Remember when LeBron James was the most notorious choker in the NBA, scorned and belittled for opting to align himself with alpha dog Dwyane Wade in Miami in order to finally win a championship? Or, closer to home, remember the contentious debates about Kevin Garnett not seize the game by the throat for the Timberwolves, a fact that many blamed for the Wolves inability to consistently advance in the playoffs?
Perhaps you remember these things, but posterity won’t. Two rings and four straight NBA Finals appearances later, LeBron is sidling up to the legacy of Michael Jordan in debates about the greatest player of all time. As for KG, it took a mere year for his championship run with the Boston Celtics to quash any aspersions about his crunch-time capabilities.
Basketball stars who suffer the misfortune of decidedly inferior teammates will find the flaws in their own game put under a microscope and their character placed under suspicion. The only antidote to this hellish scrutiny is winning, especially winning big — preferably a championship.
This is why it is almost impossible to imagine Kevin Love playing basketball for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2015-16. He’s not stupid, masochistic, or good-naturedly naïve. There simply is not enough time to post enough wins to salvage the relationship between Love and the Wolves.
The loud bust
Last season stamped Love’s walking papers. His coach, Rick Adelman, is a future Hall of Famer. After an injury-plagued campaign in 2012-13, his team’s owner, Glen Taylor, doubled down on his investment to improve the performance of a franchise that had a won-lost record of 190-420 since 2005, never winning more than 33 games in a season. In the summer of 2013, Taylor committed to $120 million worth of contracts, securing the services of Nikola Pekovic (5 years, $60 million), Kevin Martin (4 years, $28 million), Chase Budinger (3 years, $15 million) Corey Brewer (3 years, $14 million) and Ronny Turiaf (2 years, $3 million).
These new signings — most of them players especially well suited for Adelman’s fabled “corner offense” — pushed the 2013-14 payroll past $68 million.
Unlike the previous season, the Wolves enjoyed extraordinarily good health in 2013-14. Their five starters played more minutes together than all but two other NBA quintets. Love had the best season of his six-year career, finishing fourth in scoring and third in rebounding while more than doubling his career assist rate.
These were not empty numbers: Love’s presence on the court was crucial to any success the Wolves enjoyed. When he played, the team performed at a level of efficiency that, if sustained, would have made them the second-best offense in the NBA. When he sat, the team’s offensive efficiency, again if maintained, would have been the second-worst in the NBA.
Even on defense, hardly Love’s strongest suit, the Wolves yielded fewer points per possession when Love played than when he sat.
Tote up the advantages: marquee coach; generous owner; extraordinary health; and a career year from the superstar. Now check the results: 40 wins and 42 losses, good for 10th place in the Western Conference, a whopping nine games out of the final playoff spot.
This was exactly the scenario that could not happen if the Wolves were going to keep Love from exercising the option to declare himself an unrestricted free agent after the 2014-15 season. It was why I titled my 2013-14 season preview “Playoffs or (loud) bust.”
The rancid cherry on top of this scenario, of course, is that Love wanted to sign an ironclad five-year pact that would have locked him into Minnesota through 2016-17. Management not only turned him down, they proposed the option of his early exit.
In other words, Love can’t be accused of being disloyal. He is much more vulnerable to the charge that he is not an alpha leader — indeed, in six years, his teams have yet to post a winning record, let alone make the playoffs. His successful performances alongside elites at the All Star games and in international competitions such as the Olympics don’t matter.
To validate a career that is already dangerously close to its midpoint in length under normal circumstances, Love needs to showcase his skills deep into the playoffs. Short of Minnesota selecting a ready-made star in the upcoming draft or making an improbable blockbuster acquisition that somehow maneuvers past the NBA salary cap, it is very difficult to imagine him being able to do that in a Wolves uniform.
Love knows this and is preparing accordingly. Wolves fans can only hope that Taylor and the rest of the front office likewise grasp the inevitability of the situation.
Last offseason handcuffs this one
On the surface, it is far from certain that the Wolves brass has accepted Love’s departure as a foregone conclusion.
As recently as Sunday, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, responding to reports that Love was scouting a new potential home city in his visit to Boston, said that he expects Love “to be playing for us next year,” emphasizing that teams covetous of Love “have no say. I plan on Kevin being here.”
Taylor, understandably stung by and resistant to the notion that last year’s spending spree was insufficient, has been equally adamant when queried on the subject.
This is by itself a strategy: Keep Love around for the entire 2014-15 season and then let him walk away without getting anything in return. This is arguably better than receiving a handful of mediocrities in a trade for Love and retarding the eventual rebuilding that would have to happen anyway.
That’s essentially what happened when the Wolves traded Garnett to the Celtics. The best of the four players and two draft picks they got in return, Al Jefferson, was dealt for a backup center and two draft picks three years later. The Wolves remained a terrible team throughout, and no current starter was directly acquired in any of the maneuvering connected to the Celtics package.
Unfortunately, last summer’s investments make the “tearing it down to the studs” style of rebuilding problematic. Pekovic, who is 28 and has yet to log 2000 minutes in any of his four seasons due to various injuries, is owed $12 million per year through 2018, and Martin’s next two years of chronically indifferent defense are guaranteed at $7 million per season. Not incidentally, Taylor is in his 70s and recently strengthened his ownership position despite little interest from his heirs, so patience likely won’t be a virtue he embraces.
