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Wolves’ Kevin Love gets to wag the dog

If you watched him against Indiana, it is a nice feeling to contemplate having him around for another 110 games or so.

Kevin Love’s performance in a win over Indiana at Target Center exceeded the bar of high expectations he has established during his six seasons in a Wolves uniform.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love is doing and saying all the right things. Belatedly, and for the moment, so is the Wolves’ management. Consequently, Wolves fans get to watch Love make a valiant, likely Byzantine, quest to lead his squad into the playoffs over the final seven weeks of the 2013-14 season. If you love basketball and live in Minnesota, this is good news indeed.

Love’s performance in Wednesday night’s win over Indiana at Target Center exceeded the bar of high expectations he has established during his six seasons in a Wolves uniform. Indiana allows the fewest points per game and per possession to indisputably rank as the best defensive team in the NBA. Aside from Love, Minnesota was minus its top two scorers in center Nikola Pekovic and swingman Kevin Martin. Thus, the Wolves’ lone All Star walked out on the court with Corey Brewer, Ronny Turiaf, Ricky Rubio and Chase Budinger, not exactly a murderer’s row of sharpshooters.

Love set the tone early by nailing a pair of three-pointers. Midway through the first quarter, he drew the second foul on Indiana’s stalwart defender David West, sending West to the sidelines. By the time Love himself rested,  with 9:47 left in the first half, the Wolves were up 36-20 and he had posted 12 points and 9 rebounds in those initial 14:13 minutes of action.

When it was over, those numbers had grown to 42 points and 17 rebounds, and that only begins to tally his impact on the game. Because Love was 5-for-10 from three-point territory (the rest of the Wolves were 1-for-10), he spaced the floor enough that Turiaf, a longtime backup center, was sufficiently open to score on 5-of-7 field goal attempts down near the hoop while drawing enough fouls to get to the free throw line eight times.

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Then there was the titanic battle of the boards. With its exceptionally large and physical front line, Indiana came into the game allowing the lowest percentage of defensive rebounds to their opponents of any team in the NBA. Love came in leading the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage. Something had to give and it wasn’t Love, who corralled 15 defensive rebounds, enabling Brewer to constantly leak out for transition baskets and fueling Minnesota’s 18-8 advantage in fast-break points. (The Pacers rank third in fewest fast-break points allowed at 11.2 per game.)

Last, but far from least, on Wednesday Love resoundingly rebutted what have been the chronic flaws in his game. He hustled all 94 feet to both ends of the court, which came in handy when he tipped in a blocked Brewer layup to help staunch an Indiana rally in the second quarter, and, on the defensive end contributed to West and leviathan center Roy Hibbert combining to shoot just 4-for-15 for the game.  

In fact, Love’s team defense — especially his switches to prevent baseline drives on the side pick-and-roll and his back-filling when Turiaf roamed out to block a shot — addressed a season-long weakness. And, perhaps most difficult of all for Love, he didn’t allow himself to become unduly distracted by the inconsistent officiating, even when Indiana’s Ian Mahinmi pretended to be hit in the mouth by Love (gulling the official to call a foul) so blatantly that Mahinmi was later fined for “flopping” by the NBA.

To state the obvious, then, Love is a special talent, deserving to be rated just a notch below the very elite players such as Lebron James and Kevin Durant. He is a player you cherish being able to watch, one whose services you try to retain almost at all costs.

And there’s the rub that is only going to beget more rubbish in the weeks ahead.

Tools and distractions

On either side of the Indiana game were events on the NBA calendar catering to pundits and fans who gravitate toward glitz and gossip — All Star weekend and the trading deadline.

Longtime Wolves fans who remember Kevin Garnett being a perennial All Star from a mediocre team understand that an enduring subtext amid the pageantry of the weekend events is badgering and speculating about when such a player is going to pull up stakes to go perform for a better ballclub. Because the Wolves have underachieved to the point where, for the 10th season in a row, it is unlikely they will make the playoffs, Love was a sitting duck for this unfortunate ritual. By now he is sufficiently versed in the media vaudeville to short-circuit many of the queries without becoming impolitic (which would simply add a different sort of fuel to the fire). All things considered, he effectively tamped down the hubbub over his future employment.

Between All Star weekend and the Indiana game, GQ magazine published a choice quote from Love that further doused the most rampant rumor, which is that he is champing at the bit to head for Los Angeles, where he and his girlfriend live in the off-season, and play for the storied Lakers franchise.

“People think it is so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota,” Love told locally based writer Steve Marsh. “And I’m not shitting on the Lakers, but we have the better team, the better foundation. I’m having fun.”

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But in the world of social media — and, less blatantly, in the PR offices of the NBA and the Machiavellian constructs of rival NBA front offices — dormant speculation over Love’s future isn’t good for business.

So it was that shortly after Love’s spectacular performance on national television versus Indiana, veteran New York Post writer Peter Vecsey tweeted that Love had already told Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders that he would exercise his option to discontinue his contract and become a free agent at the end of next season. That same night, Saunders denied Vescey’s claim in his own tweet. On Thursday, Love followed suit with his own denial in a meeting with reporters.

“It’s a media-driven story. I just, for the past couple of years, can’t believe some of the stuff that has come out,” Love said. “I got a slew of those questions [at All Star weekend] and basically said I’m done talking about it. Then Peter Vescey, who I don’t think I’ve ever talked to, comes out with a story.”

