Love is under as much pressure to make the playoffs as the Timberwolves are in 2013-14.
The popular train of thought in Minnesota is that the Timberwolves need to make the playoffs this year or Kevin Love is as good as gone. His contract is up in two years, so the former UCLA star could decline his player option and leave Minneapolis for Los Angeles or another big city in 2015-16.
Speculation about his departure heightened last year when Love sat down with Adrian Wojnarowski and told the Yahoo! reporter that he was uncertain about the team’s future. Remember how everyone flipped out and essentially thought the Wolves better get it together or they will lose their franchise player? Remember Love saying this?
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.
Well, now those words can be used against him.
Taylor is still around. While he may have been a little out of line when he said Love is not a star, the forward has yet to lead the Wolves to the playoffs. Now, a year later, he is in a situation to do so.
Ricky Rubio is one of the best ball distributors in the league, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer were signed to plug some major holes (three-point shooting and perimeter defense, respectively) and Nikola Pekovic just got a major extension. Most pertinently, David Kahn is no longer running the show.
Love appears to like new general manger Flip Saunders and has always endorsed coach Rick Adelman. There are also two young players, Derrick Williams and Shabazz Muhammad, who possess incredible talent and could become cornerstone pieces in the future. There are plenty of depth players—namely, Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger—who should make major contributions off the bench.
In short, Love has the pieces around him to be part of a playoff run. Now it is his turn to execute.
If Minnesota does not make the playoffs this season, of course it will look bad for team management. They will have wasted Adelman’s return, Love’s prime and any fan interest they generated in the offseason.
At the same time, it will not help Love’s stock if he can’t guide his team into the postseason. Instead of being seen as a star that needed help, he will be viewed as a player that “can’t get it done,” called a narcissist for his comments about the team, and carry the “red flag” label due to his previous injuries.
Love is a bona fide superstar—make no mistake about that. But he needs to have success in the playoffs as much as the team does.
It’s no longer about whether he has the right pieces around him. It’s about whether he’s able to rise to the occasion in 2013-14.
“Can’t Get It Done”
Remember back in 2005-06 when LeBron James, in his third year in the league, basically put the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back and took his team to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing to the Detroit Pistons back when the Pistons were good?
And then the next season when he took the Cavs all the way to the NBA Finals before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs?
That’s what a franchise player does. He is the tide that raises all the boats—especially in a sport like basketball, where one player influences the game in a way that a baseball, football or hockey player cannot.
Love is not LeBron and I’m not trying to suggest he will ever be, but I use that example to illustrate this point: When James left home to join the Miami Heat, people outside of Cleveland (and possibly a few in Northern Ohio) felt he was justified in leaving his home team because the Cavaliers never put enough talent around him.
While diehard Cavs fans perceived James to be avoiding pressure by playing in front of rather indifferent crowds in Southern Florida instead of trying to win a championship in hard-luck Cleveland, many basketball fans around the nation responded by asking, “Whom would you rather play with, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh or Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison?”
The same could have been asked of Love: Would you rather play with Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson or, well, with just about anybody else? The field wins that one every time.
Now, however, Love has a semblance of a Big Three (Rubio, Love, Pekovic) and a lot of depth around him. It’s not necessarily a star-driven team, and Love may be the only transcendent player right now (Rubio and Pek are close though), but he definitely has a better supporting cast than LeBron had both in terms of high-end talent and depth.
He is also better coached, and the fans aren’t as desperate for a championship (although, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?).
Like Marshawn Lynch, stars put the team on their backs. Love needs to prove he can do that next season. Isiah Thomas did it with the Detroit Pistons, Michael Jordan did it with the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant did it with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Love needs to do it in Minnesota. Right now.
“A Me-First Player”
Love never really got the narcissist label until he spoke with Wojnarowski last December. In fact, most of the Wolves fans did the complaining for him, wondering why the team was drafting so poorly and not dipping into free agency to capitalize on having arguably the best power forward on the game in Minnesota.
But as soon as that Yahoo! article came out, and both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press ran headlines about it, the sports community in the Twin Cities was divided.
One camp felt Love was justified. He is a double-double machine who had cut weight and added a three-point shot, and he was surrounded by failed draft picks and poor acquisitions (we’re looking at you, Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley). There was a rotating door of coaches, an overconfident general manager and something called a Ricky Rubio that was playing thousands of miles away in Spain after being drafted.
On the other hand, Love’s comments rubbed some people the wrong way. Flynn, Johnson, Beasley and Milicic were all ushered out of town at this point. Rubio had arrived, Adelman was behind the bench and at the very least there was some thought that D-Will could become a productive player—even if it was as a sixth man off the bench.
In a league where so many fans are wary of the star who can undermine a franchise—Tracy McGrady not wanting to play with Vince Carter in Toronto, Stephon Marbury not wanting to play with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Carmelo Anthony forcing Denver to make a bad trade—Love invited the label of a self-centered superstar.
If the Wolves make the playoffs this year, people will look back at his comments and say that they galvanized the team to rid itself of D.K., sign a couple key free agents and put the team in a position to win.
If they fall short of the postseason, however, it will look like Love overvalued himself and that he was part of the problem, rather than the solution, in Minnesota.
It started with a concussion and minor ailments. It was amplified when he broke his hand not once, but twice last season.
Sports fans in Minnesota were in a familiar place: Their star player was damaged goods. Like players on other teams across the Twin Cities—Marian Gaborik (Wild), Adrian Peterson (Vikings) and Justin Morneau (Twins)—Love had suffered a major injury and there was concern he would never be the same player again.
All three of the other cases turned out differently.
Gaborik was injured during his contract year and departed for the New York Rangers in the offseason, leaving the Wild empty-handed.
Peterson miraculously recovered, but there was some question as to why he was even playing against Washington when the team should have been tanking for Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin.
The worst case was Morneau, who was never the same again. He was eventually dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Ryan Presley and a player to be named later.
The jury is still out on Love.
He could remain healthy all season long and help turn things around for the moribund Wolves, or he could break his hand again, sustain another concussion or suffer various other ailments that keep him off the court and make executives around the league wonder if he is worth a large financial risk.
Like so many other things, it really depends on the team’s success this year.
If Minnesota goes on a playoff run with Love leading the way, his injury troubles will be a thing of the past. If not, however, it’s the same old refrain: His best days are behind him and maybe, just maybe, he was never as good as we all thought.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.