The conventional wisdom is that the longer Minnesota waits to trade Love, the less they will reap in return because he’ll be that much closer to unrestricted free agency. Even now, Love has leverage: No team is going to offer the Wolves a substantial package unless Love signals he will extend his contract with that team. And that clout increases with each passing day.
It is a dream scenario for NBA pundits who get to fill their dead summer space with Love trade rumors and speciously “leaked” new twists and turns in the drama that most often serve the agenda of a player agent or assistant general manager.
Here’s my scoop: Short of Love leaving by next July at the latest, I am not very confident predicting the future. There are too many variables and human natures at play.
Even saying what I would do if I were Taylor or Saunders assumes knowledge of the terrain that I don’t possess. What has Love communicated about his intentions? What are other teams willing to offer? What kind of coach are they after and who do they like with the 13th pick in the college draft? All those things factor into how to prepare for Love’s leaving.
The best of the bad scenarios
With those caveats in mind, here’s my take:
The huge $2 billion purchase agreement for the Los Angeles Clippers has increased the relative value of all the NBA franchises and puts less pressure on gate revenues as a means to support the franchise. Two months ago, I didn’t think Taylor could afford alienating his fan base with another massive rebuilding of the roster. Now I think he can.
That doesn’t mean he wants to — Taylor is as impatient for a winner as most of the die-hards. But he is also loath to give up on Love and if there is less of a need to hedge his bets, he might ride this contract saga through to the February trading deadline, if not the entire season. That means less return on a trade — or no trade at all.
For the sake of speculation, however, let’s instead assume the Wolves brass is convinced of the need to trade Love. Teams in this unenviable position never get true value for their superstar, but do often have options as to how they want to mitigate the damage — with some combination of proven starters, high draft picks and salary cap relief.
If the Wolves try to retool instead of rebuild, opting for proven starters, they need to create a more complementary defensive front court duo than Love and Pekovic were last season. Specifically, Pek needs to be paired with a power forward who emphasizes rim protection and yet can get out to the three-point shooter in the corner.
That’s why rumored trades with the Chicago Bulls are attractive — Taj Gibson would be an excellent complement to Pek. The Bulls also own the rights to 6-10 power forward Nikola Mirotic — like Pek a native of Montenegro — who has become a rising star in the best Euro-league in Spain. Mirotic is apparently more of an outside shooter than a lockdown defender, but is young and athletic.
With the chance to create a trio of Love, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Bulls should be willing to sweeten the package with picks and subsidiary players beyond Gibson and/or Mirotic. Chicago is a major city and is a near-lock to go deep into the playoffs should they land Love, both of which would increase the chance of Love extending his contract with the Bulls.
Thus, right now Chicago seems like the best trading partner if the Wolves want to retool. I was lobbying heavily for a trade with Oklahoma City that would involve their power forward Serge Ibaka, probably the best complement for Pek of anyone in the NBA, but Ibaka’s value to the club in this year’s playoffs reduces the likelihood of OKC being eager to put together much of a package. Ibaka plus shooting guard Jeremy Lamb or combo guard Reggie Jackson seems much less feasible now than even a month ago.
Another ideal complement for Pek would be Al Horford of Atlanta, a staunch defender, quality midrange shooter, and perennial all-star. Perhaps a deal adding three-point marksman Kyle Korver, with or without Minnesota dumping Kevin Martin to the Hawks, would be a solid retooling trade. The question is would Love agree to an extension in Atlanta which has an apathetic fan base, or would Hawks general manager Danny Ferry want to depart from his methodical building plans.
One of the more prominently rumored trading partners is Golden State, but almost every deal has the Wolves acquiring power forward David Lee, who would be a horrible fit alongside Pekovic. Klay Thompson is a dynamic shooting guard and solid defender, and small forward Harrison Barnes still has some potential despite regression the past year. But this retooling causes as many problems as it solves with Lee. If the Wolves can figure out a trade for Pek, Lee and second-year center Gorgui Dieng makes more sense.
Love’s trip to Boston renewed speculation about a trade with the Celtics, one of the many teams that would need to dangle a few high draft picks to shore up the less than stellar roster talent involved in any swap. Despite the success Saunders had with the drafting of Dieng (and to a lesser extent Shabazz Muhammad) relying on the draft to replace your superstar requires a front office with a longer and more successful track record than anyone in current front office possesses. And many teams rumored to be offering picks, such as Cleveland, would likely not be able to convince Love to extend his contract there.
Last year was the season the Wolves needed to demonstrate that Love could establish a winner’s pedigree in Minnesota. On that count, the campaign was a disaster for franchise and resident superstar alike. The key for the Wolves is now to come away from the Love situation with at least one durably valuable asset. Ideally, that would be an ace power forward such as Ibaka, Horford or Gibson/Mirotic, hopefully supplemented by an accurate shooting guard who can also defend. Less ideally, it would be some high draft picks and salary cap relief.
For Love it is a lot simpler. Sooner or later over the next twelve months, he will have his own “decision” to make, and the flaws currently under the magnifying glass will diminish in the spotlight of the playoffs.