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Growing pains for Kevin Love, the Wolves and their fan base

REUTERS/Eric Miller
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.

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.

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Comments (26)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/18/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    Whoa there

    Did you just write “Pekovic” and “stellar defense” in the same sentence? Did you think no one was going to read to the end and notice? Even in the context of the low bar set by your Big Al reference, I don’t think many here would consider Pek a complementary defensive piece to Love – he doesn’t help weak-side, doesn’t block shots, and doesn’t rebound well on defense. Obviously, that paragraph is merely bait to get me to start to write something in this comments section, and it’s working.

    I think Love wants to make it absolutely clear that he does not agree with how David Kahn is handling business. Kahn is a numbers guy (not a basketball guy), but no matter how much Bill Simmons you read, Kahn has helped create a playoff-worthy roster. What worries me is that Love made some comments last year about getting rid of the bad eggs in the locker room, and now the comments are that the personnel moves are directionless. We go from not enough leadership to too much leadership? Can’t have it both ways, and who was the GM who replaced guys like Beas?

    And what happens if Taylor appeases his star and fires Kahn? You’re going to kick out your cap-managing GM for…who exactly? Is Sam Presti or RC Buford or Daryl Morey suddenly on the market? Taylor is trying to sell this team, and Kahn clearly has a financial vision (or edict from Papa Glen). Is Love going to make the same comments (re: a directionless franchise) if he doesn’t like the new guy?

    But in the end, it’s good basketball that keeps me watching, and watching the Wolves in the first half gives me optimism that this team is headed in the right direction. Even with Ricky shaking the rust off during that brief ugly stretch in the first half, I felt like we were maximizing our talents and playing to strengths (until Glen Davis showed up). Cheering for these guys is a blast (I can barely remember the “meh” feeling when Wes or Martell checked in last year) or, and as Jim Pete mentioned last night, we’re unwrapping presents all year (Roy, Budinger, and the continued development of Shved and Rubio), and watching this group of unselfish ballplayers figure it out under the guidance of Rick Adelman will be great fun for the rest of the season.

  2. Submitted by Nathan Anderson on 12/18/2012 - 12:35 pm.

    Great read

    Although, it would be the third playoff series victory in franchise history rather than the second.

    Transition defense was awful last night. At least a few Wolves fast breaks, although ending in a nice basket and fancy passing, ended up producing quick Orlando dunks on the other end. Who should be staying back in those situations?

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Bryan on 12/18/2012 - 04:28 pm.

    Pek versus Gasol

    Am I in the minority that I would welcome the move if LA agreed to send Gasol for Pek, Williams, and Barea? Here are the reasons:

    Starters: Gasol, Love, AK47, Shved, Rubio – I get two years of that team then Gasol/AK47 come off the books just in time to pay Rubio and extend Love.

    Pek: He is a good deal now, but what about next year? Do you sign him for 4 years at $10M+ per year (just look at Hibbert / Lopez max and Asik at 3/25)?

    D. Will – how many guys like him end up actually “getting it”? Is there a case study for a guy as inconsistent as D. Will really coming becoming a primary weapon without a primary skill? What does he do best?

    Gasol – is it really debatable that Gasol’s game fits better than Pek’s in Adelman’s system? Don’t you have three of the best passers at their position on the Wolves with that trade (Gasol, Love, Rubio)?

    It might all be moot, but I can honestly say that if LA actually calls and says okay, MN fans might not be cheering… but I for one would be ecstatic if that packages gathers Gasol.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/18/2012 - 05:08 pm.

      Unfortunately

      Gasol’s contract is insane (2 years, $38m). We’d be paying luxury tax this year and next, and I don’t think that’s what Taylor has in mind. I like his game, and agree that he probably is more of an Adelman-type player than Pek, but I don’t think ownership is willing to spend that much money. I think Pek will command near-max money next year, so I think keeping him for now is the more prudent move (from a long-term standpoint – if we were contending for a championship, I’d be doing anything to get Pau here)

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/18/2012 - 05:40 pm.

      Value-wise, there’s no way they take that deal

      They were reluctant to even move Williams for him last spring, and Gasol’s value has gone down, not up. I understand that the $ has to work, but that’s why any deal has to include other teams and other assets coming back to the Wolves. That’s not even mentioning that there’s no way Pek ends up in LA in a trade like this.

    • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/18/2012 - 05:08 pm.

