“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.”