Anyone with half a basketball brain agrees that Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love is really, really good. He rebounds, shoots better than most perimeter marksman, and has worked to get himself in better shape (and change from a dumb pencil beard to a fuller look). He's not a perfect player — his defense needs quite a bit of work, for one thing, and there are still questions about his ability to create his own shot — but no one denies that he's an All-Star-caliber player.
What people do deny is that he's worth a max-level contract. As a restricted free agent this coming summer Love is up for a new contract, whether via an extension from the Wolves or an offer from another team with cap room. Although he's a great player whose stats only get better, Love sits in a weird shadow world between acknowledged star and franchise-defining superstar. The Wolves, for what it's worth, seem to think he's not quite at that max level and have offered him an extension just below it. Here's the report from Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
Look for the Timberwolves to offer Kevin Love a $60 million, four-year contract extension within the next eight days.
Love, 23, who is playing for $4.6 million this season, can become a restricted free agent after the season unless he signs an extension before Jan. 25. If he opts for free agency, the Wolves would have the right to match any outside offer. Love also can return to Minnesota in 2012-13 for $6.1 million and become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Wolves President David Kahn isn't commenting on contract talks, and Love says he's unaware of the status of negotiations. The Wolves, though, want to get Love signed by next week.
The choice for Love is really between two pretty great options: he can take slightly less than the max and set himself and his hypothetical children up for life, or he can hold out for the max, see if he gets it, and likely get a similar deal from the Wolves (whether they have to match another offer or not) over the summer. I suppose there's the potential that no one will give Love an offer and he'll have to sign with Minnesota for less, but that seems unlikely if he comes close to averaging his current 25.6 points and 14.3 rebounds per game.
The more interesting question is whether Love is worth a max-level contract. He's a limited player, to be sure, with somewhat major defensive issues and sub-elite athleticism. On the other hand, as Zach Lowe points out at SI.com, Love would probably be worth a max if he maintains his current stats and improves his defense to even just an adequate level. This argument makes total sense, because not every player can average 25 and 14 and make it look natural. Love's a special talent.
And yet, for some reason, it often seems as if Love isn't worth such a gigantic deal. Part of the reason is racial — we've been conditioned over time to view white basketball players with capped athleticism and baby fat as not worthy of being mentioned among the best players in the league. But there's more to it than that. In today's basketball culture, we're conditioned to predict greatness for stars from the team they're in high school, to the point where possible-superstar draft prospects have been suggested as top picks several years before they're actually up for NBA employment. Love, on the other hand, was a top high school recruit who nevertheless had his suitability for the NBA questioned regularly. He's been a work in progress for a long time, continually improving and surprising naysayers (including me) since he was traded for O.J. Mayo on the night of the 2008 draft.
Considering a player to be an NBA superstar in many ways depends on being conditioned to think of that person as a superstar over time. Unlike Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose, Love turned into a star against experts' judgment. Maybe in a year this whole argument will be a no-brainer.