Will Kevin Love Suffer Same Fate as Dwight Howard in Messy Trade Saga?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 21, 2014

Feb 10, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) grabs a rebound over Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the second quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Like Dwight Howard before him, Kevin Love will eventually get what he wants: an escape route from the first NBA team ever to hand him a uniform.

Howard's prolonged trade saga with the Orlando Magic seems like it happened decades ago because of all the subsequent drama, but D12's ugly exodus took place in 2012. Howard forced his way out of Orlando and ultimately wound up in a better situation.

But it was messy, and the damage to his reputation was severe.

You have to wonder if, in an honest moment, he'd say it was all worth it.

Love is walking down a similar path now, though he's only taken the first few steps. Before he goes much farther, he'll have to do some soul-searching.

Then again, maybe he already has. Maybe he's fully aware of the dangers involved in being a superstar player who engineers an exit while still under contract.

For his sake, let's hope he's thought this through.

Because the freedom Love wants (and Howard eventually got) will come at a cost. Howard paid it, and he's now just as famous for his childishness and immaturity as he is for his elite defensive play. It's possible Howard's image would have taken a hit eventually, no matter what. He couldn't have hidden his me-first attitude and off-putting desperation for approval forever.

But the catalyst for his image implosion was a situation very much like the one Love is embarking upon now. And that should concern the Minnesota Timberwolves forward.

A lot.

Similar Situations

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 25:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic questions a call during the NBA season opening game against the Oklahoma City Thunder December 25, 2011 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Oklahoma City defe
Brett Deering/Getty Images

For a while there, it seemed like Howard would stay with the Magic forever.

"I always said I wanted to be here until I retire myself. Me and Mickey Mouse will be here forever," Howard said, per an official team release, after he signed a five-year extension with Orlando in 2007. "I am very excited about re-signing with the Magic and I want to be here until I retire. There is no other place that I want to be besides in Orlando."

So much for that.

In June 2011, Howard made it clear he'd exercise an early termination option in his contract if the Magic didn't win a title in the upcoming season. At the time, he was on a max deal that predated the current collective bargaining agreement, so it was somewhat different from Love's current situation.

But the key similarity was the ETO and Howard's threat to utilize it at the first opportunity. Love is doing just that now—communicating to the Wolves that he'll opt out of the final year of his deal. And he's not even conditioning that promise on the success or failure of his team in the upcoming season.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

He's just going to become a free agent in 2015. Period.

Howard's ordeal with Orlando lasted over a year, with twists and turns aplenty. In fact, the indecisive center even waived his termination option in March 2012, which ensured he'd be under contract for the 2012-13 season—wherever he wound up.

Per a timeline of the events surrounding Howard's tumultuous exit by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

After sticking to his trade request all season, Howard flip-flops at the 11th hour of the trade deadline—with the Nets close to dealing for him—and decides to opt into the final year of his contract with the Magic. In Orlando, the Magic holds a press conference celebrating Howard's loyalty.

'I'm not like the guy that those people are trying to portray me to be. I'm loyal,' Howard said. 'That's just me. That's just my nature. I told my teammates that I'm all in.'

Perhaps Howard knew the added security of that final year would make him more appealing to trade partners. Or maybe he was expressing loyalty to the Magic. It's hard to know the truth because the situation was such a mess in Orlando.

It's entirely possible Howard didn't know what he wanted.

We can't say yet if Love is as wishy-washy or eager to preserve his image as Howard was. And we certainly have no reason to believe the current Love-Minnesota affair will drag on for the 14 months it took Howard to extricate himself from the Magic.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 25:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic looks to have a foul called during the NBA season opening game against the Oklahoma City Thunder December 25, 2011 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Oklahom
Brett Deering/Getty Images

All we know is that many of the key elements are similar. We have a superstar player who wants out and is working the media to make it known to his team. This is an effective way to apply pressure without accepting responsibility for an official trade demand, but it's a risky approach.

