Q&A: Kevin Love on the T-Wolves’ Future, Returning From Injury, and Nikola Pekovic’s Aura

It has been a rough year for Kevin Love and the Timberwolves in basketball terms. Love broke his right hand twice, first doing knuckle push-ups, and then during a game shortly after returning. Love wasn’t himself in those 18 games, shooting just 35 percent, and the Wolves never really had a chance to compete for a playoff spot as injuries claimed just about every rotation player at some point.

But Love’s off-court life has gone well. The NBA awarded him its Community Assist award in December, an honor that comes with $10,000 to the charity of Love’s choice. He selected St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for pediatric cancer patients around the country and seeks a cure. Cancer has claimed a couple members of Love’s extended family, and that’s in part why he’s involved year-round with St. Jude and formed his Spreadlove campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Love played a large part in the NBA’s St. Jude Week at the end of February, and he chatted with Grantland in an extensive one-on-one about his charity work, the Wolves’ lost season, the future of the franchise, and Nikola Pekovic’s “aura.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.

So, how’s your hand?

The hand is feeling better. I’m going to see my doctor here in a couple of weeks, and go from there. All I can do is keep myself in shape and integrate myself with the team in practice.

Can you really do that — at least walk through some sets with the team? Or is that not ideal, since then you won’t play in the next game?

It’s not ideal. Our practice time with the players that we have out and hurt — it has been tough for us to practice and have a full roster when we do so. For me to be in there is a lost cause at this point. To be handling the basketball and to be shooting and pretty close [to returning] is all I can really do. There’s nothing that can really replicate going out there and playing in a game. It’s still going to be tough for me to really get back in shape when I’m out there again, but I think it’ll be good.

You mentioned a doctor’s appointment in two weeks. Safe to say that’s the earliest you can come back, then?

Yeah, I’ll go and see the doctor in two weeks and get a couple of pictures of what’s going on in the hand, and go from there. But even after that, I’ll probably need some time before I play to get ready.

Can you guys even scrimmage in practice?

That’s what I’m saying — as far as getting five guys on both teams and subs, we haven’t been able to do that.

Let’s take a quick break and discuss your charity work, including what you did for some kids last week, for children dealing with cancer as part of the NBA’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Week. You’ve gotten some big honors for your charity work, and you really seem to put a lot of effort and thought into it.

Yeah … for my coat drive in December, I guess, the NBA gave me the Community Assist award. That was very cool. I’ve been doing the coat drive for five years, and we raised over 2,500 coats for the Salvation Army. As for the St. Jude stuff, the NBA has a St. Jude Week every year, and that’s how I got started with [it]. I developed a relationship with [teenager] Dylan [Witschen], and he passed away. With getting that award, I was given $10,000 to give to the charity of my choice. For me, it’s always easy and great to be connected to St. Jude.

So you donated the money and had some kids come to a game and meet you last week — stand at center court, the whole deal, right?

Yeah. It was great to meet the kids and interact with them throughout the game. These were really sick kids, and it was great to give them something fun to do.

Were they Wolves fans?

At least for that day. They were dressed head-to-toe in Wolves gear. We played a team that’s in some trouble now [Golden State], but it was an exciting game.

Speaking of teams in trouble: You guys have had the most depressing lost season, with so many injuries. You know people are going to ask: Why even come back so late in the season? Does it matter, though, to get at least 10 or 15 games with the Ricky Rubio–Andrei Kirilenko–Nikola Pekovic core before those last two potentially become free agents?

I think it definitely matters for us, heading into the future. It matters to have all of us out there at the same time and relatively healthy. Ricky Rubio is still getting back to being himself. For me, it’s gonna take me a while to get into my rhythm. But sooner rather than later, hopefully I can be myself and really help. I think Pek is getting over his little ailments, and it’s the same thing with AK. It’s important to see that core out there for the organization, and our coaches, all our teammates, and the fan base as well. The last two seasons, man … Last year was very promising, and Ricky Rubio was finally there, and then this year, we had so much hope. We were going to get back to the playoffs. I really believe that. I made that call before the season, and it came crumbling down. We’re just an unlucky team. It’s something we have to bounce back from, and it would mean a lot if we could end the season on a high note.

The fit looks good on paper in Coach Adelman’s offense, with Andrei facilitating from the elbow, Ricky doing his thing, and you can really play anywhere in that offense. Do you think it can work in real life?

It definitely looks good on paper. When we were all out there, even in training camp, when we were healthy and we knew Ricky was coming back soon, we had a team that could really cause some trouble for the top-tier teams in the league. We have a lot of weapons. We just have to see if this is the foundation for the future, and hopefully we can keep all of this team together. This is another big summer, even though we’ve been hearing that same tone every year from the front office about every summer. But we have to see what we have right now.

Do you care where you play in Adelman’s offense? He had you everywhere in your brief time on the floor this season — passing from the elbows, taking cross screens to the low block, shooting 3s, even starting plays in the corner. Is there a spot you really like or really hate?

I think Rick was trying to find me different ways to score and to get the ball. But it was tough coming back from the hand injury and getting back into the rhythm, like I mentioned. Then I started to hit my stride, and I broke my hand again. But I think he’s just finding ways for me to keep expanding my game and getting better.

Did that include passing more from the outside?

Rick did tell me he wanted me to be more of a facilitator — that he was hoping to save me for later on in the season, and not have me carry such a load on the offensive end as the go-to scoring guy all year. And that, in turn, would open up a lot of stuff for everyone else.

