Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is in the drivers' seat. Yes, it's true that Minnesota doesn't have to trade him, as they can cling on to the hope that a playoff appearance next season would be enough to convince him to stay.
Ultimately, though, Love can choose his own path, even if he makes trade requests that go unanswered. In the 2015 offseason, Love will be able to opt out of his current deal, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Here's Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports with more:
Beyond the coaching search, the Wolves are under pressure to start considering trade scenarios for Love, who's anxious to exercise his Early Termination Option (ETO) in the summer of 2015 and leave as a free agent, league sources said.
"For the first time, [Saunders] sounds like looking at deals for [Love] is an option," one rival executive told Yahoo Sports.
The Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns are among many teams determined to make hard runs at trades for Love, league sources said.
If Love decides he doesn't want to follow the same path Kevin Garnett did in Minnesota, playing around mediocre talent and never truly contending for a title, then we could see him leaving sooner rather than later.
But where should he go? Let's take a look at some of the oft-rumored contenders and break down his options.
The Bulls have been linked to Carmelo Anthony quite a bit, but what if they decide to go after Kevin Love instead? Chicago could be an interesting trade partner, as Carlos Boozer's massive $16.8 million expiring deal could allow Minnesota to dump some unsavory contracts in a Love trade. The Wolves could also obtain a very solid two-way forward to replace Love in Taj Gibson, who is on contract through the 2016-17 season.
Other than Gibson, Jimmy Butler and maybe Tony Snell, the Bulls lack too many enticing players to make a Love trade. However, the Bulls do have the 16th and 19th pick in this year's deep draft and a future first-round pick from the Sacramento Kings (top-10 protected through 2017) to dangle, as well as the rights to foreign big man Nikola Mirotic.
The Bulls would have a tough time carving out cap space in 2015 to sign Love outright, but they're an interesting trade partner.
The major issue here, however, is that the Bulls wouldn't have enough left to compete for a title after acquiring Love via trade. This is a team with a weak bench, relying heavily on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the future, two players that have had plenty of injury troubles. You also never know when head coach Tom Thibodeau's relationship is going to turn sour with Chicago's front office.
The ceiling here is unquestionably a championship team, but it's not all that hard to envision the Bulls losing some crucial components to their roster. It's a little scary for anyone to tie their future to Rose's health at this point.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have some intriguing young players to offer Minnesota in a trade in Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. That's certainly a good starting point, even though Minnesota would almost certainly have to take back David Lee's undesirable long-term deal in the process.
What's more troubling is that Golden State won't have any draft picks to offer up. The Warriors won't have a first-round pick to deal until 2019 thanks to last year's acquisition of Andre Iguodala, which in and of itself might be enough to keep Minnesota away from serious trade talks.
Without making major changes in advance of the 2015 offseason, the Warriors won't have cap space to sign Love outright, either.
It's a shame, because it's easy to see how well Love would fit in. Think about the three-point duo Love would make with Stephen Curry, or the great outlet passes to a streaking Iguodala, or the rebounding he could provide next to Andrew Bogut, who would protect him at the rim.
This is a fantastic option for Love, but Golden State likely has to dump Lee for an expiring contract this year for it to become more feasible. Are they willing to do that with no guarantees Love will come?
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are probably mentioned the most next to Love, primarily because he played his college ball at UCLA and he has family ties to Los Angeles.
But how appealing is the roster Love would be joining? Here's what Love told GQ.com last year when asked if he was leaving Minnesota:
People think it's so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota. And I'm not [redacted] on the Lakers, but we have the better team, the better foundation. I'm having fun.
While it's dangerous to read too much into that, Love is probably right. The Lakers, as it is right now, are working with a pretty clean slate. Kobe Bryant shouldn't have a whole lot left in the tank, but he'll be taking up all of the cap space that could have made L.A. a "superstar destination" in 2015. Love can come, for certain, but who else can?
It all depends on what Love wants. If he desires a franchise for his own one day, then the Lakers should be near the top of the list. It's a great place to live, a top media market, and he'll be adored there.
But if Love wants to win? It's hard to say the Lakers are anywhere near the top of the list, even when you consider their great history. For now, there are vastly superior options for Love to explore.
New York Knicks
Could Love co-exist with Carmelo Anthony if he does re-sign? And would Love consider the Knicks in 2015 free agency if he doesn't?
It's hard to say, but either way there should be more competitive teams for Love to choose from. While there's something to be said about living and playing in New York, there are better fits elsewhere that would accentuate Love's talent better than Anthony would.
Ownership should play a role here as well. While the presence of Phil Jackson is a plus, James Dolan still presides over the franchise and might be prone to some franchise-killing mistakes.
It should also be noted that the Knicks currently don't have a worthwhile point guard, which should be one of the first things any big man looks at. With Anthony demanding so many touches, often from the same spaces Love gets his. It's just hard to see the basketball appeal, even if the bright lights are something Love desires.
Here's Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports explaining why Sacramento would even be considered:
The Sacramento Kings have let the Minnesota Timberwolves know they are interested in trading for All-Star forward Kevin Love – and the Kings would make a deal without any assurance from Love he'd re-sign with them, a league source told Yahoo Sports.
Does Love really want out all that badly?
A lateral movement in advance of free agency doesn't make much sense for Love, but if the Kings are offering the best assets, he might not have much of a choice other than to try and scare Sacramento away by saying he won't re-sign.
The Kings have been even worse than the Wolves over the last few seasons, and despite the presence of a new ownership willing to open up the checkbook, there's not a whole lot to like here.
