Handling the Smart Kid in Class: A Suggested Strategy for Kevin Love

Kevin Love is the most stable on-court piece of this franchise and, as its only roster member that currently receives any positive national buzz, easily its most important marketable component currently wearing a jersey. At present, we know little about how the Rubio situation will play out, and we know little about Michael Beasley's ability to put a franchise on his shoulders when given that responsibility, even if we are shown occasional glimpses at his talents. But we know a few things about Kevin Love with absolute certainty. He is a media darling and very engaging in his sometimes-irreverent interviews. He is an elite, elite rebounder, the likes of which are incredibly difficult to find on the cheap. He has excellent court vision for a big man and his range is admirable. He produces with admirable consistency. Finding any of those things is hard enough; finding them in a single individual on a cheap contract is well-nigh impossible. But we also know he has limits that would need to be transcended for him to make the jump from good to great.

First, there are some obvious physical limitations to be dealt with. He will battle his genes for his entire career, both in that his natural body chemistry does not pack weight neatly into lean muscle and in that he will spend much of his career below the rim and faced with a more athletic match-up. On a team that aspires to play quickly and play tight defense, these are not trite issues. He is not a terrible man-to-man defender, but he is not a great man-to-man defender, either. He lacks a go-to post game that moves beyond getting whistles when he jumps into someone after a few relatively awkward shakes and dribbles. Second, there are some psychological limitations to Love's current contributions. With his basketball pedigree and famous relatives, Kevin Love has grown up with opportunities he, at least on occasion, appears to take for granted. This does not make him the least bit exceptional in the modern sports world, but a certain impact on a team's culture is inevitable with that sort of a mindset. There doesn't seem to be a terrific rapport with Rambis, even if the national media seems to imply tension where hard evidence is currently lacking.

So we have a good player who isn't great. Let's assume for the sake of this post that there is a possibility that Kevin Love goes from great rebounding percentages and a charming media personality to an all-around talent in great physical condition, who rotates well and holds his teammates and himself accountable. Assume he can defy the odds on the interior, at least at the level of a Craig Smith. Assume he can become more than the world's greatest glue for a team like ours. How do we get there?

My suggestion is this: that we recognize that Kevin Love is the smartest kid in class.

The smartest kid in class is a joy because he's smart, but he's annoying precisely because he's smart enough to know how smart he is. For me, that's Kevin Love in a nutshell. Some kids spend their entire lives believing with very good reason that they are, in fact, smarter than their teachers. It makes real teaching a difficult endeavor with them. The very smart kids can easily see the mistakes that their teachers are making in class and respond to the status inconsistency (teacher isn't the smartest person in the room but holds all of the authority) either with provocative public challenges or with an apathy that can be caustic, even in subtle ways. In these situations, any instructions to the smart kids that are basically appeals to authority ("Don't do this because I say so.") or rooted primarily in an attempt to make an example of them, precisely because they're smart ("See everyone, even so-and-so has to play along.") are doomed to failure. The smart kid knows that the teacher relies on her when it's convenient and asks her to help the other students with their math or watch the room for a second or two. But it's precisely these gifts that make her useful as a punitive example to a clumsy, insecure teacher eager to show everyone in the room who, at the end of the class, is really smarter.

How then do you teach smart kids? You have to begin with the recognition that, in the main, kids smarter than you learn most things from themselves. They've always had dumber teachers and have had to cope. If they are fortunate enough to interact older kids or peers as smart as they are, they learn by comparing themselves with those kids. But the smart kid has, often with good reason, gathered from a young age that she is and will be her own best teacher, and that teaching authorities are rarely to be trusted at face-value. Their learning is not accelerated by matching their public challenges with punitive teachable moments, but by matching their bravado with new challenges. Only failure will convince them that they belong closer to the pack than they think, and only failure will make them receptive to constructive words from the front of the room. Because most of the time, the repeated claims that they can't learn faster than the rest of the class or that they already have enough to work on is bullshit.

I believe Kevin Love is smarter than Kurt Rambis or David Kahn, and I believe that he knows it. I believe that both Rambis and Kahn probably know it, as well. I believe that's why much of the media finds Love so interesting: he's a very smart player on a historically stupid franchise, and he isn't afraid to hint at how things actually sit. I also believe that's why Love had such a great rapport with McHale and considered him such an incredible resource, even though McHale had a long track-record of failure and Rambis and Kahn have relatively little in the way of searchable histories. McHale developed one of the great post games in basketball history despite athletic limitations and used it to help fuel championships. Although his GM skills were disastrous and his Xs and Os were sometimes dubious, there was an area of his life where he was an absolute, unqualified genius of unquestionably historic proportions. And, for once in his life, Kevin Love got to learn from someone basketball-smarter than he was. That's why Kevin Love learned so much from time with Team USA. He was surrounded by his peers and his superiors, who didn't need remedial instruction and never have needed it. He was surrounded by coaches with long histories of success and immersed in a culture where he could, unless he worked his ass off, be found unable to make the grade. His authority figures were championship coaches, his workout partners were world-class talents.

So my suggestion is this: Kevin Love might not play the defense that commands 38 minutes a game nor be in the physical condition necessary to survive that sort of burn long-term. But he is, and likely always will be, teaching himself. For brains like that, the best instruction comes either from interaction with unimpeachable authority figures (none of which are employed by our organization or are currently on our roster) or from personal failure. If you're Kurt Rambis, and you believe Love can't shoulder the offensive or defensive assignments he pines for, or if you believe that he isn't in the physical condition that allows him to run and run and run all night, I've got a newsflash for you. Kevin Love doesn't care what you think. At all. You are a hustle guy most famous for funny glasses, and he's one of the singular rebounding talents in recent history. Kevin Love has played at the highest levels available to him, and you were a rich man's Brian Scalabrine. Your predecessor had serious game. Serious, serious game. You haven't led anyone to a championship yourself and you aren't going to just play the "I'm the teacher" card. If you want to show Kevin Love that he needs work, you put him on the court and challenge him repeatedly with situations where he could fail to live up to what he says he can do. Remember a few years back, when with the Lakers, you watched a lesson that a much smarter head coach had to teach to a much smarter student on a much bigger stage with much, much higher stakes? Remember what failure can accomplish.

Let the class laugh if the smart kid can't back up the tough talk and big claims. Play Kevin Love. Night in, night out. Play him hard. Run, and run, and run. Don't hide him against tough covers; in fact, give him tough covers. Don't take him out if he gets winded. Don't stop feeding him the ball in the post, even if he's getting eaten alive. Let the national media start to sour on him if he gets embarrassed over and over. Give him the stage to show media pundits what die-hard fans can see they are omitting from their reports. If Love wants to be more than a glue guy, and you don't think he can be, let him prove to everyone and to himself that he is not. Because he's a hell of a lot smarter and more talented than you were and he's not going to just take your word for it.

And, so far, I can't blame him.

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