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.