MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The sweat and sacrifice that Kevin Love put himself through over the last four years to reshape his body and his game have brought him to this point.
The doughy 19-year-old is now a lean 24. The dreaded "tweener" has now become by most accounts the best power forward in the game. The stat-monger who lost 230 games in four seasons now has an Olympic gold medal around his neck.
He spent the summer surrounded by stars whose individual accomplishments have translated into team success. As he prepares to begin his fifth season in the NBA, Love knows now is the time for him to do the same with his Minnesota Timberwolves.
"I feel like I'm ready to break through," Love said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I feel like I have a sense of accomplishment in this league for what I've done, but the next step is the playoffs. The next step is really looking at team goals."
The London Olympics weren't all fun and games for Love.
Sure, he got to see the sights, play a crucial role on the best team in the world and bring home the gold, his first real taste of championship-level basketball since he left UCLA after his freshman season. But he took plenty of grief from his hyper-competitive U.S. teammates. Love was the only NBA player on the roster without a playoff appearance, and he heard about it all summer long.
But while many of his fellow Olympians had teammates with them in London, either on the U.S. squad or playing for another country, Love has largely been on his own. The Wolves went through a massive rebuilding phase when Love entered the league, bringing in young players, many of whom lacked his desire and work ethic.
"The locker room being so young, I think losing can really take a toll on a team," said Love, whose Timberwolves open the preseason Wednesday night against Indiana in Fargo, N.D. "Guys at the end of the season just kind of dove into that burden of losing and just stayed there."
Despite the lack of success, Love pushed to get the maximum five-year contract extension last January. So when the Timberwolves wouldn't budge on their offer of four years and more than $60 million, he begrudgingly accepted when the team included an opt-out after the third year. The whole negotiation didn't sit well with Love, who had emerged early in the lockout-shortened season as the new face of the franchise.
"That's because I wanted to be here," Love said, slapping his hand on the arm of a chair to stress the point. "I wanted them to say, 'When people think Minnesota Timberwolves, they think Kevin Love.' And I felt with my contract we didn't really do that."
Owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations David Kahn wanted to keep maximum flexibility with the payroll. So they were hesitant to offer the five-year maximum to Love or any other player, for that matter.