Welcome to the Minnesota Timberwolves' nightmare.
Kevin Love, a top-10 superstar, is barreling toward 2015 free agency, approaching freedom he has yet to experience. And that freedom gives him the power of choice.
Does he stay with the Timberwolves, or does he sign elsewhere?
The Timberwolves, meanwhile, are left answering a similar, yet painfully different question in the interim.
Is Love already gone?
This was supposed to be the season that all changed for good. David Kahn was out, Flip Saunders was in and the Timberwolves spent enough money to suggest they would land a playoff spot for the first time in Love's career and since 2004.
Thanks to the psychotically competitive Western Conference, that's not going to happen. Though the Timberwolves have an opportunity to finish above .500 for the first time in nearly 10 years, they're going to miss the playoffs, extending Love's lottery-dwelling basketball streak to six seasons.
Through all this—all the losing, all the frustration, all the uncertainty—rumors have run rampant, each one as disquieting as the next. Even when Love is seemingly pumping the brakes on his potential departure, speculation trumps all.
"You know, my parents live there and they had me there," Love said of Los Angeles after his Timberwolves' 143-107 drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "It's not my fault."
Right on cue, his attempt at deflection was dwarfed by another report.
"A source familiar with Love's thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it's not just L.A. that is appealing to Love," McMenamin wrote. "He's enamored with the idea of being 'big time in a big city,' and that list of potential places he'd seek includes New York and Chicago, as well."
This is pretty much par for the current course.
At different points, the Lakers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks have all been linked to Love. One general manager even told ESPN Insider's Chris Broussard (subscription required) that Love to Los Angeles is a "100 percent certainty."
Interest originating from big markets isn't the problem. When a superstar is slated to become available, teams maneuver in advance—not just big markets, but everyone. Love's tenure in Minnesota could be going swimmingly and that wouldn't change.
Mutual interest is the problem. Reports aren't always accurate, but when they come in volume like they are now, there's usually a trace of truth to their premise. And the vultures—interested teams—aren't going to stop circling until a resolution is reached.
The problem? Answers to all the Timberwolves' questions aren't going to be provided anytime soon.
To the Timberwolves' credit, they don't appear inclined to let fear of Love's departure force them into any brash decisions.
Per ESPN's Marc Stein, owner Glen Taylor is hellbent on keeping Love in Minnesota. Grantland's Zach Lowe corroborated Stein's take as well, asserting that the Timberwolves will refuse to relinquish one of the NBA's most coveted assets:
All those teams have gotten the same impression, directly or indirectly, from the Timberwolves: They are not interested in trading Love ahead of his potential free agency. You can understand that, even if a game of chicken could result in the nightmare scenario of Love walking for nothing — or for the kind of petty returns Cleveland and Toronto got for LeBron James and Chris Bosh, respectively, in gun-to-your-head sign-and-trades.
A market like Minnesota just isn't going to attract a top-10 player in free agency unless it already has one heading up a very appealing roster. Those are the most precious commodities in the sport, and Minnesota has one. Surrendering that kind of talent is so painful for a non-glamour team. You never know when or if you'll ever get one again.
Although history is littered with teams that held out hope for too long—the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance—certain players are worth rolling the dice on no matter what. Love is that kind of player.
For all his flaws, he's still a superstar, the kind of player teams can build around. Trading him is never going to be good, even if the return is respectable. There's no guarantee a high lottery pick turns into the next Love.
It's also not as if the Timberwolves haven't improved this season. They have the ninth-highest point differential in the NBA (3.52), which, as of now, is better than eight of the 16 projected playoff teams. Statistically, they've also been one of the more well-balanced teams, checking in the top 12 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Basically, the numbers suggest they have been good enough to legitimately contend for a playoff spot. That's something the Timberwolves can point to between now and 2015. Injuries to Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger and Ricky Rubio's slow progression are also arguments that work in their favor.
Rather than throw in the towel and submit to an exit many consider inevitable, the Timberwolves can attempt to build on this season's showing. The Timberwolves have over $66 million committed to their ledger for next season, per ShamSports.com, but they could use Gorgui Dieng's breakout as a means to sweeten any trade package, perhaps pairing him with one of their other long-term contracts.
Beefing up their bench is imperative too. According to HoopStats.com, their second unit ranks 25th in scoring per game and dead last in differential.
Standing pat isn't out of the question, unfortunately. Not only are the Timberwolves restricted financially, but if they wish to roll into next season with a healthy core and renewed playoff hopes, they could do just this, hoping Love takes a long-awaited playoff berth to heart.
Clinging to that hope isn't foolproof, though. Love's heightened distaste for mediocre basketball may not be erased by an overdue playoff berth. By next summer, he'll be seven years deep in the NBA. All an early playoff exit succeeds in doing is reminding him that the Timberwolves still aren't contenders.
Moving Love before next season's trade deadline is the only definitive course of action available at the moment. But that doesn't mean it's one the Timberwolves will break their backs exploring.
Again, management appears dead set on doing everything in its power to retain Love. Lukewarm trade offers must also be taken into account.
Dealing Love would have yielded more if it was done before this year's trade deadline. Love's player option for 2015-16 essentially means he's on an expiring contract. Few teams are willing to mortgage the farm on a player who won't guarantee his presence beyond 2014-15.
One of the teams that would is, of course, the Lakers. From Stein:
The suggestion is already in circulation that the Lakers will attempt to use their forthcoming high lottery pick in June to assemble the sort of trade package that finally convinces the Wolves to part with Love and end the uncertainty that hangs over this franchise even before the 25-year-old enters the final year of his contract. Yet there is just as much defiance emanating from Minnesota, as we speak, about the Wolves' ability to keep Love in town.
Cranky Kobe Bryant may force the Lakers into dangling what could be a top-five or even top-three draft pick in Love negotiations. But that's the extent of their assets.
None of their free agents is likely to appeal to the Timberwolves as part of a sign-and-trade. Any pieces they would have—Kent Bazemore, Nick Young, Kendall Marshall, etc.—aren't the fortunes-turning talent the Timberwolves would seek.
And yet, whatever offer the Lakers field—assuming it includes their draft selection—could be the best Minnesota sees. The Lakers themselves might even decide to wait until summer 2015, when Love wouldn't cost them a potential star.
Point being, Love's murky future, whatever it holds, won't be cleared up overnight. If the Timberwolves don't move him by the draft, they'll go into next season facing months' worth of questions leading into the trade deadline. And if they still refuse to move him, additional, months-long conjecture will follow.
Realistically, this saga could drag out another 12-plus months, failing to yield an actual conclusion until July 2015, when the decision of what comes next is up to Love and him alone.
For now, the Timberwolves haven't lost Love—not yet. He's still putting up video game numbers, draining three-pointers and grabbing rebounds. He's still their superstar.
But if we're to believe what we're hearing—that Love is seeking refuge from small-market woes in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles—then it's only a matter of time before he's not. The question would then become: Are the Timberwolves prepared to lose Love while going down swinging through next season and into free agency, or will they put an end to a tenure rife with uncertainty on their own terms?
After all, while Love's departure may not be imminent, current conditions suggest it's been seasons in the making, turning matters of "if" into conflicts of "when."
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise attributed.