The corner the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in is starting to show signs of its heavy traffic.
This is life for the NBA's small-market teams. Those lucky enough to employ a superstar have a finite period of time to enjoy that talent. Nothing short of a championship can widen that window.
For the Wolves and their homegrown star, Kevin Love, there is no path to the podium up ahead. Nothing more than the broken dreams and false hopes that have come to define his career as much as his overstuffed stat sheets.
Love Can't Win in Minnesota
There's something to be said for the fact that his competitive fire is still burning.
He's grown up in a culture of losing. The Wolves were trapped in a four-year playoff drought before his arrival. Since he joined the ranks in 2008, Minnesota is just 131-300.
He's starved for success and told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports last season his hunger could impact his approach to free agency:
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.'
If his first few years were rough, though, 2013-14 could be the worst-case scenario.
Love has more help than ever. Kevin Martin (19.3 points per game) and Nikola Pekovic (18.3) have eased the scoring burden. Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio have helped seal the defensive perimeter.
And for the first time in a long time, the injury bug has avoided Minnesota.
But the Wolves (18-19) are still on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. The roster improvements, the rare clean bill of health, none of it has been enough. Suddenly, this up-and-comer seems like it's arrived—and it's not very good.
Some say this team has simply been incredibly unfortunate. Unfortunate that the No. 11 net rating (plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions) should be better than the No. 10 seed in the West. Unfortunate that an 0-10 record in games decided by four points or less is the definition of fluky.
Unfortunate that some positive regression will bring Love the success he wants. The wins these 'Wolves need.
But when does a pattern become something bigger than misfortune? When is it the sign of a problem?
The Wolves are a volume offense. They have the No. 2 attack in terms of points per game (107.0) but sit No. 26 in team field-goal percentage (43.4). They don't defend the rim (66.4 percent shooting against, 29th) nor shoot it well from distance (34.8 percent, tied for 19th).
Pekovic gives away points as quickly as he puts them up. Rubio doesn't shoot well (34.7 field-goal percentage) and cannot hold a defender to save his life. Brewer's surviving off Love's long-range outlet passes; he's a non-factor in the half-court set.
The Wolves are essentially outnumbered at the offensive end and have holes they can't plug at the opposite side. This is a flawed core, but it's one Minnesota is married to for this season and next.
The Wolves don't have the assets to build a winner around Love. This franchise hasn't done itself any favors on draft day (see: Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson, Jonny Flynn, Shabazz Muhammad), and the lone crowned jewel—Rubio—is quickly losing its luster.
Each day pushes Love one step closer to the door...and lowers the potential package the Wolves could expect in return.
Love didn't need this season to validate his membership among the NBA's elite.
He's been hitting dinner parties, rubbing elbows with A-listers and otherwise enjoying the high life since joining Moses Malone in the 20-point, 15-rebound club during the 2010-11 season.
But this year has been incredible even by Love's lofty standards.
He's holding top-five averages in scoring (25.5, fourth) and rebounding (13.1, second). He's well within striking distance (3.9 assists) of becoming the first player in the three-point era to average at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Only four other players—all Hall of Famers—have ever hit those marks: Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, via Basketball-Reference.
From a strictly statistical stance, there's never been a better time to move Love.
Beyond the box score, though, there are reasons to sell now.
The Wolves can fool themselves into thinking they have a long-term chance with Love, but this story's already been written. Whether it's LeBron James' exit from Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony forcing his way out of Denver, Dwight Howard holding Orlando hostage or Deron Williams leaving the Jazz hanging high and dry.
Minnesota cannot afford to wait on Love. Not when the hoops world already knows the outcome.
"They should trade him," an Eastern Conference executive told CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "No one thinks he's staying. Everyone knows he wants to go to the Lakers."
The fact that Love's preferred destinations are being made public should accelerate Minnesota's trade clock.
The Wolves fell out of this race a long time ago. Balking at his request for a five-year contract all but ensured his exit. It also forced Minnesota to cater to his request for an early-termination option after the third year of the deal, a clause he seems guaranteed to exercise in 2015.
Trading for Love carries no certainties. It won't block his path to unrestricted free agency, nor even prevent him from suiting up in either of those global markets.
But the risk is lightened if a trade happens now.
No matter what the Wolves are seeking in return, that asking price can be exponentially greater this season as opposed to next. For a franchise eying Love as the last piece to its puzzle, getting two cracks at a title with him will make it far more open to parting with some prime assets.
There's a safety net for potential trade partners the sooner this deal takes place. In turn, it allows those teams to be more generous with their offers. If the Wolves opened the bidding now, they could reasonably request a king's ransom.
Some team will be willing to pay that price. As long as the Wolves give it that chance.
None of this should be a mystery to Minnesota.
Love's been overly blunt with what he expects, wants and desires out of his team. He wants to play for a contender. A championship contender.
The Wolves have a roster that goes best-case one-and-done in the postseason. That's not the type of winning Love says that he wants.
Not every franchise can afford to build a roster overnight like the one Love envisions. There are more than just business opportunities driving his desire to land in a major market.
The Wolves don't have the pieces to play that game. They've struck out on too many draft picks, overspent on too many middling free agents.
But this is Minnesota's chance to get back at those big-city bullies. This is the one time small-market clubs have some power to throw around.
Will the Wolves find another player like Love? No. But they won't have Love much longer anyway.
Remember, players like James, Anthony and Howard were playoff regulars with their original small-market clubs. Successful ones at that, each making a run at least to the conference finals.
That kind of winning wasn't enough. And that's far more than the Wolves could offer to Love before he opts out of his deal.
Could Minnesota stock the cupboard with expiring contracts, future draft picks and high-potential prospects? Absolutely, if it's willing to act now.
Who knows, maybe it will find the next Kevin Love. And this time, it'll have enough pieces around him to keep him from wondering about the brighter lights and greener grasses.
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