The Minnesota Timberwolves have a Kevin Love problem. Or Kevin Love has a Minnesota Timberwolves problem. I'm not quite sure which it is at this point, but the contentious relationship between superstar and franchise is again at the national forefront—at a time when the Timberwolves can ill-afford such strife.
The latest round on the public-comment carousel has Love again unhappy with his teammates, this time for what he deemed a lack of respect from Dante Cunningham and J.J. Barea during the fourth quarter of Minnesota's 104-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. To hear Love tell it, Cunningham and Barea refused to leave the bench during late timeouts—ostensibly because they were unhappy about being on the bench.
"We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts," Love said, via ESPN. "We all need to be in this together. That kind of pisses me off. We're supposed to be a team."
This is the second spat between Love and Barea in the past two weeks. Barea, a hot-and-cold guard whose true NBA value is negligible, was unhappy that Love expressed frustration with the lack of bench production in Minnesota's Dec. 30 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, per Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.
There are any number of ways to take this. Wednesday's loss to Phoenix dropped Minnesota to 0-10 in games decided by four or fewer points. A positive regression is in order, but there may come a point when the Timberwolves start developing a reputation as the Detroit Lions of the NBA—equipped with playoff-level talent but grade-school maturity.
Love isn't shy about voicing his opinions. Never has been. He's the type of guy you let vent a little and then talk to him an hour later when he's cooled down. Odds are he won't be so publicly scathing if given a second chance, and odds are he'll back off a bit with platitudes any time now.
But because this is Kevin Love we're talking about, the Internet has run amok with these comments and used them as an excuse to run the latest gambit of trade-rumor roulette. Love is no stranger to speculation. It's never been reported that the Wolves have even considered such a move, but you don't have to look hard to see him tied to every scenario known to man.
Love-for-Blake Griffin is everyone's favorite fake trade. ESPN's Bill Simmons even fake-traded him to Chicago in the preseason. Kevin Love is the NBA media's and #basketballTwitter's hypothetical golden goose—the next dude in line to join Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony and others to bolt a small market for a large one.
All of the speculation comes down to one central premise: Love is unhappy in Minnesota, and he will leave in free agency at the first possible minute. David Kahn, the team's former bumbling general manager, stupidly balked at signing Love to a five-year deal to save the designated player distinction for Ricky Rubio—a move that understandably drew Love's frustration and started a domino effect that may topple the franchise.
Minnesota has never won more than 31 games since Love's arrival but has dropped below 20 twice. The team is a bastion of NBA incompetence, drilling itself deep enough into the ground to strike oil. Why wouldn't Love—someone with big-city ties, a big personality and media savvy—want a media platform outside frigid Minneapolis?
The supposed inevitability of Love's departure, specifically to the Lakers, has caused many around the league to take that stance. Minnesota needs to be proactive here. They need to look at the massive hauls in future draft choices, young talent and cap flexibility that teams like the Nuggets, Nets and Magic have received for their disgruntled stars and follow suit.
Don't let him dump you; dump him. Send him anywhere and let some other franchise deal with the impending nightmare of his free agency.
Here's a crazy, alternative plan: how about just getting better? Instead of using the next two years to gauge Love's trade value, use it to acquire basketball players who fit within the framework of a cohesive team.
Love, assuming you still count LeBron James as a 3, is the best power forward in basketball. He is on pace to become the first player since the inception of the three-point line to average at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in the same season, per Basketball-Reference.com. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Billy Cunningham have done that in the history of basketball—and all of them are in Springfield.
Love isn't someone who is easily replaceable by spare parts and long-term lottery odds. He's someone you cling to like a baby kangaroo to his mother's pouch. And even if the trade-and-wash-your-hands scenario seems attractive, ask the Jazz how comfortable they are with the development of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Or slip Rob Hennigan some truth elixir and prod him with questions of building around Dwight Howard in this Eastern Conference.
Detonating a roster comes with the hope of landing a player like Love, a 25-year-old superstar heading into his prime. He's the ship you go down sinking with until the very last second.
Instead of blowing it all up—and again this is a crazy idea—maybe it's time to start making sensible personnel decisions.
Kahn is gone, but Year 1 of the Flip Saunders return hasn't ended the questionable decision-making. Saunders flipped the No. 9 overall pick (Trey Burke, who has been solid enough) for two players (Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng) for whom he would have trouble fetching a second-round pick for right now. He hit a home run on the Kevin Martin deal, for now, but Chase Budinger is a replacement-level outside shooter who is getting paid more than the mid-level. Corey Brewer has been fine, but not $5 million-per-season fine.
Saunders' offseason strategy was apparently to lock in as many middling free agents as possible, and now everyone is wondering why consistency is a problem. The Wolves are still below average from beyond the arc, despite having a healthy Love, and they are still middling defensively. While they do have a good offense, they are not the second-best unit in the league, as points per game would suggest.
The team's biggest problems—shooting and defense—are interesting, because they open the dialogue about Love's co-stars and how they fit around him.
Rubio is adored by media and fans because it's fun as all hell to watch him throw gravity-bending passes, but thankfully the national discussion is finally starting about his broken jumper. He's 133 games into his career and shooting just 35.6 percent from the floor. Only 22 players in the history of basketball have played 3,000 minutes and lasted at least 100 games while shooting below 36 percent over the course of their careers, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Of those players, only three have played since the merger: Rubio, Bobby Hurley and Keith McLeod. That is great company for someone whom the five-year distinction has been waiting.
Nikola Pekovic also has his positives, and plenty of them. He's an absolute behemoth in the paint, a ball of muscle who is perhaps the league's strongest player. What makes Pek so impressive is the way he combines strength with athleticism. He can go over either shoulder with hooks and works in perfect sync with Love, who spends much of his time hanging outside the paint on offense.
The duo just can't provide any rim protection. Only the Sacramento Kings have allowed opponents to shoot at a better rate in the restricted area this season, per NBA.com. Love and Pekovic allow the worst (Love) and third-worst (Pekovic), respectively, opponent shooting percentage at the rim, per NBA.com. Love has a tendency to rush into rebounding position before actually, you know, defending his guy. Pek, despite his size, has little in the way of ball skills or knowledge of how to use his body to protect the basket.
Minnesota should explore the trade markets for Rubio and Pekovic before entertaining a move that includes Love. It should also consider dumping Barea, who has become far more trouble than he's worth. And Rick Adelman should be fined $50,000 every time Alexey Shved touches a basketball floor before garbage time.
The team is already capped-out for next season. The only way Saunders can enact real change is by engaging teams in trade talks, and Rubio and Pekovic both have their admirers among league executives—the latter obviously more than the former.
If Love makes it clear he won't be happy in Minnesota, no matter what happens, and plans on leaving within the next year-and-a-half, only then does it make sense to start trade talks. But it certainly does not make sense to do at February's upcoming trade deadline.
The quickest way to a disgruntled superstar's heart is to build a winning team. If that means floating out the names of your second-best and third-best players, so be it; point guards who can't shoot and elite offensive centers who can't defend can be replaced.
Superstars cannot. No matter how much promises of draft picks and young talent make you think otherwise.
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