It is a mixed blessing, but a blessing all the same: The Minnesota Timberwolves have become talented enough to generate controversy over player perceptions and pecking orders.
After muffing their four-game winning streak with an uninspired loss to the less talented but more cohesive Orlando Magic on Monday, the Wolves step up in class against three elite opponents the rest of the week. Right now might be an instructive time to consider the growing pains endured by that trio of foes.
On Tuesday, Minnesota will play a Miami Heat team that was often in danger of drowning in its own hubris after the additions of Lebron James and Chris Bosh to its holdover superstar and past NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade.
Remember how Lebron was bashed for supposedly taking the easy way out and going to a franchise where another player had already established the championship pedigree? Remember all the talk (and here I added my share) about Lebron’s curious but chronic proclivity to disappear for key stretches of big games, to the point where it was always going to be “Wade’s team” when it mattered most? Remember how Bosh was derided for his marked inferiority relative to Lebron and D-Wade, and how long it took for Miami to realize that Bosh was most valuable when the team played a small lineup with him as the center?
Even now, after silencing the critics with a championship in their second year together after Lebron left no doubt he was Miami’s alpha dog, the Heat are coping with harsh remarks by commentator Charles Barkley that Wade has been diminished by age and the wear and tear of his physical style of play.
Without belaboring the point too much further, you can move on to Thursday’s game with Oklahoma City and recall how point guard Russell Westbrook has been blasted for his ball-hogging ways and lack of deference to his teammate and reigning three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. Or go to Sunday’s opponent the New York Knicks, whose inability to mesh the talents of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire already cost coach Mike D’Antoni his job. D’Antoni is now coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, who already fired coach Mike Brown because he didn’t immediately wring rewards from the acquisition of Dwight Howard and (the injured) Steve Nash alongside Kobe Bryant and (the injured) Pau Gasol.
Beginning of long, treacherous process
At first blush, it is ridiculous to liken the Wolves, who haven’t even won 40 percent of their games for six straight seasons, to the marquee success stories in Miami and Oklahoma City, or even New York. I do it to dramatize how premature it is for fans to be gnashing their teeth over the negative remarks made recently by Kevin Love about the Wolves management — and to dramatize how immature it was of Love to make them.
But before unpacking that, I want to reiterate the good news, or mixed blessing, which is that the Wolves are worthy of a semblance of controversy in the first place. There is actually something at stake here, made no less real by being in the glimmering early stage of a credible rebuilding process.
Wolves fans remember the contract jealousy that tore Stephon Marbury away from Kevin Garnett and the Wolves. They vividly recall how Latrell Sprewell foolishly dismantled the chemistry of a 58-win team, with the baffling loudmouthed assistance of Sam Cassell, because of unhappiness over his deal. By contrast, the various dysfunctions and disgruntlements of Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, and later J.R. Rider — with coaches, the front office and each other — are sordid footnotes of team history only the die-hards recall.
That’s because KG and Marbury had a shot of making a big splash in this league — as KG, Spree and Cassell did for a season — while a team where Person, Laettner or Rider were jousting for pecking-order supremacy was doomed to, at best, mediocrity. For a more recent example, consider all the verbiage spent on whether Kevin Love and Al Jefferson could productively co-exist. When the point guard feeding those two big men is Randy Foye or Sebastian Telfair, it’s a moot issue that quickly faded away from insignificance.
Which brings us back to the unfortunate remarks Love made to Yahoo! sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this month. If you know anything about Love’s outspoken but thoroughly contextual mien in conversation and Woj’s longstanding enmity toward David Kahn and the rest of the Wolves’ front office, it was easy to surmise that Love got played; that he gave an on-balance negative but still nuanced assessment of his history and current status with the Wolves, and that Woj printed only the negative stuff and ladled in his own vitriol for good measure.
Two parts of the published story solidify this argument as to what transpired. The first concerns Love’s stated regret that he wasn’t allowed to further develop his playing relationship with Al Jefferson on the front line, as Kahn’s predecessor, Kevin McHale, had envisioned. The second castigates Kahn for not signing Love to the five-year maximum deal that teams can offer one player in the organization under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. The article not only automatically assumes that the five-year deal is being reserved for Love’s teammate Ricky Rubio but also quotes Love unfavorably comparing Rubio to himself over the supposed gambit, saying that it amounts to “a projection over a sure thing.”
Both parts of the article thus cast aspersions on Love’s current teammates — pining for Jefferson besmirches the ample and more complementary contributions made by current center Nikola Pekovic, and the Rubio-related remark speaks for itself. What’s ironic is that less than three years ago, it was an article by the same Adrian Wojnarowski that fueled the spurious rumor that Love and Jefferson were jealous of each other and couldn’t get along, causing considerable chatter and distraction enough that both Love and Jefferson first heatedly and then humorously denied it.
