He'd felt the sting of a fruitless season in each of his first four seasons in the league. But this year brought a whole new definition to the term "lost season" for Love and the Wolves.
A pair of hand fractures limited him to just 18 games before arthroscopic knee surgery officially ended his campaign in early April.
During the 618 minutes he logged this year, he struggled to even look like a shadow of his former self. A 35.2 field-goal percentage and 21.7 three-point success rate were steep declines from his career averages of 44.9 and 35.2, respectively.
For the first time in his five-year career the fact that his Timberwolves finished outside of the playoff picture may not have been his biggest disappointment.
2012-13 By the Numbers
Kevin Love openly voiced his frustrations with the franchise during an interview with Adrian Wojanrowski of Yahoo Sports.
His criticisms were harsh: "You start to wonder: Is there really a plan here?" They were personal: "There's no question there was an agenda here," (referring to the franchise's decision to not offer him a max contract when it had the chance). And ominous even: "(If) I'm looking at my contract...two years from now, and if I haven't been to the playoffs...it's going to be tough to say, 'Oh well, I'm going to stay here and continue to rebuild.'"
But they were understandable as well. No number better defines Love's dissatisfaction than the number 31. Minneosta's roster was wrecked by injuries this season, to Love, Ricky Rubio and nearly everyone else on the roster.
The team won just 31 games on the year, leaving them 11th in the 15-team Western Conference. Would you believe me if I told you this was actually the most successful of Love's five seasons in Minnesota?
But here's another number worth considering: 18.3. That would be his scoring average for the season, the highest among all Timberwolves. Given his aforementioned woeful shooting percentages, how can anyone expect Love to find confidence with this roster when he's clearly limited by debilitating injuries and still this club's best offensive player?
The number 14.0, though, may be the most telling statistic. Those would be the 14.0 rebounds that he averaged in his 34.3 minutes a night. Dwight Howard took home this year's rebounding crown with 12.4 boards per game.
Anyone who wants to question Love's fortitude, work ethic or approach to the sport can just stop. The guy labored through 18 games, essentially with only one hand, and was still the most dominant rebounder in the NBA.
What They're Saying
Well, Love isn't saying much of anything lately. Save for some motivational words and March Madness commentary, his Twitter account has been awfully quiet for the past few months.
But he did still find a way to spread some hope around Timberwolves nation for next season.
He recently addressed reporters, sans crutches by the way, and laid out his offseason plan to return this franchise to relevance (via Mark Remme of NBA.com):
It's a big summer for us. Just getting back in shape, in a month luckily I'll have a clean bill of health and will be ready to go. I know this team is hungry, I'm hungry myself, and the only thing we can do now is look forward to the future...I'll have a big offseason, hopefully. I go into every offseason thinking this will be the biggest offseason of my life, and this one is no different.
He also detailed the emotional toll of being unable to take the floor with his teammates for the majority of this season. "It's been so hard," he said. "It's been very hard to sit back and watch the guys go to war without being out there and having to sit and watch."
Still just 24 years old, Love's frustrating campaign did little, if any, damage to his lofty stock around the league.
His shooting struggles can be largely attributed to the adjustments necessitated by the broken bones in his shooting hand.
Considering he finished the previous two seasons with a plus-37 percentage from three, he's still the premier stretch forward in the NBA—taking the small forwards masquerading as 4s like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and LeBron James out of the equation, of course.
Combining that perimeter threat with his unwavering attention to the glass leaves Love as one of the most coveted budding stars in today's game. He's a willing passer, even playing without worthy recipients of those looks for the majority of the career, and a fiery competitor.
His public perception took a bit of a hit during his candid interview, but even the subsequent backlash he encountered has quieted down over time.
Ah yes, the elephant in the room.
Love's honest (and spot-on, by the way) assessment of the state of franchise would have never carried even half of its weight without his future uncertainty lurking in the background.
He's under control for the next two seasons, with a cool $30-plus million headed his way (via HoopsHype.com). Come summertime 2015, though, it's anyone's guess as to where he might be taking his talents.
Technically he'll still have another year left on his contract, with a $16.7 million option there for the taking. But with the massive payday expected to be awaiting him, that figure could be chump change by then.
The league's continuing shift toward agile forwards who play with finesse certainly bodes well for Love's bank accounts. Considering he comes with perhaps the league's most complete set of rebounding skills, he's certainly got max contract potential.
Minnesota had the chance to lock him in on such a deal and balked, a decision that eliminates whatever chance it may have had in securing Love at a discounted rate.
And it may have priced him out of the Timberwolves' market as well.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Line
23.4 PPG / 15.0 RPG / 2.1 APG / 45.6 FG% / 37.6 3PT%
Assuming Nikola Pekovic remains with the Timberwolves—far from a guarantee at this point but we'll assume it for argument's sake—Love will finally have someone to help him shoulder the offensive duties. Pekovic's impact would be felt—he did average 16.3 points this year after all—but the Wolves would love to get both of these players heavily involved.
And they've got just the man in place to tightrope the duo's desire for touches in the up-and-coming Rubio.
Love and Rubio have managed to foster a productive working relationship during their two injury-riddled seasons together. Rubio is one of the few transcendent floor generals who can elevate the performance of his teammates with an intricate knowledge of where his teammates are most successful.
It's a fairly simple task with Love—the guy can score from anywhere. Love will still be the focal point of the offense, and thus of the opposing defenses too, so the 47.0 field-goal percentage he managed in 2010-11 may be slightly out of the question.
But his three-point percentage and assist totals will largely fall in line with his career marks. And these massive rebounding numbers would actually mark just his second-best year on the glass.
The Crystal Ball Says...
Love and the Timberwolves should have the opportunity to finally cash in on the massive potential that this franchise has carried into each of the past two seasons.
Injuries can certainly derail any notable progress—something Love and Minnesota fans now know all too well—but health issues aside, this has the look of a franchise on the rise.
But the Timberwolves don't have time to waste. Love wants to taste postseason success, and a pair of one-and-done playoff appearances won't keep him from testing the free-agency waters.
Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, right now it looks like that's the most likely outcome. For all of the promise packed within the confines of the Target Center, the Western Conference is loaded with young, improving talent.
Love has at least one NBA Finals appearance in his future. His desire for success will lead to him constantly tweaking his hoops arsenal, building on what's already a fully loaded skill set.
Barring some drastic changes to the roster, though, it's hard to imagine that ever taking place with this franchise.
Enjoy him while you can, Minnesota fans. The Los Angeles Lakers have zero dollars committed to anyone beyond the 2014-15 season, after all.
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