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Yes, it's OK to feel good about the Timberwolves right now

Kevin Love
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Approaching age 30, Lebron James wanted and needed a proven veteran star as a sidekick. Kevin Love was the best available fit.

First things first: Fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, savor the giddiness you experienced this past weekend. Your franchise just peddled one of the five or ten best players in the NBA for a couple of unproven commodities, and you have every right to feel good about it.

The checkered six-year tenure of Kevin Love in a Wolves uniform is over. It is possible that no burgeoning NBA star was ever managed as horribly as Love was by the Wolves “brain trust” during most of that period. He came to the Wolves in a draft-day coup pulled off by then-President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale and played well enough to finish sixth in Rookie of the Year balloting. But then McHale was ousted, replaced by David Kahn in the front office and Kurt Rambis on the sidelines — and the idiocy began in earnest.

In Love’s second season, and first under the new regime, he had the highest player efficiency rating (PER), most Win Shares and second-best true shooting percentage on the roster. He also finished sixth in minutes-played and started fewer games than Damien Wilkins or Ryan Hollins. The Wolves went 17-65.

In Love’s third season, although a starter, he was informed by Rambis that he would have to “earn” playing time with better defense, and was averaging just 28 minutes through the first nine games. In the tenth game, Love became the first player in 28 years to score more than 30 points and grab more than 30 rebounds in the same contest. Only then was he regarded as a fundamental cog on the team.

Midway through Love’s fourth season, he was on the brink of his second straight appearance in the All Star game. He was following up his previous year’s average of 20 points and 15 rebounds per game with a campaign that would eventually net him 26 points and 13 rebounds per game. And he wanted his history of being disrespected by the Wolves rectified with the five-year contract a franchise was able to bestow on only one of its players. Kahn not only stubbornly held to a four-year maximum length, but gave Love the option of becoming an unrestricted free agent after the third year.

In late March, once it became apparent that the Wolves would fail to make the playoffs for the tenth season in a row (and sixth with Love on the roster) it was a foregone conclusion that Love would exercise that option and bolt for free agency after the 2014-15 season. Through their incompetence, the Wolves suddenly faced the departure of their marquee star and had very little leverage in garnering just compensation via a pre-emptive trade.

Then, for a change, the franchise got lucky. Lebron James and the Miami Heat got waxed in the playoffs by the clearly superior San Antonio Spurs. Disillusioned with the future prospects in Miami and on an expiring contract, Lebron elected to return to Cleveland, a franchise with the extreme good fortune to have won the draft lottery rights to the top overall pick two years in a row. Approaching age 30, Lebron wanted and needed a proven veteran star as a sidekick. Kevin Love was the best available fit. At Lebron’s behest, those top two picks were suddenly expendable.

Getting lucky has been a rarity for the star-crossed Wolves. Having that good luck parlay into tangible benefits by front office acumen would border on the miraculous. But that’s what happened, as President of Basketball Operations (and coach) Flip Saunders ignored the pundits who demanded he trade Love before the draft and flirted with offers from Golden State and Chicago enough to convince Cleveland that it had to include both its top picks—heralded rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins and second-year forward Anthony Bennett—as well as a first-round pick in 2015.

Saunders then flipped that 2015 pick and forward Luc Mbah a Moute and guard Alexey Shved to Philadelphia in exchange for athletic veteran forward Thaddeus Young. Add in the uber-athletic Zach LaVine, chosen by Saunders with the Wolves’ top draft pick this summer, and the two first-rounders he plucked in the 2013 draft, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad, and he has dramatically infused the roster with young, relatively inexpensive talent that possesses enormous athleticism and beguiling potential.

Yes, Love is gone, and the Wolves are, and likely will be, poorer for it. But this unhappy fate was a distinct possibility the moment Kahn (directly or indirectly with the blessing of owner Glen Taylor) decided to disrespect Love’s value by refusing to offer a five-year contract, and sealed with last season’s underachievement. Under normal circumstances (let alone “Timberwolves normal”), the Wolves were going to get dimes on the dollar in a Love trade. Instead, that bag of change feels a little heavier, as if there might be quarters, a fifty-cent piece, or perhaps even a silver dollar inside.

A prodigal son ready to strut

Watching Saunders announce the trades bringing Wiggins, Bennett and Young to town during Saturday’s press conference was a pleasant revelation. Within the posture of his body and the cadence of his words was an ego ready to strut, and throw-down if necessary.

After coaching the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances — making the postseason every full year he was at the helm, strategizing for teams led by Kevin Garnett — Saunders learned the hard knocks of NBA caprice. His most ballyhooed Wolves team collapsed in dissension around Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, leading to his firing with 31 games remaining in the 2004-05 season.

He posted a 176-70 record and went to the conference finals every season during his three-year stint in Detroit before being summarily fired by Pistons GM Joe Dumars for perceived post-season failures. Then he entered funhouse of horrors in Washington, where he was undone by the gunplay of Gilbert Arenas and the chuck-headed antics Andre Blatche and JaVale McGee.

