The 2013-14 NBA season will be a make-or-break one for Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love. So it's a good thing the stat-stuffing big man is in the best shape of his career with more than six weeks to go before training camp opens.
According to Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500, Love has dropped some weight and put some serious focus on his overall fitness.
After an immensely disappointing season that saw Love break his shooting hand twice within the span of just a couple of months, it's a great sign that the forward is fully committed to making the most of his next campaign.
His apparent re-dedication couldn't be coming at a more crucial time, either. Both Love and the 'Wolves are at something of a crossroads.
The team has squandered lottery picks, failed to spend wisely and generally prolonged what should have been a relatively short rebuilding process because of some abjectly horrible talent evaluation. In fact, it's not really fair even to refer to what the 'Wolves have done since trading Kevin Garnett in 2007 as "rebuilding," because the term implies some upward mobility.
Since the KG deal, Minnesota has floundered around in the Western Conference cellar, winning less than 40 percent of its games in every season since the 2007-08 campaign.
But now Love is healthier than ever, Ricky Rubio seems fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered two seasons ago, and there's a supporting cast in place that has more talent than any since the Garnett era. New additions Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf provide real depth, while rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng represent hope for the future.
And hey, maybe Derrick Williams will finally do something to prove he isn't a complete bust. Wouldn't that be something?
For all of the new additions and (hopefully) healthy bodies on the roster, Love is still the franchise's linchpin. He's the guy who'll have to prove he's capable of doing more than just putting up gaudy superficial stats; he's going to have to show he can be a leader on a winning team.
The numbers have always been there. According to Basketball-Reference, Love is the only active NBA player to have averaged at least 26 points and 13 rebounds in a season (he pulled off the feat in 2011-12, his last full year).
But to change the course of the Timberwolves' fortunes, Love is going to need to prove that he can perform defensively and make his teammates better on the other end. It's a lot to ask of him, but great players do more than score and rebound.
For what it's worth, Love has gradually transformed himself from a defensive negative into a player who grades out as neutral.
During the 2011-12 season, the Timberwolves were about two-tenths of a point better on D when Love was on the bench, according to NBA.com. That's a perfectly satisfactory figure for a player who improved his team's offensive rating by nearly eight points per 100 possessions when he was on the court.
Oh, and just so everything's clear, I'm totally writing off the 2012-13 season for Love. He played just 18 games and was nowhere near full health in any of them, so his ugly shooting percentages and uninspiring on- and off-court splits aren't even worth discussing.
He'll have to at least maintain that defensive neutrality if Minnesota is going to be a fringe playoff contender, especially because Nikola Pekovic (if he ever signs an extension) isn't much of a defender down low.
What's most important about this upcoming season, though, is that it could go a long way toward determining whether or not Love stays in Minnesota for the long haul. Remember, Love technically signed a maximum-salary deal in 2012, but he deliberately eschewed a guaranteed fifth year because he wanted to preserve an opt-out clause just in case the team wasn't headed in the right direction.
He'll certainly have a lot to do with the Wolves' direction this year, but if it appears to Love that the team isn't capable of taking a major step forward in the short term, he could hit free agency after the 2014-15 season.
That decision might seem like one that'll be made in the distant future, but it's pretty urgent for the Timberwolves to prove to Love that they're a team ready to cast off their history of losing.
Love is in great shape, has the best supporting cast of his career and has plenty to prove. If he's the superstar that his numbers suggest he is, Minnesota will be in the mix for the eighth playoff spot in the West.
But if things don't break right, the 2013-14 season could be the beginning of the end for Love in Minnesota.
One way or the other, Love will define his legacy with the Timberwolves this season.
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