The Kevin Love free-agency countdown started the moment the Minnesota Timberwolves signed the power forward to a four-year deal with an early termination option on the final year. It was a bizarre move even at the time, and it would be franchise-crippling should Love choose to opt out of his contract and sign with a new team following the 2014-15 season.
Flip Saunders, Minnesota's current President of Basketball Operations, has been on damage control basically from the moment he took the job last year, and finding the Wolves' next head coach is his biggest test yet.
The Wolves have made it very clear that Love's input will be taken into account when it comes to choosing their next coach.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor recently told TwinCities.com's Charley Walters that the organization would welcome Love's input, and Saunders said something similar after former head coach Rick Adelman announced his retirement.
However, Saunders also stated that Love will in no way be Minnesota's decision-maker, telling the Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
I had (Kevin Garnett) for 10 years. If I took the players KG wanted all the time, the roster would have looked a lot different. I believe what you do is talk characteristics, but you don't put a player, any player no matter who he is, in that light where he's making that decision. It's not fair to him. It's not fair to the person you bring in. I wouldn't do that.
And if Saunders really means that, then he's handling Minnesota's coaching search perfectly.
It would be silly not to factor Love's feelings into the equation—he's the Timberwolves' best player and the basis for almost everything they do offensively. Losing him to free agency would be a disaster, and Minnesota needs to do whatever it can to ensure that doesn't happen.
But Love also made it very clear in the past that what he most wants is to be on a legitimate playoff team. Unless he holds some undying hatred for whichever coach Saunders ends up choosing, it won't matter who's leading the team so long as it's winning.
With all due respect to Love, Saunders has a much better chance of choosing a coach who could lead the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Because, ironically, Love is the player about whom the new coach will have to worry about least in terms of X's and O's.
Love can fit into pretty much any offensive scheme. He's a strong post-up player, a matchup nightmare in the pick-and-roll and an excellent facilitator from the high post.
Love has some big flaws defensively (his tendency to hunt for rebounds rather than provide weak-side help is maddening), but overall, he'll excel no matter how the Wolves' new coach chooses to use him. The real issue is how to get the most out of Love's seemingly cobbled-together supporting cast.
Minnesota finished the season with 42 wins, and judging by its point differential, it probably should have ended up with closer to 50 wins. Even so, the roster is a bit jumbled, and the team basically collapsed when Love wasn't on the floor. A lot of the Wolves' major pieces appear ill fitting, and it's up to the new coach to change that.
Ricky Rubio is a dazzling playmaker, and he probably creates four to five shots per game that no one else in the league possibly could.
That ability to create opportunities for his teammates is of real value, but it's tempered by Rubio's horrendous shooting from almost everywhere on the floor. According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, Rubio was at one point last season on pace to be the worst shooter in modern NBA history.
Love spaces the floor like few players in the league, but the Timberwolves often can't take advantage of that because of how much freedom Rubio's defender has to play the passing lanes. And that's far from Minnesota's only issue.
Kevin Martin added some much-needed shooting to the squad, but he's a minus defender, as is Corey Brewer. Nikola Pekovic is a bruising post player, but he also suffers from defensive limitations, making him a less-than-ideal partner for Love.
Gorgui Dieng's combination of rebounding, passing and athleticism are intriguing, but he's raw. The bench was mostly a disaster last year, and major retooling might be necessary there.
Minnesota played close to top-10 ball on both ends of the floor last season, so it's not as if there's no hope for the club.
But there's real work to do, and almost all of it centers around players not named Kevin Love. If all Love really cares about is winning, then giving him the final say on the team's coach would be ludicrous—if anything, the other Timberwolves' opinions might be more important.
There are off-court issues at play as well, namely the not-so-great track record of teams that have based major decisions on appeasing their superstars. The most recent examples come from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.
The Cavs, in a desperate attempt to provide LeBron James with the added firepower that he wanted (and, to be fair, needed), sacrificed draft picks and cap space in three successive years, dealing for Mo Williams in 2008, Shaquille O'Neal in 2009 and Antawn Jamison in 2010.
Everyone knows how that worked out, and when James bolted, Cleveland was left with an absolute mess of a roster.
Similarly, the Magic made a series of head-scratching trades in an attempt to keep Dwight Howard happy, and actually chose to fire head coach Stan Van Gundy—one of the best minds in basketball—at Howard's request. Again, it's no secret how poorly that went.
Losing Love would be crippling for the Timberwolves. Three legitimate top-five caliber players have swapped teams in the last five years: James, Howard and Chris Paul. Their former teams' combined record without them is 222-484, just a 31 percent win rate. This stuff sets franchises back years.
Love will only stick around if Minnesota transforms into a perennial playoff contender, and that's not going to happen if it starts making desperate moves to appease him. Winning franchises don't do that.
Love should absolutely have some input on who the next Timberwolves coach is, but he's just a player. It sounds as though Saunders has no intention of making him a decision-maker as well, and that spells good things for the future of the franchise.
All statistics accurate as of 5/17/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.
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