moved past the Olympics and stopped mugging. It's time for Love to lead.

When asked Tuesday about what he learned as the only member of the Olympic squad with NBA experience and no playoff berth, Love didn't pout. He didn't complain about his woebegotten misfortune, both because he knows better and because that's not who he is. Instead, he turned the question on its head, building expectations and stating, loud and clear, that he's going to make the most of what he's been given.

"I think a lot of people got on me and said, ‘Oh, how's Kevin Love going to say that the Timberwolves are going to make the playoffs this year?' " Love said. "Why wouldn't I say that? Why wouldn't I come out and have positive reinforcement in the locker room, looking at the players we have and looking at the success we had last year before we fought that battle of attrition and had four to five players hurt? Why wouldn't I come out and say, yeah, we're going to make the playoffs?"

He's got a chip on his shoulder, for sure, the kind that every hyper-competitive player carries. It's the best kind of chip, and it doesn't blind him to belief that this year can be different.

"I have faith in this team," he said. "I have faith in what we've done this offseason."

And yes, it's we. The Timberwolves are doing this for themselves and their franchise, but they're also doing it for Love. He put his cards on the table last January, negotiating a player option for the fourth year of his contract when the team wouldn't give him a maximum deal. They need to earn him, and he is quickly rising to the level of the NBA's best. He deserves a supporting cast better than the one he had last year.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the start of this Timberwolves season has been obscured by talk of all that's new. Yes, the roster is radically different, but unlike last year, there is a clearly defined young core that the team is building around. With Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, there are relationships and expectations in place. There are faces for the team, faces that a year ago were a rising star, an unproven Spaniard and a relative unknown. There are still questions of Rubio's health and Pekovic's staying power, but it's hard to deny that they, with Love, have asserted themselves as pieces a team can build around.

"I think we've definitely added value to this team," Love said. "I think that the locker room is really going to be great. I think that the players we have on this team can make an immediate impact stepping in."

In fact, throughout his comments Tuesday, Love spoke more about the locker room than any on-court issues. Yes, he acknowledged that the frontcourt might be weaker than he'd like, but then it was back to locker room, locker room, locker room. If Love learned anything last season and this summer, it was that chemistry matters, and that's what he'll strive to create on this 2012-13 Timberwolves squad. He wants a group that can jell, players who are willing and able to learn from one another and share what they've already learned. That kind of thing was hard to find last year, in part because of personnel and in part because there simply wasn't the collective experience to learn from.

So Love has his experience, in Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko. He has a more solid supporting cast in Dante Cunningham, Greg Stiemsma, Lou Amundson, Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger. He still has some familiar faces from last season – more than you'd think, really – and with all that, he has a chance. It may not be a chance at a championship, not yet, but it's a chance at something bigger and better than the first four years of his career offered.

A petulant Love would demand a championship and want it now. But that's not his point, nor has it ever been. Of course he wants a championship, but he knows he has to build. Right now, Love wants to win, and get on the path toward doing so at the highest level. He's played alongside champions now, and he knows he still needs to get to that level. He recognizes where he needs to go, and, of course, he's not yet satisfied with what he's achieved. Yes, the respect is there – the Olympics proved that – but Love wants more.

"I still have so much to prove," he said. "I still feel like I haven't nearly made my mark in this league for what it should be, so I think I … know for a fact that I'm going to continue to keep working."

That's the Kevin Love that Minnesotans have come to adore, and that's the perfect attitude to lead this team. If its best player is still so far from complacent, then no one else has room to sit still. Love may only be 24. He may not be a veteran leader. But if his personality and work ethic can finally come to characterize the Timberwolves this season, that might be the best development yet in this rebuilding process.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.