      Unfortunately

      Gasol’s contract is insane (2 years, $38m). We’d be paying luxury tax this year and next, and I don’t think that’s what Taylor has in mind. I like his game, and agree that he probably is more of an Adelman-type player than Pek, but I don’t think ownership is willing to spend that much money. I think Pek will command near-max money next year, so I think keeping him for now is the more prudent move (from a long-term standpoint – if we were contending for a championship, I’d be doing anything to get Pau here)

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/18/2012 - 05:36 pm.

    It’s all part of the MN sports fan popular sentiment

    Self-loathing (when Grantland’s Bill Barnwell said the Vikings could win 6 games this season, he mostly got letters from fans saying he was overestimating the team, the exact opposite of the blind fanaticism with most teams), fatalistic (the whole idea of curses on the Vikings and Wolves), and complaining about stars (Adrian Peterson’s fumble problems 4 years ago, Joe Mauer). Someone commenting about this at A Wolf Among Wolves made a great point about how fans are showing more immaturity in this case than Love has. My guess is that not a lot fans are behind him in the first place (it’s pretty obvious looking at the jerseys worn to Target Center who the favorite is). I mean, this state had the most loyal superstar in modern pro sports in KG; he still wasn’t embraced by the state as fully as he should’ve been, and Taylor threw him under the bus so badly that he didn’t even consider coming back to the Wolves last summer (which would’ve been a much more financially-feasible and structural fit than their plans to add Gasol to those 2 last summer).

    None of us should be shocked that a broken hand would affect Love’s offense. With that said, I don’t think he needs to be the full hub of this offense until that’s more consistent. Adelman’s instincts offensively are correct in many cases, and while Love shouldn’t be expected to be Vlade or C-Webb, they can’t run a lot of isos for him and make everyone else play off of him. He’ll be more effective if he has to move like everyone else, pass like everyone else, and make the best basketball play like everyone else.

    The 04-05 season interests me because I like to understand why things go wrong. The focus is often on the chemistry and the contract squabbles, but I think it’s more complicated. Most importantly, hand-checking was outlawed, neutering their perimeter defense (they gave up 6.9 more points per 100 possessions and dropped 9 spots in defensive rating). Expected regression occurred with Trenton Hassell, Ervin Johnson, and Mark Madsen. An underrated aspect was that they broke with the norm of not overpaying role players and just finding cheaper replacements who were just as good, something they did every year (Reggie Slater, Chauncey Billups, Troy Hudson, Gary Trent, Rod Strickland, Kendall Gill, LaPhonso Ellis, Malik Sealy). I still wonder how things might’ve been different had they been able to flip Sprewell’s expiring and other assets to the Hornets for Baron Davis; I don’t know if it was offered, but the Hornets eventually accepted Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis’ expiring for him.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/18/2012 - 07:13 pm.

      Adding to Britt’s point

      I think that quite a bit of the 04-05 season can be attributed to KG “losing” the hearts and minds of those in the locker room. He became the face of the franchise, but was suddenly surrounded by talented players who were able to more easily tune him out – it’s one of the reasons why I’m somewhat forgiving (in hindsight) of Taylor’s capitulation to KG’s personnel demands (Joe Smith, Troy, Trenton). KG knew which guys he could get to play at a high level, despite their shortcomings and opportunity costs, and actively tried to keep them. In Boston, he was surrounded by a culture which embraced (rather than merely accepted) the role he had created for himself, and was able to better capitalize on his talents.

      One thing that always strikes me as strange about the contract situation with Sam and Spre was that Sprewell had been getting paid a ridiculous salary (7-year max) ever since he had one above-average year at Golden State. Sam, on the other hand, had consistently outperformed his own rather middling deal, playing 2000+ minutes and registering a 20+ PER for 5 straight seasons – I’d say he had somewhat of a reason to complain, but when it impacts on-court performance…

      Good point on the hand-checking rule! I had completely forgotten what year that was implemented, but now I’ll always associate it with the demise of the Wolves and the rise of those great Phoenix Suns teams. (For those playing along at home, whose expiring $11mil contract allowed the Suns to drop serious dollars on Nash that offseason? That’s right – former Timberwolves All-Star Tom Gugliotta)

      • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/19/2012 - 09:45 am.

        That KG lobbying aspect is overblown

        Flip put that rumor to rest last spring on Barreiro’s show, saying they always talked to players about guys they were looking into but that he never made any demands. Also, even if it was true, I’ve done a 180 on this; he was under contract until ’09, so all they had to do was say no.

    • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/18/2012 - 07:13 pm.

