And still can.
Lacking out-of-this-world assets, the Lakers aren't going to trade for Love. That's not going to happen. Superior packages are on the table—offerings that put whatever and whomever the Lakers can deliver to shame.
But while the link between Love and Los Angeles has cooled, it hasn't been extinguished entirely. It was only months ago that an Eastern Conference executive told CBS Sports' Ken Berger everyone "knows he wants to go to the Lakers." Those ties are still alive and, truthfully, nothing has changed.
The Lakers were never favorites—or even likely—to trade for Love. Free agency was their best chance at landing him, and it still is. They need him to hit the open market, which he will. They also need him to genuinely consider leaving the team he finishes next season with, which he may or may not.
Love's willingness to be courted next summer, to make free-agency romances more than negligible formalities and free dinners, is indentured to the end of this trade extravaganza and the impact it has on his thinking.
Timing matters here.
Ideally, the Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn't move Love at all, forcing him to finish next season with the team most believe he will leave, making him fair game. But that remains unlikely, even though Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders is in no rush to make a decision, according Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
Minnesota willing to let market play out until James/Anthony/Bosh land, wait on next wave of Kevin Love offers, sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 10, 2014
Patience cannot be mistaken for misunderstanding. There's too much smoke for there to be no fire.
Minnesota knows Love is a flight risk. It's not likely to sit on that risk for another year just so it can lose him for nothing, per ESPN 1500's Darren Wolfson:
This has become a case of when, not if.
When will Love be traded? Sometime between now and the February trade deadline. And for the Lakers, the later he's moved, the better.
The longer this thing drags out, the more likely it is Love winds up being a rental. Any team that acquires him now or leading into 2014-15 has the entire season to sell him on its environment as it tries to steer him toward a decision.
Midseason trades are less calculated, more spur of the moment. Some unappealing club could accept that makeshift improvements are necessary for instant gratification.
Mostly, though, a midseason trade diminishes the likelihood that Love decides to delay free agency by opting into the last year of his contract.
Opting in for 2015-16 is something Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer says Love is hoping to avoid, but faced with remaining in Minnesota and playing for another lottery finish, his stance could change.
If a team were offered that additional year of security it would help accelerate his exit, bringing him closer to his first postseason berth yet removing him from the 2015 free-agency ranks.
That's the last thing Los Angeles needs. The Lakers should have cap space in the summer of 2016, when Kobe Bryant's contract comes off the books, but they need an offseason win before then. Next year is all about waiting around, just like last season.
The Lakers twiddling their thumbs for a third year, biding time and cap space for players they may or may not have a shot at, won't sit well with the fanbase or a certain future Hall of Famer, who sees losing as a Cardinal sin.
If Love is moved closer to the trade deadline, this becomes a non-issue. There's a chance he still opts in, but a slim one at best. There's little incentive to putting off free agency when it's only a few months away.
Loyalty is also hard to forge through truncated time periods. One year is a long time; an entire season is a long time.
Spurning a team after playing an entire year for it—and especially if it make the playoffs—has a Dwight Howard feel to it, something Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wisely writes that Love would do well to avoid:
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.
Expectations are different when traded midway through the season. You're not Howard if you leave. You're Luol Deng (Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat). And because you're Deng, playing for a few months on a team you bear no real allegiances to, it's easier to leave.
Perception can be everything. Ask Howard. Ask LeBron James. Love is already walking a slippery slope by throwing his weight around. The Lakers can only hope he's traded late enough in the process, where a departure from his next team is feasible, if only because exiting wouldn't portray him as a cowardly charlatan.
Love's Next Home
Destination also matters to the Lakers here.
Here's what we know: Love wants to win, and he wants to play in a desirable market.
"A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love," ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin wrote in March. "He’s enamored with the idea of being 'big time in a big city,' and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well."
The Knicks offered the Timberwolves Amar'e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert for Love, according to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring, which won't get it done. The Bulls, meanwhile, have the assets and—per the Chicago Sun-Times—the interest necessary to broker a deal, yet the fit is weird after the team signed Pau Gasol.
