The Minnesota Timberwolves, after spending four post-Kevin Garnett years in the wilderness, are back on the basketball map. A combination of Ricky Rubio fever and Kevin Love's ongoing excellence has turned the former laughingstock into one of the NBA's top young teams to watch. Replacing the inflexible Kurt Rambis with Rick Adelman was a nice touch, too.
But there's a catch: David Kahn, the last man still gushing about Darko Milicic's star potential, is still running the show, which means it was only a matter of time before something went wrong.
Barely a month into the T-Wolves resurgence, the team is facing its first crisis. Love, the rebounding machine whose passing skills fuse perfectly with those of shiny new toy Rubio, has yet to agree to a contract extension. Kahn is offering $62 million for four years. Love wants the $80 million for five years that Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook just received. The Timberwolves want room to make moves over the crucial next few years; like all small market teams, they will win only through a combination of smart spending and above-average personnel shifts.
However, there's one missing ingredient that goes overlooked, the proverbial elephant in the room: Teams also have to make a few key draft picks, and then big expenditures, to give them that competitive foundation.
The Thunder and Sam Presti have been perhaps too smart for their own good with draft picks, ending up with more steals than he can afford to keep. More importantly, though, they got Kevin Durant and were able to keep him. Ditto for Westbrook.
Small market teams simply can't afford not to spend money on stars. Granted, the spatial isolation they impose is no longer as much of a hindrance for brand growth that it once was. Still, most players do have quality of life on their minds. And because of the way the NBA works, small market teams generally aren't as good and don't have a tradition of success to appeal to. They can't attract players with a legacy; in effect, they are relying on young stars to help them build one.
This is the easy part of running a team like the Timberwolves. Well, picking in the draft can most definitely be screwed up, but the Wolves—for all else Kahn has done wrong—have secured the services of two keepers. For the team to have any future, Love and Rubio need to be retained at any cost.
There's just no other way for them to approximate what the Thunder, the template for small market teams, have done. Of course, they could always take their chances with the Grizzlies model, where high-risk acquisitions and slow learners come together to make something beautiful. However, there's no reason to go that route, and no indication that it's any easier (or cheaper) than copying the Thunder.
The Timberwolves don't technically need to panic yet. Love is only up for restricted free agency this summer, meaning the team could match any offer. To truly attain his freedom, the forward would have to play out next season at a dirt-cheap qualifying offer and zero guarantee on his future. However, Kahn is acting like he has leverage when he simply doesn't.
The owners may have succeeded in limiting the amount of money available to players. That doesn't mean, though, they don't still need to spend to keep teams intact.
Suppose no agreement is reached. Then Love, who played college ball at UCLA, maybe starts to get a wandering eye or at least crave warm weather. The team's newfound harmony and bond with a long-suffering fanbase get eaten away by questions about Love's plans. Trust in the front office, though misplaced, plummets. It wouldn't be "The Decision" all over again, and Kevin Love would still do his job. But it's the sort of distraction, and change of direction, that a team finally catching some momentum can scarcely afford.
This isn't talked about much, but if Russell Westbrook had felt like waiting until this summer, he would likely have had even more leverage—and been eligible for more money. Under the wacky Derrick Rose Rule, Westbrook would have been eligible for the largest contract possible if he were to make any All-NBA team this season. Between Westbrook's career trajectory and the flexibility of the All-NBA teams, this would have been a good bet.
Love isn't sitting quite that pretty yet, but he's only getting better and earning more recognition for it. It's entirely possible that, if it were to come to unrestricted free agency in 2013, the Rose Rule would be on the table.
Westbrook was attached to the league's best young team, and a contract situation could potentially get in the way of a year that has "Finals or bust!" written all over it. His reputation, twisted at best, simply can't afford that kind of PR.
Love has no such qualms. The Wolves need him far more than he needs them. The team, for all its promise, hasn't exactly got itself on stable footing. His reputation is impeccable. And most importantly, David Kahn is still in charge, and that roster is a mess.
Kahn may want to play the small market genius, but to earn that luxury, he needs to do the obvious things right. In this case, that means giving Kevin Love what he wants, before things get messy or anyone starts to notice just how many other issues this team still has.