A player of Love's caliber can only withstand so much losing before he snaps, especially when he has an out. And Love has an out.
Come 2015, Love will enter free agency, where plenty of suitors await. With the Timberwolves losers of four straight and heading for another lottery finish, it's become increasingly apparent that Love's days with the team could be numbered, putting, as D.J. Foster—writing for ProBasketballTalk—says, Minnesota on the clock:
Garnett was loyal to a fault, sure, but at least he had some semblance of hope that the Wolves could reach the next level with him on board. He had reason for his faith.
The same can't be said for Love, and so the Wolves are essentially on the clock to somehow change that.
That means there's 10 days to make a franchise-altering trade, 30 games to make up a seven-game deficit in the standings, and just one contract year left before Love can bolt in free agency.
Waning loyalty, coupled with excessive losing, has given the Timberwolves just days to decide the course of their immediate future. Do they attempt to beat the odds and nab a playoff berth, or do they cut their losses now, get out in front of this situation and trade Love?
It's a question without an easy answer but one that becomes slightly less vexing when you understand what moving Love would mean for Minnesota.
Timing Is Everything
Whether you're trading Love or Saving Silverman, timing is everything.
The longer the Timberwolves wait, the more difficult it becomes to hit "reset," start over and move on. Love's player stock is in no danger of taking a hit. He's only just staked himself in the top-10 conversation and could soon be toeing top-five territory.
Trade value, while related to a player's individual value, is different. Potential worth means nothing without a future. General managers cannot milk rosters of every last asset for players who don't have a future with their team. Exceptions to the rule exist, their names being LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Aside from those two, there isn't a player in the league worth draining asset pools for without the promise of him being there next season.
Love, who will become an unrestricted free agent in 2015, enters flight-risk mode next year. Any deal the Timberwolves were to strike after this season runs the chance of becoming a glorified rental. Not unlike Dwight Howard's situation with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, Love has the opportunity to spurn any team willing to brave his impending free-agency status.
Dealing him now, while abrupt and painful, safeguards the Timberwolves against low-balling offers that demand they take markedly less than what Love is worth. Minnesota still has leverage at the moment, knowing Love can be retained beyond this year.
Unless they're dealing with the New York Knicks, they won't get a Carmelo Anthony-like return. The Denver Nuggets had little to no leverage in that situation but made out like bandits anyway. That won't happen to the Timberwolves.
Most of the team's bargaining power goes out the window after this year, when Love not only is on an "expiring" deal, but also has more of an influence over where the Timberwolves send him. If he trots out a list of preferred destinations, moving him becomes a more complex project. In a way, it already is.
Sam Smith of Bulls.com has already heard Love is favoring the Knicks and Lakers, and ESPN's Chris Broussard (subscription required) has been told Love is a virtual lock to wind up in Los Angeles. Preferred landing spots like those are restrictions that only become more constrictive with time.
Investing significant assets in flight risks becomes easier if a team has ample time to change the player's mind, so to speak. One season or half a year won't provide the assurance necessary to offer Minny the kind of package it will be seeking.
Making Love available is an implicit admission that he's good as gone, impairing Minnesota's clout no matter what. Commingle that with his apparent desire to wind up somewhere in particular, and the earlier the Timberwolves trade him, the more they stand to get in return.
What's He Worth?
Though not so much anymore, Love has been dismissed as a top superstar in the past. Five seasons without a playoffs appearance have worked against him, portraying him as the rare production-without-substance player.
Now more than ever, that argument is weak. Actually, it's dead.
Love is averaging 25.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 45.4 percent shooting, including a respectable 36.4 percent clip from downtown. He leads the league in double-doubles (43), and lately, he's pitted himself next to Durant at the foul line:
Kevin Love has recorded 4 straight games with 12+ made free throws, the longest such streak in the NBA since Kevin Durant (Apr. 4-9, 2010).— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) February 12, 2014
Over his last six games, Love has been particularly incredible:
Kevin Love averaging 31.5 ppg and 15.8 rpg over his last 6 games, including his league-leading 12th 30/10 performance Monday vs. Houston.— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) February 12, 2014
The problem? Minnesota is 1-5 during that six-game stretch, and it's just 24-28 on the season, finding itself 6.5 games back of a playoff spot. Tracking toward a sixth straight lottery finish stands to create some misconception that Love is at fault.
But he's not.
Win shares are one of the most accurate barometers of a player's performance and subsequent value to his team. Love ranks third in that department with 9.6, behind only James (10) and Durant (13.5). He's also the only player on a lottery-bound team located within the top 10.
Love's 9.6 win shares means he's accounting for 40 percent of Minnesota's victories as well. Know who else represents that many of his team's wins? Nobody.
No other player in the top 15 (shown above) comes close to matching Love's 40 percent mark; Anthony is next in line with 33.5 percent. That's absurd, in both a good and bad way. It also bulwarks an already-strong argument.
Love is a superstar—a top-10 superstar—and should be valued as such in trade negotiations.
Criticism behind the idea that Love is a flight risk is pointless by now. With free agency fast approaching, he could leave when the time comes.
Really smart of Kevin Love to go through a dry run of thanking Minnesota in the paper ahead of.... nevermind.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 9, 2014
Frustration has mounted, and while there's still a chance he remains in Minnesota, there's a strong possibility he doesn't. And if the Timberwolves are sensing he'll grow angry beyond resolution after another missed postseason, shopping him now is the most beneficial course of action.
Just saw the Kevin Love "I have 45 points, really, i'm not gonna touch the ball on the do-or-die play?" Face. He has a pretty good case.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 23, 2013
Moving him before the Feb. 20 trade deadline maximizes their return. There's no telling what teams would give up for at least a season-and-a-half of Love with the promise of owning his Bird rights in 2015.
All right, there is: almost anything.
Is Love worth a high lottery pick in this year's loaded draft? Could he be packaged with one or more expensive contracts the Timberwolves wish to clear off their books? Could he net promising young prospects Minnesota can use to build around?
Yes, yes and yes—and more.
Love immediately becomes the most talented player on the trade block in recent memory if he's put up for grabs. When a legitimate, franchise-changing superstar becomes available, teams flock to the table. It will be no different for Love. Think Anthony-type haul...only better.
Could the Timberwolves get adequate value in return for Love if they deal him this season?
"I'm looking forward to representing you in New Orleans, the second half of the season as we continue our push for the playoffs, and my future in Minnesota with the Timberwolves," Love wrote in a full-page ad in Sunday's Star Tribune, per The Associated Press (via Fox News).
Love's future may not lie in Minnesota, but if timed properly, the Timberwolves can turn their superstar into restored hope and a tomorrow far brighter and clearer than the thick cloud of uncertainty enveloping them today.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.