NEW ORLEANS – The way Timberwolves three-time All-Star Kevin Love recalls it, he knew he was destined to become a “stretch” power forward well before he helped make the term such a part of the NBA’s new vernacular.
“I think I kind of knew before it happened,” he said.
His father, Stan, once told an 8-year-old child forbidden from playing football that a basketball court’s painted lane could be an alternative world in which he expressed his aggressions.
Then he inspired his young son to shoot from distance, too.
“I used to always watch him,” Love said. “He had a real feathery-soft touch. If they had a three-point line when he played in the NBA, he probably would have played a number of years longer. He taught me how to shoot.”
All these years later, Love has uniquely combined both basketball worlds and become the player — a first-time All-Star Game starter on Sunday in New Orleans, mind you — most pushing forth the evolution of the power-forward position.
Thirty years ago, Karl Malone and Kevin McHale were prototypical NBA power forwards because of their size, strength and low-post moves. Then Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan came along in the 1990s and reinvented the notion of what a big man should be, melding their 7-foot heights with a guard’s inclinations.
And now here comes Love.
He gives new meaning to the “stretch 4” — a power forward who stresses opposing defenses with his ability to play away from the basket — a wave that Nowitzki and Garnett particularly popularized and that Love, Western Conference All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge and players such as New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson and Philadelphia’s Thaddeus Young now surf.
“They’re shooting a lot better than I did,” Malone said of a new generation. Fourth in the NBA in scoring and second in rebounding, Love also is averaging 2.3 three-pointers made per game. On Sunday, he will play alongside both Nowitzki and Aldridge for the West. Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders calls his star the “most unique player in the league,” and that might not be any stretch.
“No one can do it like he can,” Saunders said.
A changing game
Love certainly isn’t the first big man drawn to the three-point shot: Wolves assistant coach Jack Sikma shot it late in his 14-season career, and Detroit center Bill Laimbeer might have been the original stretch big man. There were others, too — Sam Perkins when he moved to Seattle, role players such as Pat Garrity and Terry Mills — but that was back when the game still was played near the basket and the three-point shot as a weapon often was little more than an afterthought.
Times change and so does the game’s culture, pushed along by rule changes more than a decade ago that brought back zone defenses, outlawed defenders’ “hand checks” and gave perimeter players more space and freedom to work.
The gene pool morphed, producing a freakish athlete in Garnett with a center’s height and a small forward’s athleticism and shooting touch. An influx of Europeans — Nowitzki and former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani among them — brought to the NBA big men with a different skill set instilled by fundamentally minded coaches.
Simple mathematics — three points is more than two — played a part, too.
“There’s no question the three-point line has changed things,” Saunders said. “You go watch AAU and high school and that’s all these kids do is shoot threes. That’s why there are no more low-block players because the big guys don’t want to play down there. As they say, the girls all like the long ball. All these players, they all want to shoot threes.”
McHale remembers when power forwards were power forwards and those impostors who could make a 15-foot jump shot and preferred to play outside were called something other than “stretch” players.
“They were called soft,” McHale said.
In his first draft as the Wolves basketball boss, McHale coincidentally selected in 1995 a teenager directly out of high school named Garnett, who helped transform the position as McHale knew it.
“The Karl Malone-type power forwards don’t really exist much anymore,” McHale said. “Garnett and Nowitzki had a huge part in that. They started playing way on the perimeter and they got hard to guard.”
Thinking outside the block
Dallas fans booed on draft night 1998 when their team swung a deal to acquire a tall, skinny German prospect whom Milwaukee selected ninth overall. The guy whose name most of them had never heard went on to revolutionize his position, not to mention bring the city an NBA title in 2011 on his way someday to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Creative thinker Don Nelson coached the Mavericks when Nowitzki arrived in Dallas and Nowitzki calls a man who became, and remains, the NBA’s winningest coach “an offensive genius” and calls him responsible for it all.
“If I had gone to any other system, I don’t know if I would have turned out that way,” Nowitzki said. “They probably would have sent me to the weight room when I first got there, had me lift and put on 20 pounds and I’d be a lot different player than I am now. Nellie gave me that freedom to shoot threes. I don’t think any coach would have wanted to see that 15, 16 years ago.”
Nelson is the coach whose strategies popularized the notion of the “point forward” when he used forward Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey to run Milwaukee’s offense in the 1980s. A decade later at Golden State, he switched Chris Mullin from shooting guard to small forward, a move that sped the game by essentially using a three-guard offense. In the process, Nelson transformed Mullin’s career, just as he would later do in Dallas with Nowitzki.
“When I first got into the league, most of the 4s and 5s [power forwards and centers] were back-to-the-basket players,” Nowitzki said. “Now it’s more a movement game. Everybody can run and finish and move. The game has definitely changed and evolved at the big spots. It has been fun to watch.”
Love grew up admiring Nowitzki’s pure shooting, Garnett’s fadeaway 15-footer and Duncan’s banked shot and always envisioned himself as a player equally effective inside and out, even if his high school coach played him down on the block. At UCLA, coach UCLA Ben Howland asked him to play center and rebound, and his first two Wolves coaches (Randy Wittman, Kurt Rambis) didn’t fully envision the unique player he has become.
“I always knew I was able to shoot the ball,” said Love, who credits recent summers working out with pals Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose for flourishes such as a step-back jumper he has added to his game.
When asked what the NBA will look like when he retires in another decade or more, Love shrugs and wonders who — or what — will be the next manifestation in a game that seemingly grows smaller and more mobile by the year.
“Now that they’ve taken centers off the All-Star ballot, guys who play with their back to the basket are kind of a dying breed,” Love said.
Ever the old-school power forward, McHale holds out hope that the rise of the stretch-4 forward is only a passing phase.
“The game’s ever evolving, but it’ll get back to that,” McHale said. “They’ll be two big, legitimate 6-11, 265-pound power forwards again who can move their feet a little bit and they’ll beat the hell out of all these guys who like to stretch it out and everybody will go, ‘We need a little bigger guy.’ It comes and it goes.”