As the Minnesota Timberwolves inch closer and closer to what becomes more of a formality with each passing day, fans should be exerting no other emotions other than anxiousness and excitement. A Kevin Love trade will not only be the end of a tumultuous era, but there is no reason why it cannot also be the ushering in of brighter days.
Think about other superstars who recently held their teams and fanbases hostage, albeit using much more volatile and outspoken methods.
As the New York Knicks are getting ready for the Phil Jackson era, who exactly won the Carmelo Anthony trade? In the four-way deal for Dwight Howard, is Orlando not the team most assuredly in the best state moving forward? How did that acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce work out for the Brooklyn Nets?
Recent deals must give Minnesota fans hope that regardless of where Kevin Love gets dealt, Flip Saunders is no fool, and he will get valuable assets in return. The harsh reality is that the team may have gone as far as it was going to go this past season under its current coach and personnel.
The 10th seed in the Western Conference is not what this franchise was aiming for. It always hurts to lose a superstar, but there are few circumstances under which it would hurt less than if said superstar never got the team to the playoffs. Minnesota has the longest current playoff drought in basketball, having missed out on the fun every year since 2003-04. So, what exactly is there to be upset about?
Orlando, Denver and Boston were all perennial playoff teams before they lost their superstars. While the Timberwolves did build this team around Love, there is every reason to believe that they can improve after dealing him.
There is no denying Kevin Love's superstardom, but for years he has been criticized as being a stat-padder and a guy who is better off as the second or third option on a championship team as opposed to the head honcho.
Whether those sentiments are true or not, making him the focal point of this team did not work for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons was that he was not paired with an adequate rim protector to mask his defensive shortcomings.
There is no denying Love's offensive brilliance. The league has never seen a player like him, but his total disregard for playing transition defense and protecting the rim hurt this team significantly. It was not a major issue because it is hard to criticize a player who is in the top five in the NBA in scoring and rebounding.
He often would box men out and focus more on going after rebounds as opposed to contesting shots or providing help defense. These are especially harsh words because much of the blame for Minnesota's defensive ineptitude this past year could be placed on Rick Adelman's shoulders. He allowed his perimeter players to gamble for steals way too often, which was much more damaging without a legitimate shot blocker.
The Timberwolves' gave up the fifth-most points in the league at 104.3 per night this past season despite forcing the second-most turnovers. Minnesota was also in the bottom third in field-goal percentage despite scoring the third-most points.
So, what gives?
Love's absence will allow Saunders to use whatever pieces he acquires both in the draft and in the trade to make this team more well-rounded. Adelman instituted a flawed system that did not place nearly enough emphasis on defense.
The Timberwolves do not have all the personnel currently in place, and they do not need to be an elite defensive club to be a contender. What they must do is replace Love with someone who can hold his own defensively to mesh with Pekovic, who is a stout one-on-one defender with little shot-blocking ability.
One stat that sticks out regarding Love is that he has fouled out exactly one time in his NBA career, and it was back in his rookie season. Avid fans who watch every game know that he is almost never in foul trouble, which is typically a good thing, but it is a nearly impossible feat if a player is playing consistent physical defense. There are too many incredible power forwards in today's game for Love to give such little attention to that end of the court.
The reality of the situation is that in today's NBA, a team that revolves so much around a power forward is at a disadvantage due to the influx of superstar wing players in the league. Love's reputation as a stat-padder developed more validity as his tenure went on, and now instead of force-feeding him on offense, Saunders can implement a more balanced system.
Flash back to the 2011-12 season.
On March 9 of that season, the Timberwolves were 21-19 and in possession of the No. 8 seed in the West. The team had won eight of the past 11 games and was truly hitting its stride behind their young point guard who was taking the league by storm, Ricky Rubio. Nikola Pekovic has also just come into his own as well, giving the Wolves one of the premier frontcourt tandems.
On that day, Ricky Rubio tore his ACL late in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the team never recovered. The Timberwolves lost 20 of their final 25 games without him.
Take a look at the rest of the guys who logged heavy minutes on that roster. Luke Ridnour. Derrick Williams. Michael Beasley. Wesley Johnson. Darko Milicic. Anthony Randolph. Martell Webster. Anthony Tolliver. Wayne Ellington.
Does that lineup sound nearly as talented as the one Minnesota fielded this past season? None of those guys are NBA starters today, and most reside at the end of the bench. Yet, the Timberwolves were definitely a better team that day than they were during 2013-14.
Quite simply, this team is better off with Rubio driving the ship as opposed to Love. I am the first to admit that Rubio does have his glaring deficiencies, but his personality is likely the least questionable thing about him. Anyone would undoubtedly rather have their team embody his personality as opposed to Love's.
There is no disputing who is the superior player at this point in their careers, but Minnesota, at that point, gave him the keys, and he had them playing as one of the can't-miss spectacles in basketball. Adelman gave him the freedom to do what he liked, and his confidence and swagger emanated throughout the roster. Game after game we saw a dizzying array of alley-oops and jaw-dropping passes and pickpockets.