Did you respond by saying, “Hey, I can score 25 a game. Let me shoot”?

[Laughs.] Well, I like to look at it as an opportunity. You see a guy like Pek, he can get so many easy duck-ins with guys on his back. And you have AK, who is such a good cutter, and takes advantage of the defense so well, it’s hard not to hit him with those passes when he cuts on the baseline. I was watching a ton of film on AK with one of our assistant coaches during camp, trying to plan out those passes. But for me, I like to take on the mind-set of an assassin. I’ll always have a score-first mentality, because that is my bread and butter on the floor. Rick wants me to be more of a passer, and I can take on that responsibility, too.

Do you want Pekovic to re-sign? Has he talked to you at all about it?

Oh yeah. Pek is a guy … I don’t want to say he’s a recluse or a shut-in, but he’s the type of guy who, when he has something and he likes it, he kind of sticks with it. He likes being around this team, and he’s familiar with us. That’s the word I’m looking for — familiarity. When he’s familiar with something, he kind of sticks with it. I’m hoping we end up signing him. There aren’t a lot of true centers like him left in the league. He’s not gonna block shots like a DeAndre Jordan or a JaVale McGee, or run the floor really fast, or dunk every ball, but he’s the type of guy who’s going to fight and doesn’t really even care if he gets the ball. He’s a great locker-room guy and very humble. I hope he stays.

I don’t want to hear what a great locker-room guy he is. I prefer the myth of Pek as an indestructible, silent monster.

The aura about him is that he’s big and scary, the classic Eastern bloc guy that you don’t mess with, but he’s a really nice guy to be around. But we try to use his size and the fact that people are afraid of him to our advantage. We joke about his image all the time. Whenever he scores, they show that picture where Pek has the red rose in his hand, and they play the theme from The Godfather. He’s just very well liked around here.

He was the star of those karaoke videos you guys did.

I don’t think he has any idea how funny he is to people.

Can you be a top-10 defense with you and Pekovic as the starting front line? I don’t mean to insult your individual defense — I think you’ve improved a lot, and some of the criticism you get is unfair and not really nuanced. But there isn’t a lot of rim protection there …

I don’t think we really need [rim protection] in the starting lineup. Of course, there are some times where we run into difficulties on the defensive end, but it’s about the system more than any one guy. Five is always stronger than one. And we are always going to pose problems when we have the ball, because we’re such an inside-out threat. I’m a believer that it works both ways. Even last year, in a condensed season, for the first 20 or 25 games, we were one of the top group of defenses.

I mean, take Mark Jackson’s teams. They were not known for their defense …

And they’ve been pretty bad lately.

But if you take out their last 15 games, they were pretty solid.

Yup. They hung around the top 10 for a long time.

It’s about a system and a mind-set. That holds true for any team in the league. Even the Heat. I know they have all that athleticism and the best player in the world, but as far as size, they don’t really have a true center. They are playing Chris Bosh there. There are always problems, but you just have to follow your scheme. We definitely can be a good defensive team. Will we ever be elite? Maybe not. But we have guys like AK, who I believe is an elite defender, and as far as help D, we have guys like Ricky and myself who are getting a lot better. And defensive rebounding has a lot to say about it too.

I did a big piece on your MVP candidacy last season, after you had a string of crazy 35-point, 15-rebound sort of games. And when I focused a bit on crunch time, and your team’s crunch-time defense, I found you had committed an unusual number of reach-in fouls on late-game shots — and that your team’s foul rate was really high in crunch time. Were you even aware of that, or did I reach a nerd level in my research that is basically just too minute for players to really think about without clogging their minds?

At Grantland, that’s what you get paid to do, right? Honestly I had no idea, and no sense of that. I just go out there and play. I don’t know if it’s being young and not getting calls, or some other circumstances. I’m just trying to make a play.

I had you at no. 4 on my imaginary MVP ballot, even though you missed a bunch of games late in the season. That’s pretty good, right?

I have to keep working to get to no. 2 or no. 3 next season. Everybody is playing for second at this point.

Ricky Rubio is obviously a very creative passer — he throws passes that a lot of NBA guards don’t throw, and he throws others a beat earlier or later than most guys would. Alexey Shved is the same way, though obviously less polished. He’s just unpredictable, by NBA standards. I guess what I’m asking is, in practices, did you ever get hit in the head with passes?

With Ricky, you just have to be ready. He obviously takes the cake as far as being the better passer between them. But Shved isn’t your classic distributor, as you say. He still has time to learn and adjust, but he’s 24, so he’s not exactly the youngest rookie in the league. But he still has time to adjust. You’ll see him a lot of times, he jumps to pass, and he’s caught in the air a lot. He needs to cut that out of his game. He’s hit the rookie wall now, where there are so many games that keep coming, and he’s just not used to it. This is just me talking, being a teammate and observer, but I think he needs to put on weight as well. When we faced Miami the first time, Dwyane Wade posted him up, and that was kind of like his “welcome to the NBA” moment. He has a big summer ahead of him. For lack of a better term, he has the kind of balls you want in a teammate out there.

One thing I meant to ask earlier: Are you still in touch with Dylan’s family?

Yes, I am. His dad was at our one games just last weekend. I’m in touch with them, I help with their foundation and their connections with St. Jude. I’m really grateful for their friendship. Dylan’s key chain still hangs in my locker.

Filed Under: Kevin Love, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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