Like it or not, these types of distractions are a permanent part of life in the world of modern sports. The Wolves are to blame to the extent that their best efforts to surround Love with quality personnel have not borne fruit — Love’s best season still may not be enough to avoid the indignity of never having been eligible for the playoffs after six years in the league.

The media is to blame to the extent that there are enough “personalities” in our ranks willing to be shills in exchange for a little ego primping. Folks like Vecsey — and before him Chris Broussard, who earlier this season quoted an “Eastern Conference general manager” as saying Love going to the Lakers was “a one-hundred percent certainty” — crave their status as “insiders.” They are more accurately gossip-mongers, literally tools wielded by their sources to further a specific but significantly anonymous agenda in an effort to bolster a client or team or entourage.

To state the obvious, the scenarios painted by Vecsey and Broussard cannot occur for more than a year. During that time, anything can happen. Of course that is also why statements by Love and Saunders should not be viewed as having long-term veracity. In a very similar situation, center Dwight Howard stated he would likely remain with the Orlando Magic a few years ago, only to eventually sign as a free agent with the Lakers.

Nobody can predict what will happen in the NBA over the next year. What if Love has the opportunity to go play with his friend Russell Westbrook alongside Durant in Oklahoma City? What if the Wolves generate sufficient momentum and Saunders reworks the roster enough to make Minnesota formidable in the next six months? Who knows who might get hurt, or hired, or traded, in a manner that alters the equation on Love’s future? Nobody — including Kevin Love.

Loyalty and loss-cutting

That said, there are certain junctures in this process that can trigger intentions and even sever relationships. One of them is the annual NBA trading deadline, which came and went on Thursday. Once again it is a time when the gossip flows like lava and agendas are being pursued with surreptitious aggression. But precisely because there is a cut-off point — the deadline — when the bets are called and folks have to show their cards, the chatter tends to be more credible.

Parsing the tea leaves on what was rumored the Wolves were doing and what they actually did, my initial conclusion is that no news is good news.

First of all, the Wolves seem to have made absolutely no attempt to foster or otherwise entertain any trade involving Love. In other words, they did not embrace the line of logic that says they will ultimately be unable to prevent Love from leaving, so better to strike now, when they have the most leverage on his valuable services and thus can fetch the largest bounty in a trade.

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This is smart for a number of reasons. First, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get appropriate value in a trade for a legitimate superstar. Second, such a trade is most strategically sound if you are tearing your roster down to the studs, and starting over with copious draft picks and salary cap space. With a number of high-priced assets newly on the books—Pekovic, Martin, Brewer and Budinger all signed contracts last summer that, at their discretion, can extend through the 2015-16 season at a cost of $29 million — the Wolves are not even remotely in a position to pursue that route. (Pek and Martin are still around in 2016-17 for a combined $19 million.)

Third, the market simply can’t stomach another major rebuilding project. I know that, even with Love and the early-season promise of a playoff team, the Wolves currently rank among the bottom five teams in per-game attendance. But there is a hardcore fan base that is sophisticated and well-informed. Believe it or not, after 25 seasons of sub-.400 basketball (the franchise won-lost percentage is exactly 39.9) and a nine-year (and counting) absence from the playoffs, their patience and faith in the current regime are not sufficient to sustain another re-do.

The other hopeful thing about the trading deadline chatter and fallout is that Wolves’ management tried to be active but didn’t stoop to desperation. If you believe the consensus of the insiders, Saunders tried to trade for lanky, defensive-oriented swingmen, including Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen from Memphis and Evan Turner from Philadelphia. The Wolves also reportedly were in the hunt for backup point guard Andre Miller of Denver.

All of these players have elements to their game that would have addressed weaknesses on the Wolves roster, but the counterproposals from other teams would have asked for too much in return. (Turner and Miller were eventually dealt for packages that were better than the Wolves could and should have offered.)

On the down side, this means that the Wolves have precious few trading assets beyond their core of Love, Pekovic, Rubio and Martin. They are thus in the unenviable position of having to register their most significant improvements from within, with Rubio’s shooting prowess, the return to good health for Budinger, and Love’s defense being the most likely potential upgrades. For a team currently ranked 10th in a rugged Western Conference, that’s a sobering state of affairs.

What this means is that Kevin Love is in the driver’s seat — I would say he is the tail that wags the dog, but that is giving his current status too little credit. When the Wolves faced a similar situation with Kevin Garnett, management allowed him a say in personnel matters, with mostly disastrous results. In addition, front-office mistakes were made in an effort to surround KG with kindred, complementary players, most notably Kevin McHale’s sacrifice of Sam Cassell and a first-round draft pick for Marko Jaric.

To the extent that Love wants long-term contracts for mediocre teammates, as Garnett did for Troy Hudson, Trenton Hassell and Mike James, among others, the Wolves need to say no. But one of the few perks that can be afforded a superstar is influence over personnel matters, and the Wolves are in a position where they are more damned if Love leaves than they are if Love stays. Thus, if coach Rick Adelman does indeed decide he is too old to continue trying to reverse the Wolves’ tenacious dysfunction, Love needs a strong say on Adelman’s replacement. And so forth.

It is the best of a bad situation. On the other hand, if you watched Kevin Love on Wednesday night against Indiana, it is a nice feeling to contemplate having him around for another 110 games or so.