That's because the Wolves have the situation with Howard to use as a guide for how to handle what's happening right now. They can look back and realize Howard—not the Magic—came out of the fiasco looking bad.

They know there's a tendency among fans and media to side against the disgruntled millionaire who plays a game for a living when he professes his unhappiness. There's never an outpouring of sympathy for someone in Love's position.

Maybe that's not fair, but that's how it works.

So, the Wolves might feel some pressure to swing a deal before Love opts out after the 2014-15 season, but they also know they can wait as long as it takes to find the right one. They saw the Magic exercise patience that netted a pretty good return.

And just like everyone else who watched the saga in Orlando unfold, they also saw that Howard's reputation was irreparably damaged.

Knowing Love has more to lose in this process than they do helps explain why owner Glen Taylor is playing coy.

"At this point, we're not talking to any teams," Taylor said, per Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I haven't heard from Kevin or his agents or anything like that. We're assuming that Kevin will be here next season, and we're working with that scenario. This isn't the time for us to do anything but to prepare for next year."

Kurt Helin of NBC Sports knows what's going on here, though:

First off, we all know that how this works is not that Kevin tells the owner he is not coming back, it's done through intermediaries, through back channels, allowing Taylor to say, 'I haven't heard from Kevin' or for Love to say, 'I never demanded a trade' when nobody buys that as reality.

Love is approaching this situation somewhat differently than Howard did, and that's a wise move.

Sure, we've heard rumblings of his dissatisfaction with the Timberwolves ever since the team declined to offer him a fifth year on his max deal in 2012. But Love doesn't have the reputation Howard had developed by the time his trade saga started to unfold.

Remember, D12 was viewed as somewhat silly and immature long before his image went down the tubes in 2011. A Sports Illustrated cover from April 2009 featured a goofily grinning Howard next to the tag line: "Can the Magic's Dunk Machine Get Serious for a Moment?"

And there were plenty of awkward moments as Howard hemmed and hawed over his future. He never shied away from a camera or microphone during that period, and it wound up hurting him in the long run.

Love is very different in that regard. He's a bit more self-aware and has a strong desire to protect his brand, such as it is. Howard just wanted everyone to love him, and he wasn't remotely calculating toward that end.

So far, Love has hidden behind back-channel communication. But that could change if he is forced to comment directly on his situation. For as long as he can, Love would be best served by keeping quiet—even if it makes him look a little cowardly.

And above all else, Love definitely should not appear out of nowhere next to a coach he'd just asked to be fired, especially if that coach already knows of the request.


Tread Lightly

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

This is a scary time for Love. He has the right to work where he wants, and he technically hasn't demanded a trade yet. All he's said is he'll leave when his contract allows him to do so.

We all know the intended effect of that stance, though.

It's an obvious leverage play, but it's also something of a favor to the Wolves. At least he's being honest about his intentions in a way that allows them to prepare for the future. If Love wanted to, he could have led them on and walked away for nothing next summer.

Right now, he's not the bad guy. But this is a dangerous game, and even though Love is playing it in a more measured, careful way than Howard did, he could see public opinion shift drastically with one wrong move.

The key difference between Love and Howard, though, is the fact that D12's image destruction had more to do with his personality and handling of a complicated situation than with the situation itself. Not every player who works to get himself traded winds up a pariah like Howard did.

And Howard was impossible to deal with even after he got out of Orlando, so it's fair to assume he earned whatever bad press he got with the Magic.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Love can avoid Howard's fate while still getting the trade he wants. The Wolves have a reputation as underachievers who don't service their stars very well. Kevin Garnett managed to escape with almost no damage to his reputation because observers could look at his individual brilliance alongside underwhelming supporting players and say, "Yeah, I get why he wants out."

So far, things have gone as planned for Love, but these scenarios have a way of spiraling out of control.

Love must be careful. If he learns from the mistakes Howard made two years ago, he has a good shot to survive this thing with his reputation intact.


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