MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — This was supposed to be the season of Love.
Kevin Love came to training camp with sky-high expectations for himself and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was planning to use last year's breakout performance and the confidence gained from playing a vital role in Team USA's march to the gold medal at the London Games as a springboard to elite status in the NBA.
What has followed has been a monumentally frustrating season filled with injuries and public relations hits, stinging criticism from some once-adoring Timberwolves fans and another loss-filled season for a franchise that just can't seem to catch a break.
"I think there's a lesson to be learned with everything," Love said on Thursday in his first day back at practice since having surgery on Jan. 15. "I think this has been a season that has put a lot into perspective, and whether it's directly or indirectly, just being in touch with a guy like Derrick Rose, talking to him and knowing what he's gone through, it's just tough.
"It's obviously two different injuries, but it really sets the groundwork for how hard I'm going to work this summer, the team included. But eventually we're going to hit a string where everybody's going to be healthy."
The former All-Star had an upbeat disposition in his first meeting with the media in about three weeks, a stark contrast to the downtrodden tone he had earlier in the season while he struggled through his first hand injury. Clearly refreshed by rejoining his teammates after spending the first few weeks post-surgery doing rehabilitation in New York, Love tried to look positively on a season that increasingly appears to be swirling down the drain.
Love has broken his shooting hand twice this season, first in the preseason that caused him to miss most of the first month of the regular season and then again on Jan. 3 in a game against Denver. He is averaging 18.3 points and 14 rebounds and shooting a career-worst 35 percent in just 18 games this season, while the Timberwolves have sunk from a team that expected to make the playoffs to 18-28, buried in 12th place in the Western Conference.
They've won just twice in the last 15 games, with the long-term absences of Love, Brandon Roy (knees), Josh Howard (knee) and Chase Budinger (knee) and more minor injuries to Nikola Pekovic (quad), Alexey Shved (ankle) and Andrei Kirilenko (quad) proving too much to overcome.
"It's hard for him because he wants to be here, especially with these moments that we are getting through," Wolves point guard and close friend Ricky Rubio said. "He wants to be here. But it's hard for him because he's recovering again from another injury. It's tough for him to deal with his own thing and dealing with our things, too. So I think he's going to come back soon and help us a lot."
Making matters worse for Love, he incurred the scorn of local fans after renewing his complaints about not receiving a five-year contract extension last January in an interview with Yahoo. Instead of backing Love against Timberwolves president David Kahn, fans lashed out at him while he struggled to get his rhythm back after breaking his hand for the first time.
The former UCLA Bruin's criticism of the organization and long-known affinity for Los Angeles led some panic-stricken fans to believe that he wanted become the latest star athlete to leave Minnesota for a bigger market, despite the fact that he signed a four-year contract extension in January 2012 that included an opt-out after three years.
"I just think that they need to realize that I love being here," Love said. "I don't know where the misconception came along, but I love this team. I love this organization, and somewhere along the line it went the other way. I think that wholeheartedly they need to realize that I do want to be here. I have fun being here."
Love said at the time that he made many positive comments in his oft-cited Yahoo interview that were not included in the story. He may not have helped himself in January when he posted a picture on his Twitter account of a watch resting on a biography of Lakers great Jerry West. Sensitive fans again assailed him, saying it proved that he didn't want to be in Minnesota. Love said he reads the book for inspiration looks up to West because his father Stan Love played with him on the Lakers.
Still, the 24-year-old appears to have come to the realization that, as one of the two faces of the franchise along with Rubio, his words and actions are under greater scrutiny.
"All I can do is, you know, be happy with and only manage things that I can control," Love said. "And with that continue to be humble. In some cases, just shut my mouth and continue to go out there and work. I think the same applies for everybody on the team, and you know, everybody involved with the organization."
Love has yet to be cleared for contact, but he does hope to be back by sometime in the middle of March. He said his hand feels much better after the surgery than it did when he let it heal on its own the first time, and he's trying to get back to salvage something from this most disappointing season.
"That decision will be made purely on where he is and how healthy he is," coach Rick Adelman said. "The time for that is later. It's not right now."
Love hopes to return with about a month left in the regular season and start putting all the negativity of the first four months of the season behind him.
"As far as me and more importantly the team goes, yeah, I think there's a lot of stuff that we can salvage," he said. "We can continue to get the fans back on our side so they'll have something to root for."
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