Update: May 2, 4:00 PM ET By Ethan Norof
The Minnesota Timberwolves have fired GM David Kahn, and a new deal for Flip Saunders to replace him is expected to be finalized by Friday, according to the Associated Press.
END OF UPDATE
It’s no secret that small-market teams struggle to retain big-name players.
The only recipe for franchises such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs to hang on to their superstars is the simple technique: winning—contend for titles, dwell in the spotlight of the league, and keep building talent.
And that’s going to be the issue for the Minnesota Timberwolves as star forward Kevin Love is not content with losing.
A new direction
Minnesota made the right first step by removing unsuccessful David Kahn, who went 89-223 with a contentiously long leash as the team’s general manager. His departure alone may remove the clouds that have surrounded the franchise.
The leading candidate to replace him, as it is being reported, is former coach Flip Saunders. He was 411-326 with Minnesota in 9.5 seasons, mostly thanks to the luxurious talents of Kevin Garnett.
Saunders was originally hired as the team's president beneath Kevin McHale in the offseason prior to 1995, and he was made head coach that December. Steve Aschburner of NBA.com, whose report also leads the expectations for Saunders to return, wrote this about Saunders' eventual demise in his first tenure with Minnesota:
Saunders shed the GM title in the wake of Minnesota’s salary-cap violations uncovered in 2000 in its signing forward Joe Smith. A series of illegal contracts, including future seasons after Smith played for what was considered to be less than market value for two years, ultimately cost the franchise three No. 1 draft picks and a $3.5 million fine, still the largest in NBA history. Taylor was suspended for one year and McHale, the Wolves’ VP of basketball operations at the time, agreed to take a leave of absence for the 2000-01 season.
But Aschburner writes that Saunders, who later successfully coached the Detroit Pistons (176-70) and not-so-successfully coached the Washington Wizards (51-130), remained on good terms with Minnesota owner Glen Taylor.
Love voices his discontent
The same can’t be said for Love, though, who had some pretty pointed words toward the organization in an Adrian Wojnarowski Yahoo! Sports piece that ran this past December:
"I don't know who labels people stars, but even [T'wolves owner] Glen Taylor said: I don't think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn't led us to the playoffs. I mean, it's not like I had much support out there. That's a tough pill to swallow."
Love added in the article: “You walk into the locker room every year, and it's completely turned over," Love says. "There's new guys everywhere. And then it happens again and again. You start to wonder: Is there really a plan here? Is there really any kind of a … plan?"
An unhappy Love is troublesome, as he has been the brightest piece of Minnesota’s dim past five years.
He has averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds so far in his five-year career. Before injuries derailed this past season, in which he played just 18 games, Love had a monster year in 2011-12, averaging 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game and finishing sixth in Most Valuable Player voting.
That season, Love signed a four-year contract extension, but he did so with the option to get out of the last year in the 2015 offseason.
|Salary||$13.67 million||$14.69 million||$15.71 million||$16.74 million*|
Injuries derailed this past 31-win season for Minnesota, and the team has plenty of offseason questions that include contract decisions on Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Andrei Kirilenko if he opts-out of his current $10.2 million player option.
Moving forward with Love
Other than point guard star Ricky Rubio, Love may be the only piece of top-tier talent steady in place moving forward.
Love wants to win, and if the organization isn’t headed in that direction, he made it perfectly clear that he has no problem moving on.
His most potent quote in the Yahoo! Sports article: “"I haven't been in the playoffs yet. I'm looking at my contract in the eye of two years from now, and if I haven't been to the playoffs – or it's been one playoff berth – well, it's going to be tough to say, 'Oh well, I'm going to stay here and continue to rebuild.’”
And it wasn’t like his comments to Wojnarowski were taken in an isolated moment of frustration. One day after that story ran, Love didn’t retract his comments and told reporters:
"I meant what I said, I told David there's nothing to apologize about," Love told reporters. "The only thing I was sorry about is that I did it in public, and if there's a learning experience from that, it's not to do that again."
"A lot of athletes these days say the right thing and aren't outspoken," he told reporters. "I happen to be in (the Yahoo! Sports) article. I'm not going to go forward and say I have anything to apologize about. I said what I felt. I didn't mean to alienate my team, my coaches, the organization or more importantly the fans ... I said a lot of things about the team and where we're at this point and I'll continue to say it throughout the year because that's how I feel."
Minnesota doesn’t have much time to impress Love.
Moving on from Kahn is the best first step, and if Saunders is indeed the guy, at least Minnesota has a guy with a history of winning with the franchise.
There is no better option than current coach Rick Adelman, but he is deciding his future in coaching dependent on the health of his wife.
There's always the option to trade Love, but it seems ridiculous Minnesota would let go of its top talent unless they are ready to undergo a full makeover that brings back equal talent—not likely.
No, the future of the Timberwolves may be in the hands of Saunders and his ability this offseason to build a plan around Love.
Or else he's gone.