Those types of plays were less frequent this year because far too often, Adelman would simply have Rubio dribble over half court and hand the ball off to Love or Martin in the high pick-and-roll. Minnesota scored a ton of points, but they did not do it efficiently because Rubio was not allowed to flourish and get his teammates wide open looks with the same regularity.
Rubio also made headlines earlier this offseason when he went on record as saying that Love had questionable leadership abilities, according to Enrique Garcia of Spanish website BasketAmericano.com
The excerpt from the interview was translated by Sergio Gonzalez of CBSSports.com to read the following.
The player considers that "motivation has been one of the problems" that they have had and he opined "that starts with the (coaching) staff, the head coach and the assistants are the ones that should impart that (...) Even if he was only at 80 percent, 70 percent, Rick Adelman is a coach that knows a whole lot."
About his teammate Kevin Love, the Spanish point guard says that "he is a special player, the numbers that he puts up are incredible, but still the leader has to be somebody else (...) He leads in scoring, in other things, but in voice he is not the type of player that wants to be or that can be, no? There are different types of leaders. Still, it did not have to have been him, it should have been Kevin Martin, with a little more experience, or even I can take a step further and start to be the definitive leader."
Rubio does have a point. It doesn't take much to see the kind of effort the point guard puts in on both ends of the floor 100 percent of the time. You would also never catch Love telling his teammates to "change this face."
Another point he raised is that the team might not have always been motivated. Part of that had to do with Adelman's wife and her health problems, which undoubtedly affected the coach. The other aspect is that it is difficult to get behind your best player when he seemingly has one foot out the door and is far too often making comments to the media about his uncertainty with the franchise.
Which player would the Timberwolves be better off anointing as the leader of the team?
Like it or not, it is time to get behind Rubio. The recent great years exhibited by the Boston Celtics behind their Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen never would have happened if Doc Rivers and the rest of the team didn't put unwavering faith in their primary ball-handler, Rajon Rondo. Even when he was a raw talent, he was always allowed to create and constantly being pumped up by his veteran teammates.
That is the mentality this team needs. They have one of the most creative and best-passing point guards in the league. He doesn't have to be the superstar, but he absolutely has to run the show.
The drop-off in talent between Minnesota's bench and its starters this year was at times nauseating. It was the main reason behind the team's inconsistency from start to finish.
Minnesota won 12 games by at least 20 points this past season but adversely lost their first 11 contests which were decided by four points or less. That is another testament to questionable leadership, but the bench as a whole was to blame for much of that inconsistency.
Adelman is at fault for never altering his rotations, routinely leaving his starters in the entire first quarter, only to watch a big lead disintegrate in the second period. Minnesota also blew huge fourth-quarter leads while the starters sat back and watched, only to come back in with five minutes left fighting an uphill battle.
The third-highest scoring team in the league should never have the sixth-lowest scoring bench. It indicates that the balance of power is too great, and should one of the stars have an off night, the team is doomed.
According to Hoopsstats.com, the Wolves' bench was third-worst in basketball in defensive efficiency rating in 2013-14 and second-to-last in field-goal percentage at just over 41 percent.
It is also interesting to note that opposing benches logged the most minutes per game against Minnesota last season, and by a fairly large margin at 0.6 more than any other team. Teams knew how poor the Wolves bench was, and they were not shy about mixing guys in to ravage them.
A Love trade will surely bring back a handful of players. It is difficult to gauge what the return will be, but it is almost a certainty that it will land the team a very good player or two as well as another one or two who can bolster the bench.
Minnesota clearly needs to trim the fat off the bench. The only players who should have a place on the 2014-15 bench currently on the roster are rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad, Ronny Turiaf and arguably Chase Budinger simply due to his upside and large contract. Only Dante Cunningham has an expiring contract. Somehow, Saunders desperately needs to rid this bench of dead weight like J.J. Barea, Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved.
We just saw the San Antonio Spurs utterly eradicate the seemingly invincible Miami Heat in the NBA Finals due to a loaded bench. In Love's defense, he likely had entirely too much pressure on him because he was the face of the franchise and he knew his bench could not be relied upon at any time. A deep and extraordinary bench is what has kept Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili looking 10 years younger than they really are.
The haul Love brings back can go a long way toward adding to this bench. More players fitting a certain mold will keep the starters fresh, which has also been a big issue with this team. In a copycat league, the Wolves have a lot to learn from the Spurs. Not a single player on San Antonio averaged over 30 minutes a game. All five Wolves starters averaged over 30.
Getting the bench more involved will go a long way toward establishing the new identity that the Timberwolves need. Bumping up their minutes will also boost their confidence and keep them fresher, ultimately knocking off some rust and making them more consistent.
Saunders cashing in on his greatest asset is going to sting, but it will burn much less once he realizes it was a deal that had to be done to address this team's defensive and bench woes. The Love trade will be a classic case of addition by subtraction. After all, is it really that difficult to put six seasons of no playoff games in the rearview mirror?