Chaos isn't a pit; it's a ladder.
It's a lesson that most Game of Thrones fans learned long ago, courtesy of the scheming Petyr Baelish (aka "Littlefinger"). It's also one the Minnesota Timberwolves would do well to take to heart.
And not just because Minneapolis has the climate of a modern-day Winterfell, or because the city is prone to invasions from "White Walkers."
In this case, the entire T-Wolves organization has been flung into a state of chaos by the "news" that Kevin Love wants out. He'll reportedly opt out of his contract when he has the chance to do so in July of 2015.
That essentially puts Minny on the clock. The Wolves can try to win now and take their chances with Love next summer, hoping that an on-court turnaround in the Land of 10,000 Lakes will make him more amenable to sticking around, a la LaMarcus Aldridge with the Portland Trail Blazers this past season. Or they can heed the writing on the wall and get something in return for Love's services before they're fresh out of leverage.
To a degree, the timing of all this is particularly unfortunate for the T-Wolves. They're closer than they've ever been to ending a playoff drought that now spans a decade. They finished 40-42 this past season—their best record since Love was drafted in 2008—and might've won enough to sneak into the West's top eight if not for their poor performance in close, late-game situations. According to Basketball Reference, Minny should have won 48 games based on its point differential.
As for Love, all he did was put together perhaps the finest individual season of his pro career. He earned his third trip to the All-Star Game, finished among the top four in both scoring (26.1 points) and rebounding (12.5 boards) and once again led the league in double-doubles, with a trio of triple-doubles to boot. On the whole, only two players were more productive than Love on a per-minute basis, per ESPN: Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Some defensive tweaks here, better crunch-time execution there and voila! The T-Wolves are back in business.
Especially if they can find a solid, savvy head coach to replace the retired Rick Adelman.
Take Love out of the equation, and big-name coaching candidates are no longer so eager to consider stints in the Twin Cities. No Kevin Love, no playoff celebrations in 2015.
On paper, this all makes sense. But what if it's just a fiction? A story the T-Wolves have agreed to tell themselves over...and over, until they've forgotten that it's a lie?
Remove Love from the picture, and the Wolves are just as much in contention for the lottery as they were during his first six seasons on the team. They're worse off, talent-wise, but at least they're no longer held hostage by the threat of his departure.
That threat certainly hasn't prevented Minnesota from talking to highly qualified prospective coaches. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger is already in deep talks to be Adelman's successor, thanks in no small part to the front-office turmoil in Memphis. Joerger—a Minnesota native whose roundabout path to the NBA coaching ranks mirrors that of T-Wolves president Flip Saunders—just led the Grizz to 50 wins in his first season as a head coach, despite a spate of otherwise devastating injuries to the likes of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter.
Which has to be encouraging to the T-Wolves, given their recent bouts with human frailty, Love's lost 2012-13 season chief among them.
As it happens, Joerger's Grizzlies were actually the league's best crunch-time team this past season, as well, per NBA.com. Perhaps he could've helped Minny finish with a record better than the 7-14 mark it posted in games decided by five points or fewer.
But Adelman's departure isn't the story here. Love's is.
Productive though he may be, Love is far from perfect, with no shortage of limitations to his admittedly formidable game. He collects plenty of caroms, but the bulk of them (7.6 per game) come uncontested, per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking stats.
Defensively, Love often sways between "non-factor" and "detriment." The T-Wolves allow about as many points per possession with him on the floor as they do when he's on the bench. Generously listed at 6'10", Love sports neither the length and athleticism to protect the rim nor the quickness afoot to chase more mobile power forwards around the floor. It should come as little surprise, then, that Minnesota's block rate nearly doubled this past season when Love hit the pine, according to Basketball Reference.
To be sure, Love is a terrific player on the whole, one whose offensive genius alone is enough to place him among the league's elite. But his deficiencies call into question his ability to serve as the "Alpha dog" on a title contender.
Not that the T-Wolves were (or are) anywhere near that. Even if they'd won 48 games this season, they still would've finished behind the Dallas Mavericks in the race for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Love's status on a competitive club wouldn't be helped by his supposed lack of leadership, either. Here's what Ricky Rubio, Love's teammate for the last three seasons, had to say about him in that regard during an interview with Spanish sports network Canal Plus (h/t HoopsHype):
Kevin (Love) is a special player. I mean, his numbers are amazing but maybe our leader must be another player. He is our leader in scoring and other things but vocally he is not the type of player that wants to be or that can be the leader. There are many kind of leaders. I think that he was not the leader we needed vocally. Perhaps Kevin Martin could have been our leader because he had more experience. Perhaps I could take a step forward to be the leader.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, to say the least, especially coming from a guy who's two years Love's junior. A team's leader and best player don't have to be one in the same to ensure on-court success, but championships aren't often captured by those who don't have a singular tentpole player to rally around.