      Adding to Britt’s point

      I think that quite a bit of the 04-05 season can be attributed to KG “losing” the hearts and minds of those in the locker room. He became the face of the franchise, but was suddenly surrounded by talented players who were able to more easily tune him out – it’s one of the reasons why I’m somewhat forgiving (in hindsight) of Taylor’s capitulation to KG’s personnel demands (Joe Smith, Troy, Trenton). KG knew which guys he could get to play at a high level, despite their shortcomings and opportunity costs, and actively tried to keep them. In Boston, he was surrounded by a culture which embraced (rather than merely accepted) the role he had created for himself, and was able to better capitalize on his talents.

      One thing that always strikes me as strange about the contract situation with Sam and Spre was that Sprewell had been getting paid a ridiculous salary (7-year max) ever since he had one above-average year at Golden State. Sam, on the other hand, had consistently outperformed his own rather middling deal, playing 2000+ minutes and registering a 20+ PER for 5 straight seasons – I’d say he had somewhat of a reason to complain, but when it impacts on-court performance…

      Good point on the hand-checking rule! I had completely forgotten what year that was implemented, but now I’ll always associate it with the demise of the Wolves and the rise of those great Phoenix Suns teams. (For those playing along at home, whose expiring $11mil contract allowed the Suns to drop serious dollars on Nash that offseason? That’s right – former Timberwolves All-Star Tom Gugliotta)

  5. Submitted by Miguel Ariño on 12/19/2012 - 03:18 am.

    About the defense

    I’d say calling Pek’s defense ‘stellar’, in the context of the whole NBA, is a bit of an exaggeration, but there is no deying that Pek’s much better this year. Wolves are better in defense than last year, but that could also be part of Kirilenko’s impact, Stiemsma and Cunningham coming from the bench and the improved hustle from Williams, just to name a few.

    I think Pek complements Love quite well on the rebounding side of things. Love gets all defensive boards, Pek can box out with that massive frame of his, and he crashes the offensive boards very well. I don’t think the Wolves lose the rebounding battle often in games.

    Also, there are synergy stats that indicate Pek is one of the better big men in the league in terms of defending jump shots. He holds players shooting over him to a lower percentage than most. I just say it from memory, I cannot really quote the actual points per shot he concedes or his rank. This all goes to say that, while Pek’s defensive game might have some holes, it is not by any means a disaster and his prowess on the offensive end compensates for this. Pek is at least in the better half of Centers in the NBA, possibly in the top third if he improves a bit. That’s really a great return for a second round pick, and enough not to consider the Center as the weakest position in the Wolves roster, IMO.

  6. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/18/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    Whoa there

    Did you just write “Pekovic” and “stellar defense” in the same sentence? Did you think no one was going to read to the end and notice? Even in the context of the low bar set by your Big Al reference, I don’t think many here would consider Pek a complementary defensive piece to Love – he doesn’t help weak-side, doesn’t block shots, and doesn’t rebound well on defense. Obviously, that paragraph is merely bait to get me to start to write something in this comments section, and it’s working.

    I think Love wants to make it absolutely clear that he does not agree with how David Kahn is handling business. Kahn is a numbers guy (not a basketball guy), but no matter how much Bill Simmons you read, Kahn has helped create a playoff-worthy roster. What worries me is that Love made some comments last year about getting rid of the bad eggs in the locker room, and now the comments are that the personnel moves are directionless. We go from not enough leadership to too much leadership? Can’t have it both ways, and who was the GM who replaced guys like Beas?

    And what happens if Taylor appeases his star and fires Kahn? You’re going to kick out your cap-managing GM for…who exactly? Is Sam Presti or RC Buford or Daryl Morey suddenly on the market? Taylor is trying to sell this team, and Kahn clearly has a financial vision (or edict from Papa Glen). Is Love going to make the same comments (re: a directionless franchise) if he doesn’t like the new guy?

    But in the end, it’s good basketball that keeps me watching, and watching the Wolves in the first half gives me optimism that this team is headed in the right direction. Even with Ricky shaking the rust off during that brief ugly stretch in the first half, I felt like we were maximizing our talents and playing to strengths (until Glen Davis showed up). Cheering for these guys is a blast (I can barely remember the “meh” feeling when Wes or Martell checked in last year) or, and as Jim Pete mentioned last night, we’re unwrapping presents all year (Roy, Budinger, and the continued development of Shved and Rubio), and watching this group of unselfish ballplayers figure it out under the guidance of Rick Adelman will be great fun for the rest of the season.

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