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.