Saunders did his time in media purgatory as an analyst for ESPN, all the while doggedly reconnecting with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, a prodigal son laying the groundwork for his return as Kahn’s replacement. He watched Rick Adelman implode, the victim of aging and concerns about the health of his wife. Then, overcoming the initial resistance of Taylor, Saunders appointed himself head coach. Having made lemonade out of the sour Love situation and dumping the dreadful Shved besides, he has exorcised nearly every vestige of Kahn’s reign (only the draft pick owed Phoenix for agreeing to accept Kahn disastrous draft pick Wes Johnson remains on the ledger).

At the press conference, Saunders, the Gopher alumnus, savaged the perception that the frozen tundra of Minnesota was recruitment hell for an NBA executive. He pointedly noted in some detail how Garnett turned down trades and had to be talked into leaving Minnesota after a dozen years. He stated that Wiggins, a native Canadian, would be easily acclimated to the Minnesota climate.

Most compellingly, Saunders posited the notion that the NBA had moved away from “destination cities” in favor of “destination players” that others would want to join, regardless of where they were located. He didn’t need to unpack the evidence for that theory: Kevin Love, long believed to pine for sunny Los Angeles, had just agreed to relocate—and sign a fat long-term contract—to play in rust-belt Cleveland beside Lebron. Nor did he need to specify that the hype surrounding Andrew Wiggins indicates that he could become that “destination player.” Instead he upped the ante, saying it could apply to “some of the players we have,” and repeating the contention that when he drafted LaVine, he was going for a home run result instead of a double.

It was a muscle-flexing display that reinforced the buoyant expectations Wolves fans suddenly have embraced over the medium-term prospects of the franchise. Saunders sought to temper that enthusiasm only once, after noting how delighted holdover point guard Ricky Rubio must be at the thought of feeding “two guys who can jump 40 inches off the floor”— LaVine and Wiggins.

“There definitely will be some excitement at Target Center,” Saunders continued, then added, in reference to his young jumping jacks, “We’re gonna have to let those guys know the difference between excitement and substance. That’s gonna be part of our lessons to them.”

And that’s the hard part. Amid the hubbub over the heroic rescue of Love debacle, the looming prospect of spectacular dunks, daredevil steals, scintillating drives to the hoop and gymnastic, suffocating defensive pressure, there is a crazy-quilt of a roster that will be extremely difficult to stitch.

But that’s the subject of another column—the buzzkill edition of this unfolding saga. It can wait until later. Until then, savor the hope, the good fortune, the competence, the feisty egotism. Let the Wolves make you feel good for a change. 

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Comments (13)

nice column except...

...for using this year's trendy word, uber. I'm over uber. Anyway, nice optimistic take on the coming year. I'm a little sorry to see Shved go and for sure I pray that Barea will be gone before the season starts. I thought all his second half playing time was the clearest sign of Adelman's senility or stubbornness..

One question about positions: Levine, Wiggins and Bennett: what positions do they play? Are they all in the small forward/shooting guard area? Gonna be fun watching Rubio run down the floor with these guys.

Please

Please show a little more respect for Mr. Adleman. To reference his assumed "senility" as you did is uncalled for. In the grand scheme of things Rick Adleman is probably the best coach to grace the T-Wolves bench.

Trendy before the trend

Bill--

I've been using uber since before it was cool. It's the same with my fashion sense--every 10 or 15 years flannel shirts, jeans and a ballcap is the "look" and I'm a hip dude.
I myself am really pleased to see Shved depart, but share your disdain for Barea.
LaVine is a combo guard--point and shooting, "1" and "2". Wiggins is a swing man who Saunders claims can guard everyone from point guards to power forwards, but I imagine he slots in at small forward, with room to wiggle from shooting guard to power forward according to specific matchups.
Bennett is pretty much a power forward; I understand he isn't quite quick enough to guard small forwards.
All that said, I don't follow the college game and didn't see enough of Bennett's rookie season to do anything but pass along hearsay. I like my NBA impressions to be fresh anyway--it is such a different, more physical and athletic game than anything played elsewhere.

Thanks, Britt

Apparently you've been using uber longer than the few months I've been hearing it. If I recall my high school German class, I thought there was an umlat (messed up that spelling so uberly) but that version is not so trendy. Thanks for the info on the positions. Didn't the Wolves pick up a back up point guard this off season? I'm looking forward to this season, provided they dump Mr. B.

Feeling strangely fine

After reading about the other offers prior to the draft, there's no doubt this is the best outcome we could've hoped for. Obviously Wiggins is the prize here; no one else could offer anything close that didn't come with strings attached (like David Lee's defense or even Klay Thompson's future contract, if GS was willing to part with him).

Like Britt, I'll reserve enumerating the downsides of the team for a future comment, but this year's squad needs to be all about chemistry if we hope to pull off a rebuilding project in short order. This team has needed athletic playmakers to maximize Rubio's court vision for some time, and now we're all but guaranteed to have a wing threat or two on the court with Rubio at all times. The great divide between Rubio fans and his detractors will only intensify this year without having an all-star like Love around, so I'd like for Ricky to have as many versatile options at his disposal as possible.