Sacramento is a far cry from big media markets like Chicago and Los Angeles, and Love and DeMarcus Cousins wouldn't offer each other the help each needs on the defensive side of the floor, even if they'd be explosive offensively.
Love probably holds too many cards for Sacramento to be a real option.
Barring any big moves, the Celtics should have max cap space in 2015, regardless of whether Rajon Rondo decides to come back or not. That alone puts them in the conversation for Love, but unlike a few other teams being mentioned, the Celtics also have assets at their disposal to build a contender.
Because the Celtics have stockpiled so many first-round draft picks for the future, it's not hard to envision a scenario where Love can join a team led by Rondo and another superstar that could be acquired via trade. This could be the site of the next "Big Three" fairly easily.
If Minnesota is looking for a fresh start in a Love trade, Boston is probably the best option with all those picks via Brooklyn and the sixth pick in this year's draft.
With a solid young coach in Brad Stevens, one of the league's best distributors and a big market with plenty of basketball tradition, Boston could be an excellent option for Love so long as general manager Danny Ainge uses his assets wisely to nab another star. Rondo alone probably isn't going to be enough.
How much stock can we put into Washington's performance this postseason? For years prior, the Wizards had been one of the most poorly operated franchises in professional sports, bumbling draft picks left and right and failing to develop young players.
Things appear to be better now, at least on the surface, and the talented backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal can't be denied. Love could form quite the trio with those two, although it's hard to say what Washington would really be able to offer Minnesota in terms of player assets.
The Wolves shouldn't be interested in sign-and-trade guys like Trevor Ariza or Marcin Gortat, and the long-term salary of injury-prone big man Nene is far too scary to take on. Otto Porter Jr. could turn into a player, but we didn't see any signs of that this year.
That's sort of the problem. For the Wizards to have cap space in 2015, they won't be able to re-sign Gortat and Ariza to long-term deals. But for the Wizards to make the playoffs again, they'll almost certainly need both of those guys. This is an intriguing option, but it's hard to find a good trade match and there are red flags in the front office for Love to consider.
San Antonio Spurs
It's rare to hear the Spurs mentioned in the free-agent frenzy, as Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com explains here:
So, the Spurs could use a guy like Love, and a guy like Love could use a team like the Spurs. But with some rare exceptions, you don’t see the Spurs thrown into this mix.
Perhaps it’s a sign of respect that the Spurs aren’t invited to free-agent hypefests. They’ve succeeded for so long without playing this game. As other teams flock to the reality TV spectacle of wooing the latest available star, the Spurs quietly build on the "corporate knowledge" amassed by incumbent stars. When they head hunt, they’re looking for bargains, not big names. In 2012, Boris Diaw was cut by arguably the worst team of all time. Soon after, the Spurs looked past the belly folds and found gold in his perceptive play.
It's an interesting dynamic, as the Spurs are widely praised as the best organization in sports but are rarely mentioned as a landing spot for big free agents. You have to consider, however, that if the Spurs win the title this year or next, a bunch of cap room could open up. Tim Duncan should be retiring soon, and the same could be said for Manu Ginobili.
It seems unlikely that the Spurs would make a trade play for Love, but joining Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and this organization in 2015 could be one of the very best options for him to explore. San Antonio isn't the glamorous destination, but if Love wants to win titles above all else, San Antonio might be the place to be.
As far as Minnesota is concerned, there might not be a better trading partner than the Phoenix Suns. This is a team with multiple selections in this year's draft, plenty of valuable young players on rookie deals, cap space, expiring deals and future picks to offer up.
The question is, would Love be willing to sign long-term with Phoenix? The backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe should be one of the league's best for years to come, and the depth provided by guys like Gerald Green and the Morris twins is a nice benefit as well.
The problem, of course, might be that Love won't view this as much of an upgrade. Phoenix missed the playoffs this past season as well, and Dragic and Bledsoe, while talented, might not carry the "name" value a few other teams can offer.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, Phoenix's style meshes with what Love does extremely well. This is a team that wants to run and spread the floor, and it's easy to see Love being spoon-fed open three-point attempts because of the penetration ability of this backcourt. Jeff Hornacek looks like a great young coach, and Ryan McDonough has been pitching a perfect game since he took over as general manager.
There are some risks in attaching yourself to a young team on the rise as opposed to an established contender, but Phoenix should be a top option both now and in 2015 if Love sticks around this year.
In my opinion, the Houston Rockets are the primary team Love should be angling to join if he wants to leave Minnesota.
It's not hard to see all the advantages. James Harden is one of the best offensive players in basketball. Dwight Howard is the rim-protecting, defensive-minded center Love needs to be paired with. Houston has all of their future first-round picks, and a general manager in Daryl Morey that knows how to use them. The Rockets play a style that fits Love's abilities, as they want to run and shoot threes.
There's no state tax in Texas, which means Love can earn more in Houston than he can elsewhere. This is a young team with stars in or near their primes, alongside valuable role players (Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones) that are on cheap deals for the time being.
There are plenty of assets to trade right now, and once Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin's deals expire, the Rockets could have max cap space, depending on what happens with Parsons.
While there may be some concerns about getting less touches, Love can provide the spacing and passing at the 4 that will unlock Howard's post play and give Harden lanes to drive. This would be the league's best offense fairly easily, even if defensively the team would need some help at the other spots.
Maybe this isn't a factor, but no one outside of Minnesota could really blame Love for joining a top-notch organization like Houston that would be ready to compete for titles for years to come. In comparison to New York and Los Angeles, Houston is light years ahead when it comes to contending.
Unlike some of the other teams, this is both a logical and feasible landing spot for Love, whether it's via trade or free-agent signing. No team has more "pros" and less "cons" than Houston does.