Kevin Loveand LeBron James compete for a rebound during the NBA All Star game in New Orleans. Photo: AP
The amateur mind-reading bothers Kevin Love the most, even though he caused most of it.
After all, it was Love, the Timberwolves' All-Star power forward, who complained about the Minnesota front office and his four-year contract extension in an interview with Yahoo Sports. And it was Love who negotiated an opt-out clause, potentially making him a free agent after the third year, in 2015.
So it has not taken much imagination for people in and around the NBA to wonder if Love - perhaps the league's best power forward but never a playoff participant since entering the league in 2008 - has decided to bolt the perennially struggling Timberwolves the minute he can for the more glamorous New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers, although neither is doing any better than Minnesota these days.
To Love, however, none of this conjecture makes sense. If he had "checked out," as Love put it, why did he fly back to Minnesota last summer to meet with Mayo Clinic representatives about a new downtown practice center? (The Timberwolves needed a project partner, and Mayo ultimately signed on.)
Why, Love asked, is he the liaison between the players and the center's design team? Why does he sit in on marketing meetings and talk to sponsors? Why did he take out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune on February 9 to thank Timberwolves fans for helping make him an All-Star starter for the first time? And why does he take a continual physical pounding for a team struggling to reach .500?
"A lot of stuff had been said in the past," Love, 25, said after a recent practice at Target Center. "There's even stuff that came out two weeks ago, today, all over the place. I'm invested in this team, and long term, I'm invested in this team. I'm happy here."
Yet the speculation continues. A sideline encounter with filmmaker and noted Knicks fan Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden on November 3, after Love hit an off-balance bank shot to help beat the Knicks - the two clumsily clasped arms as Love ran by - only added to Love's rumored interest in relocating to New York.
Some backstory: Love has known Lee for years, and they spoke that night at halftime. And Love used to watch Lee's film "He Got Game" before his own high school games.
"It was a pretty spontaneous move by me," Love said of his courtside interlude with Lee.
"How many moments can you have like that, where Spike's sitting right there, standing, kind of gawking at you, and you get to give him a little bit of dap?" he said of his greeting. "Take advantage of it."
Minnesota, not surprisingly, is determined to keep Love. Last May, the Timberwolves fired David Kahn, their basketball operations director and the main target of Love's scorn in the Yahoo article, and part of the reason they did so is that Kahn did not give Love the maximum five-year extension he sought.
Kahn's successor, the former NBA coach Flip Saunders, has gone out of his way to repair the damage. Saunders goes to lunch with Love once a week, picks his brain and promotes him as the face of the franchise. At Saunders' invitation, Love represented the Timberwolves at the NBA draft lottery last May.
"Do I have a good relationship with him? I think I do," Saunders said. "I like his competitiveness. I like him as a person off the floor as much as I like him on the floor. Because of that, you want to see a person like that be successful. And I think he has a chance to be special here."
Limited to 18 games last season by a twice-broken right hand, the 6-foot-10 Love entered the All-Star break among the NBA's per-game leaders in scoring (25.8 points, fourth place) and rebounding (13.2, second). Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni called Love's 3-point shot lethal, though on Saturday night, he did not make the final of the All-Star 3-point contest, finishing fifth out of eight competitors. He won the event in 2012.
Saunders has challenged Love, a terrific outlet passer, to average five assists a game. That would lift his averages to more than 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists - numbers attained by Hall of Famers like Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Love is close, averaging 4.0 assists a game, second among NBA power forwards to Charlotte's Josh McRoberts (4.1).
Love also took on more responsibility since the hulking center Nikola Pekovic suffered an Achilles tendon injury last month. He has averaged 31.6 points and 15.1 rebounds in Pekovic's absence.
Love has had at least 30 points and 15 rebounds on seven occasions this season, leading the NBA, and 25 times in his career, breaking Kevin Garnett's team record in 593 fewer games.
"Being the player that I am and the face of this franchise, I've obviously got to carry most of the weight, as I should," Love said.
Minnesota coach Rick Adelman added: "He's been tremendous."
All that was evident in a 109-99 victory over the Lakers on February 4, as Love drew one charge and fell hard to the court twice, the second time injuring his right hip and his neck with four minutes and 10 seconds to play.
But with the Timberwolves ahead by 9, Love refused to come out.
He sank two foul shots after a timeout and two more 25 seconds later. He finished with 31 points and 17 rebounds in about 41 minutes, but he was too banged up to play the next night in Oklahoma City. Love missed another game with a left quadriceps bruise before nearly posting a triple-double (32 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists) in a 117-90 blowout of Denver last Wednesday.
"He's a soldier," veteran backup center Ronny Turiaf said. "He's been very much trying to pick up his intensity and his effort on the defensive end, and that makes a big difference for everybody."
And, sometimes, vocally.
On Jan. 8, when backups Dante Cunningham and J.J. Barea sulked instead of joining timeout huddles late in a 104-103 loss to Phoenix, Love criticized them without mentioning their names.
"We're supposed to be a team," he told reporters.
Saunders said he was "steaming up in my suite" when he saw what Cunningham and Barea were doing and praised Love for taking on the issue.
Despite all his efforts on the court, Love has not exactly pulled his team along with him. The 25-28 Timberwolves are 1-12 in games decided by 4 points or fewer, trail Phoenix by six games for the last Western Conference playoff spot and need a big finish to avoid missing the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. That's a problem. It is hard to imagine Love sticking around if that continues.
"We just need to win," he said. "I'm happy here. I'm happy to win here. As long as we win, it's all good with me because I'm having fun out there."
Pekovic, perhaps Love's closest friend on the team, faced a similar decision last summer and agreed to a five-year, $60 million extension to stay in Minnesota. He worried that Love would choose differently.
"If we can get to the point where we can fight for a playoff position, that would be really good," Pekovic said. "We just need to push better, and I know that will help his decision whether to stay or not."
New York Times