The Timberwolves spent $120 million last summer to add pieces around charismatic stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in a league in which, more often than not, you only go as far as your best players take you.
They signed Corey Brewer for his energy and defense, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger for their shooting and Nikola Pekovic for his muscle and low-post scoring, all in an attempt to finally reach the playoffs after a long decade away.
But if the Wolves indeed are headed that way for the first time since Kevin Garnett wore their uniform, it is Love and Rubio who will lead them with a two-man game — part old-school sensibilities, part new-school invention — that unsolicited teammates and opposing NBA coaches compare to a modern Stockton-Malone combination.
“That’s a pretty bold statement,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said, taken aback at the mention of the Utah Jazz greats, point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone. “I coached against those guys and those are two Hall of Famers who played together for 18 years. They invented, I guess, the pick-and-roll between the two of them.”
That’s not to say anyone is forecasting enshrinement for either Love or Rubio just yet or even that they will play more than a few seasons together, not with unrestricted free agency looming for Love in the same summer of 2015 that Rubio’s rookie contract expires.
Such a comparison is more likely made by some because each pair is — or could be — considered as much one entity as individuals because of their complementary skills, their emphasis on know-how over sheer athleticism and the possibility for a long, successful marriage together.
“They are almost like one deal, the Karl Malone-John Stockton kind of stuff,” teammate Ronny Turiaf said, volunteering the comparison. “They fit together. Their skills and strengths just fit together.”
But the Jazz made the playoffs all 18 seasons that Stockton and Malone played together. They won 50 or more games eight times, and 60 or more games three other times. They also made the NBA Finals twice, in consecutive years in the mid-1990s.
“For the first time I’m not compared to another white guy,” Love said with a grin. “It’s a blessing to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. But we still have not only a lot to prove, we just have to get on the floor together.”
The right stuff?
Rubio is the imaginative, selfless, pass-first creator with an inefficient shot whom Milwaukee coach Larry Drew calls a “throwback” in a league populated with scoring point guards. Love also has old-school spirit, what with those bulky practice knee pads, a middle name given to honor old-time NBA star Wes Unseld and a game played definitely below the rim. But he’s also redefining his position, a “stretch” power forward who combines relentless rebounding with a three-point threat unlike anyone yet seen in the pro game.
“Those are the guys who are going to make the plays for us to win games,” Adelman said. “That’s what makes the really good teams special: They have guys like that who not only get their own shots but create for their teammates.”
But neither Love nor Rubio has yet sniffed the playoffs, and so many questions remain about them because of their young ages and short time together, major injuries sustained by both in their first two seasons together and undeveloped portions of each man’s game:
Can they defend well enough to someday transform the Wolves into an elite team? Are they explosive and athletic enough in a league where players such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant dominate? Can either one create his own shot and learn to win games when three seconds are left and the outcome is on the line?
Can they, in short, carry the Wolves toward not only the playoffs but title contention during their time together in Minnesota?
“I think they can be, I really think so,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “John Stockton and Malone weren’t athletic, but it seemed like anybody who wanted to go anywhere in the West had to go through Utah every year. I see those two, they’re not exactly Stockton and Malone but they could be that duo-type: not athletic, but they’ll beat you with their brains.”
Others are unconvinced.
“I’m not a believer yet,” said former Phoenix General Manager Steve Kerr, now a TNT analyst who won five NBA titles as a player. “They’re intriguing. I always watch them on League Pass because they’re fun to watch. But Love’s not a guy you throw the ball to on the block late in a game. Rubio is a non-shooter. So the game becomes more difficult for them down the stretch when the game slows down and they absolutely need a basket.
“They’re exciting and they’re fun and they have a lot of potential, but you really have to see it first before you can say they’re a contender.”
Both Love and Rubio say they know just what rests on their collective shoulders, particularly in the final seconds when games are on the line.
“We have to see if we can do that,” Rubio said. “The last couple years, we’ve been good at being in the game, but maybe in the last minutes we didn’t find good options for our shots. Maybe because a lot of us were hurt.”
Love and Rubio spent nearly a week together in Los Angeles last summer, working out with a handful of their teammates by day, sharing dinners by night in a conscious effort Love called “making up for lost time” in an attempt to settle “unfinished business.”
He was referring, of course, to Rubio’s knee injury that caused him to miss the final five weeks two seasons ago and the first six weeks last season and Love’s own twice-broken hand that limited him to only 18 games last season.
They both acknowledge they have a unique relationship compared with their other teammates, perhaps because of the responsibility they share and their status as rising young stars in the NBA and international play.
“I love the game and he does, too,” Rubio said. “It’s something we share, something on the court we connect. This year reminds me of first year with Kevin, having so much fun. He’s great. He makes me look good. That’s good for him, for me and good for team.”
Their friendship is being forged on the court, in the locker room and across restaurant tables rather than each other’s homes because Love calls himself a “recluse” and “homebody” who prefers to take a nap, read a book or watch a movie rather than socialize, even though veteran J.J. Barea says Love is making a noticeable effort to become a “better teammate” this season by being more vocal and engaged.
“Not each other’s places, because nobody cooks,” Rubio said, smiling. “That would be hard, so we go out for dinner and spend some time with each other.”
Stockton and Malone played beside each other through four U.S. presidential administrations. Rubio and Love were on the floor for only 28 minutes together last season.
Already there is national media and Internet chatter speculating where Love will play in 2015, after he’s able to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. ESPN commentator Jalen Rose recently spitballed the next stop for Love and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook — college roommates at UCLA — is Los Angeles and the Lakers.
“I don’t even listen to it,” Love said. “I don’t know where they get that stuff.”
If Love and Rubio play together 18 seasons, they still will be playing in Minnesota in 2028, only four years before the team’s about-to-be-extended Target Center lease expires.
Love was asked if he and Rubio talk about the future together.
“We definitely have before, especially heading into training camp,” Love said. “But right now, especially the way things have gone the last two years with injuries, we just live in the present, day by day. So it’s really carpe diem for us.”