Kevin Love is simply not stupid enough to sit down with a prominent national NBA columnist and indiscriminately rip the most talented roster of teammates in his tenure with the Wolves. He was stupid enough to sit down with Woj in the first place and be baited into comments that were immediately ill-advised but look even worse when stripped of the positive, balancing context he says he uttered, then have them further distorted by Woj’s own bias and hostility.
It’s telling that after the story prompted headlines on the front page of the local sports sections and the damage had been done, Woj tweeted: “Abundantly clear talking w/kevinlove: Feels deeply connected to the Wolves fan base, loves Minny as a sports town. He wants badly to win THERE.” That’s almost 180 degrees away from what was “abundantly clear” when one read the initial story.
Love did not deny any of the quotes attributed to him, a candor that lends credibility to his statement that he also said many positive things during the interview, especially about his current teammates and situation. Even so, it was a self-inflicted wound to his image and standing, and in this past week after the remarks were published, he has received his karmic comeuppance. His team was able to overcome his horrible 7-for-35 shooting performance to post a pair of victories over Denver and New Orleans.
Then Rubio returned after a nine-month absence from a knee injury and played 18 fabulous, much-ballyhooed minutes while Love sat out with a sore thumb and a flu-like illness. On Monday in Orlando, Rubio faltered in his second game back and Love rediscovered his scoring touch, but was frequently beaten on defense during the disappointing loss.
Knowing what matters, behaving accordingly
Now, as the schedule toughens, the Wolves, Love and the team’s fan base are at something of a crossroads on how to proceed with the rest of the season. So let’s be blunt about the current situation.
The Wolves have the complementary pieces and overall talent to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season. That significant but still modest level of success is hardly a given, however. It will require more continuity and rhythm than what the team has been able to generate thus far. And that will require fewer injuries, fewer distractions, and a commitment to synergistic teamwork.
Here is where Love needs to stop pantomiming team leadership and start delivering the goods. Negative words and attitudes about the Wolves organization need to be shelved for the rest of the season. Complaints over fouls need to be handled with more tact and intelligence and not detract from the team’s capability on the court. His commitment to defense needs to improve, and his effort at that end of the floor needs to be constant, undeterred by whatever difficulties he is having with his shot or the officials.
For its part, the Wolves’ brain trust needd to recognize that Love is the horse they ride into the postseason. Coach Rick Adelman’s ball-movement offense choreographed by Rubio is fabulous to behold, the fidelity to playing smart, non-fouling defense has been a life-saver thus far, and the team’s depth gives it a resourceful edge absent for nearly the entire history of the franchise. But getting Love enough touches, plays and looks to re-establish his rhythm and confidence is crucial to this team’s success. Featuring Love in full flower from the low block and the three-point line and having him battle for boards at both ends of the court appropriately relies on Minnesota’s signature talent, and provides its calling card for respectability in the grueling Western Conference playoff chase.
For the Wolves’ fans, it is time to grow up and decide what you want. You don’t like what Kevin Love had to say to Adrian Wojnarowski? That’s entirely understandable. You want to penalize Love with caustic comments from the peanut gallery, label him selfish and demand that he be traded or marginalized on behalf of Rubio or Pekovic or Andrei Kirilenko? Well then, you’d rather bemoan your fate or wallow in the potential for schadenfreude than do the patient, steady work of rooting on a successful rebuilding project one step at a time.
That doesn’t mean Wolves’ fans can’t or shouldn’t be critical. But put your controversies into a proactive perspective. A team without issues that stir passion is a team mired in irrelevance. By the same token, a fan base consumed with past events is embittered and practically doomed to further disappointment. Short of a ring ceremony, there is never a team when the oceans part, the heavens open and ecstasy pervades a professional sports franchise.
No, on the contrary, the higher up the ladder a team climbs, the more intense are the frustrations as well as the thrills — ask the Heat before last year’s Finals, or the Thunder or the Knicks. Controversy follows every team — the successful ones put it in perspective and move forward.
Right now the Wolves are closer to the bottom rung than to the summit — there is a long and treacherous journey ahead even to secure the second playoff series triumph in franchise history. But the journey has at least begun, and so for the first time in six or seven years, spats, breakdowns and pecking order complications have some meaning.
You want to rip David Kahn? Don’t dwell on failed draft picks like Jonny Flynn or Wes Johnson; push back against the whispers that Kahn isn’t that enamored with Pekovic, who, unlike Al Jefferson, can play the kind of stellar defense that complements Love on the front line.
Above all, enjoy yourself. This Wolves team is a far sight better than anything in recent memory and they’re about to test their mettle against the cream of the crop in the NBA. Let’s see what they’ve got to offer.