Will Minnesota Timberwolves Allow Kevin Love to Leave a Free Agent?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

Has Kevin Love already turned his back on Minnesota?
Has Kevin Love already turned his back on Minnesota?David Sherman/Getty Images

Kevin Garnett gave 12 of his best seasons to the Minnesota Timberwolves, delaying any real opportunity to contend for the championship he'd eventually win. Don't count on Kevin Love to do the same.

The writing is already on the wall, but it remains slightly unclear what exactly it says. Will Minnesota make the most of Love's inevitable departure, sending him on his way in exchange for some perfunctory compensation (draft picks, young talent)? 

Or will the T-Wolves test their bad luck?

Love's recent history of comments may be tempting the organization to do just that. When asked by GQ's Steve Marsh about the possibility of teaming up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Love said, "We have the better team, the better foundation. I'm having fun."

More recently, after actually beating those Lakers, Love had this to say on the subject, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan: "You know, my parents lived there and they had me there. It's not my fault. I don't really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don't think about it."

But according to ESPNLosAngeles,com's Dave McMenamin, Love is thinking about something:

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; 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. 

So we know Love is saying the right things publicly. One wonders what he's actually saying to Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders. 

If Love's being honest and making his intentions to leave well known, then the organization's failure to deal him would be nothing short of malpractice. An exit of these proportions will leave a substantial power forward vacuum in Minnesota, an immediate need to rebuild with as many resources as the franchise can get its clumsy hands on.

That means making a trade.

McMenamin insists that "Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love," but that effort can't continue indefinitely. The longer Love remains with the team, the less leverage Saunders will have when dealing him. Other organizations don't want a rental. Moreover, the closer we get to 2015 (when Love can opt to become a free agent), the more inclined other teams will be to wait it out.

Making a trade may not be easy, but it is necessary. ESPN.com's Marc Stein noted the possibility of the Lakers building a package around this June's lottery pick, but he further explained that, "There is just as much defiance emanating from Minnesota, as we speak, about the Wolves' ability to keep Love in town."

Some call it defiance. It should be called utter foolishness.

Let's say Saunders somehow manages to talk Love into delaying his inevitable fate, sticking it out in Minnesota for a little while longer. What then? 

The franchise won't be attracting other elite free agents anytime soon. They don't like the cold. They don't believe in the team's culture, and they won't be convinced it can turn itself around in a severely competitive Western Conference. This is the reality that Minnesota has to confront: Improvement will be a gradual process, stimulated in large part by the internal development of draft picks and young talent.

The Timberwolves will have to depend on the NBA's version of moneyball. LeBron James isn't taking his talents to the Twin Cities, not in this dimension of reality. No amount of desire to play with someone of Love's caliber will change the fact that Minnesota just isn't a desirable enough venue.

The T-Wolves would be better off using the San Antonio Spurs as a model. Big-name free agents never flocked to play with Tim Duncan. San Antonio instead relied upon savvy drafting and a sound system to surround Duncan with well over a decade's worth of contending talent. 

If Minnesota wants to keep Love around, it would be better off changing the culture than harboring any expectations of overhauling the roster. Beyond the improbability of attracting elite talent, the organization doesn't even have the cap space to do so.

The Timberwolves will owe Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin between in the neighborhood of $20 million per season until 2017. And they'll have to give Ricky Rubio a raise no later than 2015, when he becomes a restricted free agent.

Adding Love's own salary to the equation, that leaves precious little room to pay a superstar cohort. 

If the Timberwolves are going to win, they're going to have to do it with the guys they have on hand—the same, defensively challenged unit that has Love quietly thinking about "big cities."

In time, anything's possible. But that's the problem. The Timberwolves don't have time.

At most, they have one more season to prove themselves capable of winning. After missing the playoffs, that's a tall task—especially in the West. The Timberwolves could certainly make it to the postseason next year, but they won't go far.

They'll look eerily similar to the teams Garnett led all those years.

The kind of teams Love doesn't want anything to do with during his prime.

Denial can do funny things to a team's thinking, though. So can the need to keep fans in the seats. But even the Timberwolves know better than to let Love walk without getting anything in return. The fans wouldn't stay in those seats for long.

Instead, Minnesota will prolong this ordeal for a couple of reasons.

First, it wants to prove to fans that it tried. Not everyone understands the intricacies of team-building. Many will question trading the face of the franchise, seeing it as some kind of capitulation or financially motivated move. It needs to be clear that this was about Love, not about the organization.

Second, it's not clear as of yet that a robust market for Love's services has actually developed. There's no bidding war, no competition. Minnesota would ideally like to play Love's suitors off of one another, but the suitors have to emerge first. Perhaps the New York Knicks or Chicago Bulls will come through in that respect, helping drive up Love's price and forcing the Lakers to cough up more goods in the process.

That's the strategy the Denver Nuggets took when dealing Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, and it worked out pretty well. The Timberwolves will hope to execute a similar strategy, winding up with enough talent to accelerate their rebuild and at least hold on to Rubio.

And hold on to a few of those fans while they're at it.


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