Here's some interesting news: according to a Bulls source, team is still aggressively in on Love - long shot or not.... And .....— Sun-Times Basketball (@suntimes_hoops) July 29, 2014
Bigger threats exist in the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were considered favorites at one point, but their continued refusal to trade Klay Thompson still poses a major, potentially insurmountable obstacle, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Any chance the Warriors had of acquiring Love without forfeiting Thompson has dissipated in wake of the Cavs' willingness to deal rookie Andrew Wiggins, which was reported by ESPN's Chris Broussard. Dangling the 2014 No. 1 pick has left the Cavs favorites to land Love, even after signing Wiggins to his rookie deal, which precludes them from trading him until late August.
But as Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com hears, Love to Cleveland is not a foregone conclusion:
Sources close to Love have said they were urging people to dial back the “Cleveland or else” message and that while Love seems open to all three of the situations being seriously considered – Cleveland, Golden State and Chicago, he is not willing to commit long-term to any of them as a first action. The ideal action is to hit free agency in July and ink a new long-term deal. The team that trades for him can give him the biggest financial package since they will have his Bird rights.
The public perception of Love's plans beyond next season are the biggest misconception of this whole process. He's not a lock to re-sign with his new team, no matter how hard or damaging it may be to leave.
Which team would he be more likely to desert? Again, in an ideal, all-Lakers-everything world, Love would be traded to a dark horse like the Denver Nuggets (who are a contender for Love, as noted by Wojnarowski), see how far away they are from contending within the juggernaut-crammed Western Conference and enter free agency with an open mind.
Dark horses are dark horses for a reason, though. The Love field isn't huge right now. Three teams—the Bulls, Cavaliers and Warriors—appear to be the most serious players. The Lakers will want Love to wind up on the team he's most likely to leave.
Chicago is more intriguing than most acknowledge if coach Tom Thibodeau can make the rotation work. Love instantly becomes the No. 2 option on a title contender. Another Derrick Rose injury could push Love out of town, but we cannot just assume he'll go down.
And even if he does, the Eastern Conference isn't the Western Conference. Opportunity abounds in Chicago no matter what, especially if Love's there.
Something similar can be said of the Warriors. They don't play in the sexiest market, but Love immediately becomes the No. 2 option on a contender. That he stays in the Western Conference makes winning harder, yet a Stephen Curry and Love partnership can torch even the most capable defenses.
The Cavaliers' situation is more complex. Some see his long-term stay as inevitable if he's traded to them, but there's more at play.
Instead of being the No. 1 or No. 2 option, he'll be No. 3 behind Kyrie Irving and James. Love no doubt exceeds Irving in the NBA pecking order, but the latter has more control over the offense as a ball-dominant point guard.
Is Love ready to be the Cavs' Chris Bosh? When Cleveland isn't Miami or Los Angeles or Chicago or New York or even Oakland? When James is under a two-year contract, the status of which susceptible to widespread speculation, however baseless or inane?
Fingers crossed, Los Angeles.
Hope that the Timberwolves, against all odds, don't trade Love at all.
Hope that if they do trade him, he's shipped out in February and to a team that's not on his wish list.
And after hoping the unlikely becomes reality, hope he gets sent somewhere he won't love unconditionally.
The Cavaliers offer a good fit, a great fit—the best fit—on paper, but like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal points out, that doesn't matter:
On paper, a three-man core comprised of Kevin Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving looks absolutely incredible. Talk about setting the stage for a dynastic organization, one that can pile up title after title until LeBron eventually leaves his prime.
There's just one problem.
Basketball isn't played on paper.
With Love, the Cavaliers aren't title favorites. They might not even be Eastern Conference favorites. The defense would be at a slight disadvantage and not even Goliaths are infallible right away (see 2010-11 Heat).
Who would leave King James, the title-ticket puncher?
Someone who doesn't want to play third fiddle in a middling market during the prime of his career.
Someone like Love.
To be sure, Love may wind up in Cleveland. He may even stay. But he's more of a flight risk there than he is in Chicago or Oakland, out-of-left-field destinations notwithstanding.
Which team is Love more likely to leave if he's traded to them?
“I don’t see this as a long process,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said, per the Associated Press' Greg Beacham. “This is Los Angeles. It’s still one of the best organizations in all of sports. Still got a ton of people that would love to play for this organization, and you’ve got (former Lakers) sitting in the front row that are very adamant about that."
Love can still be one of those people who wants to play in Los Angeles, who wants to play for the Lakers.
And depending how his current situation in Minnesota plays out, he could still be one of those people who actually plays for them.
*Contract information courtesy of ShamSports.