Maybe one night at First Avenue we'll look like world-beaters, and the next we'll look like the lottery team we're projected to be. Either way, I enjoy watching pro basketball (even the players with glaring holes in their games), and I'm looking forward to the pleasure of watching another Wolves season. (Honestly, it's the lowered expectations of this year that get to me the most.)

I love this trade!

However - there is another debacle brewing on this team - and that is the possible contract extension to Ricky Rubio.

He can't shoot and is not even guarded at the end of games.

Jerry Zgoda suggested something today that needs to be looked at closely - that is trading RR.

" If I were Flip and I could figure out someone to swap Ricky for Bledsoe and give him the max max, I'd do it quickly." Jerry Z

I don't agree

I think Rubio is going to make these young guys look better than they really are giving them open looks another point guard can't give them. And I predict he will have a shooting percentage much closer to the average NBA point guard this year. Put that with his passing and leadership now that Love is gone and he will shine.

I hope you are right!

However - I fail to see the infatuation with RR. It reminds me of the same hype that the MN press put on "NBA Talent Rodney Williams." Of course, many of us realized he could not shoot as well.

Excellent Article, Thanks.

This was a fantastic trade to my eyes. And as a long time wolves fan, I am happy to soak in any moment of solid management. Watching this team develop should be really fun, despite the inevitable growing pains.

In the coming season, I imagine it will be difficult to balance the competing goals of "putting the best team on the floor" and "giving rookies enough minutes to develop." At each position, we have capable veteran players. At positions 1 through 4, we have new additions that will need real playing time to develop. I'd like to hope that the veteran players help the new ones develop good habits. At the same time, Brewer will probably be a better SF than Wiggins... and it will be interesting to see how long that remains true, and how the minutes are divided when games are being decided.

No delusion needed

I was prepared to be secretly disappointed while trying to talk myself into whatever their haul was. As long as no one has unrealistic expectations of these guys, it could be a fun season. There were so many armchair coaches last season who made some absurd statements about how Adelman was holding back Derrick Williams (I guess Mike Malone did, too; maybe there's a reason why), Dieng (Foul. Machine. Early.), and Muhammad (a supposed scorer who was worse at the rim than Rubio). It's tough not knowing who is responsible for a player's development or lack thereof, but hopefully people pay careful attention instead of buying into hot sports takes. I can't imagine the reaction now if a rookie KG wasn't starting immediately for a bad team, or Marbury was getting periodically yanked for Terry Porter like he was, or even Wally or Rasho were getting taken in and out of the starting lineup.

Jerry Zgoda and other Wolves reporters do a wonderful job keeping everyone informed, but their profession isn't talent assessment (the archived chats would be full of Zgoda defending Wes Johnson, Jonny Flynn, and Williams). Reporters who have to meet deadlines aren't necessarily watching the game to closely evaluate each player. Why would the Wolves take on more salary a year earlier for a guy who has never had to start with a traditional SG? With how good Dragic was last season and how willing the Suns were to draft a PG and sign Isaiah Thomas in free agency, I'm skeptical of Bledsoe's ability to be consistently better than Rubio. Most importantly, PG is the easiest position to replace in the NBA; if it truly came to getting rid of him, they're better off finding someone in the draft. So many PGs are overrated because the rules favor their quickness/speed.

Championships for two teams

I created an new account at MinnPost so I can go on record as predicting that this trade will be the very rare trade that brings championship to two teams, one for Cleveland next year (or the year after that) and one (or more?) for Minnesota in 4-6 years.

You heard it here first.

Britt, Thanks for your coverage of the Wolves. I'll see you at the Championship parade in five years.

final note before the next piece

Folks, thanks for all your comments. Long term readers know how much I cherish intelligent feedback and I am sure the quality of the remarks has always been one reason people return to wherever I am writing--Minnpost, despite the ban on pseudonyms and anonymous comments--has been no different.
The only thing I'll chime in on at the moment is that Zgoda and others are engaging in wishful thinking if they think they can get Bledsoe here for Ricky and spare parts. Rubio has to prove he is a better shooter before he can command even the $12 million per year offer Bledsoe is unhappy with. And while I always respect the wisdom of PagingStanleyRoberts (known on this site as Greg Kerkvliet), I do think Bledsoe's defense and ability to get to the rim outweigh Rubio's nonpareil passing skills in terms of net advantage.
Bottom line, Bledsoe won't be coming to Minnesota anyway and the Wolves are in a good position of letting other teams determine the market for Rubio--maybe it will be depressed, as seems to be the case w/Bledsoe. Making an offer to a restricted free agent ties up your salary flexibility with the host team decides whether or not to match, which makes it tougher.
Okay, thanks again for stopping by. Will have something a little more pessimistic up in a day or two.

managed poorly?

managed poorly? they gave him the coach he wanted. they got rid of players he didn't like. they paid him extremely well. he couldn't close, couldn't play defense, and was a bad teammate. they did extremely well in trading for wiggins and bennett.