Minnesota Timberwolves Must Stay Patient with Kevin Love Trade

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Minnesota Timberwolves Must Stay Patient with Kevin Love Trade
USA TODAY Sports

Despite what the swirling trade rumors might suggest, the clock hasn't started ticking for the Minnesota Timberwolves or their franchise face, Kevin Love.

Eventually, the Wolves will need to do something with the double-double machine who has major-market dreams and a desire to win, itches that the organization have been unable to scratch. For the time being, though, Minnesota is right to wait for the market to bear something of value for the three-time All-Star.

The Timberwolves know what they want. Keeping Love, the NBA's quintessential stretch 4, holds the top spot on Minnesota's wish list.

"I would like to have Kevin back and play under Flip (Saunders) and see how the coaches will utilize him with the other players," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in an NBA TV interview Wednesday, via Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

That sounds like a pipe dream, and it probably is one.

As sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne in May, "Love has made it clear to the Timberwolves that he intends to become an unrestricted free agent after next season and has no interest in a contract extension to stay in Minnesota."

If Love wants out of the Gopher State, he can purchase his own one-way ticket—but not before next summer. As long as the Timberwolves remain in control of this situation, they're right to play hardball.

David Sherman/Getty Images

If keeping Love really isn't an option, it's quite clear what the Wolves want in return. Let's just say Saunders didn't reclaim his coaching seat to lead a team whose strongest asset is future draft picks.

"[The Timberwolves] want to win now," a league source told Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe. "They want to be competitive now, with or without Kevin. ... So if they're going to move Kevin, they're going to get two or three guys that can help them win now."

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Who might those players be? Well, Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson and Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Andrew Wiggins (the top pick in last month's draft) are two of the more commonly cited targets.

Both could play major roles in Minnesota right now.

Thompson packs a lethal three-point cannon. He and "Splash Brother" Stephen Curry are the only two players in the league to hit at least 200 triples and shoot better than 40 percent from distance in each of the last two seasons.

As a team, the Wolves shot only 34.1 percent from deep in 2013-14, the fifth-worst conversion rate in the NBA. If Minnesota ships out Kevin Martin along with Love, it will be down its two top snipers from last season.

That's one of the reasons why Thompson has been a central part of this story. Of course, the 24-year-old is more than just a shooter. He put up 18.4 points a night during the 2013-14 campaign, creating and finishing scoring chances from all over the floor.

Thompson's shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com.

Thompson also provided the Warriors with lockdown perimeter defense, which just so happens to be a strength shared by Wiggins.

The 19-year-old still needs work on the offensive end—he averaged a solid, not spectacular, 17.1 points a night during his lone season at Kansas—but he has the physical tools to be a tenacious defender from day one.

"Even if Wiggins never asserts himself offensively as consistently as he should, he’s still likely going to be a 15-plus PPG guy and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league," Grantland's Mark Titus wrote.

And if Wiggins does blossom offensively, well, he could be a generational superstar.

This is where Saunders needs to set the bar. These are the kinds of centerpieces to the packages he must receive in return for his ready-made superstar.

Right now, those players don't seem to be available.

Thompson is still holding up any trade talks between Golden State and Minnesota, sources told Stein. While there have been rumblings that Wiggins could be moved in a Love deal, that would be news to Cavaliers head coach David Blatt.

"There's no reason or cause for worry on his part because Andrew's not going anywhere, as far as I know and as far as the club has expressed," Blatt told reporters recently.

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That's no reason for Saunders to panic, though. He's still the supplier in this equation, and the demand for a 6'10", 260-pound rugged rebounder, gifted passer and consistent scorer isn't going to diminish anytime soon.

Saunders is right to set Love's price as high as it is. The fact that no one has met it yet is hardly an incentive to slap a clearance sticker on the versatile big man, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted:

How Saunders handles this is huge. If he accepts less than market value for Love, he risks winding up not only losing his superstar, but limiting the team's flexibility, even if they move Kevin Martin's roughly $20 million remaining over three years in cap space. While the rebuilding Wolves don't need cap space to sign players, since no one's going to want to play there anyway, having that cap space is vital for being able to accept salary. That's how the Utah Jazz landed the Warriors' picks for nearly nothing last summer.

Some team will almost assuredly pay a premium for Love.

He plays a critical position in today's perimeter-oriented NBA and plays it arguably better than anyone else. In 2013-14, he finished fourth in scoring (26.1), third in rebounding (12.5), third in player efficiency rating (26.9) and third in win shares (14.3), via Basketball-Reference.com.

It won't take much for a franchise to see him as the missing piece to its championship puzzle. All Saunders needs to do is wait for that day to come.

Maybe the Warriors relent and make Thompson available. Maybe the Cavs feel compelled to give LeBron James more immediate help than Wiggins can bring. Perhaps another suitor sees these stalled talks as an opportunity and emerges with an even better offer than the ones being bandied about.

A lot can happen in the span of seven months, the time the Timberwolves have between now and next season's trade deadline. As clubs get a better understanding of what they have and what they still need, Love's value could grow even higher.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

And what if Saunders waits too long? What if whatever he's looking for never materializes?

Believe it or not, the worst-case scenario isn't nearly as bad as the label suggests.

The Wolves would have another season with Love as the leading man and one more shot to prove they can win with him. If not for some late-game blunders, they could have done that last season.

Based on their overall performance, ESPN calculated Minnesota's expected winning percentage to be .603, well above its actual .488 mark. That would have given the Timberwolves 49 wins and the chance to compete for one of the Western Conference's eight playoff spots.

Would finally punching a postseason ticket with Love change the big man's stance on wanting out? That's hard to say, although Portland Trail Blazers fans saw a similar about-face from their versatile big man, LaMarcus Aldridge, last season.

Aldridge appeared to have both feet out the door, but then his Blazers won 54 games and secured their first playoff series win since 2000. Now, the three-time All-Star is planning to re-sign with Portland next summer and hoping he'll never leave.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

If the Wolves gave Love his first winning season plus the additional $26 million he won't be able to make elsewhere, is it possible he'd consider sticking around? A certain quote from Kevin Garnett comes to mind.

If Love doesn't change his tune, then Minnesota will have its most expensive contract taken off its books. As Moore referenced earlier, that cap space could be put to use in any number of ways.

There's plenty of risk involved with taking that path, enough that Saunders should be seeking out the best possible trades he can find. Until his targets actually prove obtainable, though, that's as much as he needs to do.

When it comes to the NBA's great Love Affair, the Timberwolves have time and leverage on their side.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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