These concerns are merely among the many Love-related threads to which the T-Wolves have clung in recent years—and rightfully so. Players of Love's caliber are few and far between, and even fewer and farther between for teams in colder, less desirable locales like Minneapolis. Attracting big-name free agents to these cities is a futile endeavor more often than not.
Heck, acquiring cornerstones is tough for any team. That's why so many seemed willing to sabotage their 2013-14 campaigns in pursuit of plum picks in the upcoming, talent-rich NBA draft. That's why no fewer than eight squads (i.e., the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Houston Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Phoenix Suns, the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers) have already been mentioned as possible suitors for Love, who may be the league's juiciest trade target since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit the market 40 years ago, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton.
The T-Wolves have a star in their employ right now. Why would they voluntarily give him up when none of those teams is likely to offer a single player of equal competency in return?
Well, for one, because if they don't get something for him now, they run the clear risk of him leaving them high and dry next summer.
The tenuous nature of Love's stay in Minnesota was probably the league's worst-kept secret before the recent spate of speculation exploded onto the scene. Love's exodus became a strong possibility, if not an outright certainty, on Jan. 25, 2012—the day former general manager David Kahn signed him to a four-year extension with a player option for 2015-16, instead of offering Love the full five-year max.
Love spoke openly about his distaste for that decision later that year.
"I have a very, very good memory, and I always remember the people who have done right by me, and the people who have done wrong by me," he told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, like a big, bearded Arya Stark. "It will be embedded in my brain, and something I won't forget about. There's no telling what will happen. I would love to compete for a championship in Minnesota, but..."
Clearly, Love's memory hasn't failed him, even as the T-Wolves have. They, of all teams, must've (or should've) known this day was coming. Yet, only this past week, after Love forced their hand, did they soften their stance on trading him, per the Associated Press' Jon Krawczynski.
Better late than never. Now that the T-Wolves seem to have awoken to the reality of their circumstances, they can climb that chaos ladder, rather than live in denial until they find themselves trapped in another long, bitter winter of their own discontent. As The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jim Souhan put it:
The Wolves need to build a successful franchise brick by brick, and hoping that Love will change his mind and decide that wintering in Minnesota is wonderful is no way to accomplish that. Love’s departure will give team president Saunders an opportunity to prove he’s savvy enough to trade Love for value, and to build the team through the draft, the way it should have been built all along.
There figures to be no shortage of potential trade packages that would net the Wolves such a sweet return on their souring investment.
The Lakers and the Celtics both have top-10 picks to peddle. The Cavs could coax Minny into a deal with the No. 1 pick in this year's loaded draft, a future pick from their still-considerable stash and, perhaps, a young player or two (Anthony Bennett? Dion Waiters? Tristan Thompson?). The Suns, with their bevy of mid-to-late first-rounders and movable contracts, could cobble something together.
If the T-Wolves prefer known quantities that can help them win now over the mystery doors that draft picks represent, they could just as easily turn to the Warriors (David Lee? Harrison Barnes? Klay Thompson? Draymond Green?), the Bulls (Taj Gibson? Jimmy Butler? Nikola Mirotic?) or the Rockets (Terrence Jones? Omer Asik? Donatas Motiejunas? Chandler Parsons?) in search of players who could keep Minny's playoff prospects intact.
In this regard, the responsibility doesn't rest entirely with the Wolves. Love will have some leverage in dictating his own trade destination. Chances are, no team will give away the proverbial farm without assurances from Love that he'll opt into the fourth and final year of his existing deal. As such, his fickleness will determine who winds up at the negotiating table with the T-Wolves and, in turn, what they're able to extract on his behalf.
The T-Wolves' faithful may well begrudge him for that, but they needn't demonize him for asking in the first place. This franchise has had ample opportunity to satisfy Love's appetite for winning, but it has fallen flat on each and every occasion. He's more than justified in wanting to seek out ways to do so elsewhere while he has the chance.
If anything, the good folks of the Great White North might even thank Love for putting the ball in the Wolves' court when he did. No longer can Minnesota think that everything's hunky dory with its most prized player. No longer need the T-Wolves be undone by a strain of organizational incompetence not unlike that which led them to this point. No longer is the team quite so destined to get nothing in return for the transformational talent it picked up mere weeks before Kevin Garnett was dealt to Boston.
Instead, the Wolves will have more than a month to maximize Love's value before the 2014 draft comes and goes, and nearly eight months after that before the annual trade deadline to get a last-ditch deal done if need be.
Winter is coming, and it has been for some time for the Timberwolves. Now, they'll at least have a chance to prepare for it, rather than be left reeling in the aftermath of another northern nightmare.
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