Will Minnesota Timberwolves Be Better Than We Think Without Kevin Love?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IAugust 14, 2014

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Unless you’re the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls, marshaled as they were by a coaching maestro in Phil Jackson, losing a top-tier superstar typically doesn’t bode well for one’s near-future prospects.

When—not if—the Minnesota Timberwolves finally part ways with all-world forward Kevin Love, in a seemingly imminent trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico, what hopes they had for the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 11 years will be formally, finally dashed.

They just won’t be nearly half as bad as most want to think.

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 3: Andrew Wiggins #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses for a portrait during the 2014 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 3, 2014 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
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Start, as all arguments should, with the obvious: Andrew Wiggins, raw and unready stock aside, has as good a chance as Love or Kevin Garnett ever did of becoming the face of the Timberwolves franchise.

Taken first overall in June’s draft, Wiggins has, for the better part of the past three years, sat gleaming on the horizon, a diamond in a gold-dust rough. Unlike with the burly Anthony Bennett, Wiggins’ ceiling, it seemed—not unlike the combine leaps splayed across many a profile piece—could scarcely be measured.

It may take a few years for the one-year Kansas standout to get his NBA feet beneath him. Once he does, though, the blastoff will require protective eyewear.

Running on down the roster, you suddenly remember that any team that can manage to win 40 games in such a stacked Western Conference—with a point differential better than those of both the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, no less—has to be more than a one-man show.

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Ricky Rubio? For all his well-publicized shooting struggles, the sinewy Spaniard's otherworldly passing and cat-quick defensive instincts still betray his age. With a fourth-year leap, he could easily vault into the conversation as one of the league’s upper-echelon floor generals.

Nikola Pekovic? A nightly double-double threat who should, in the absence of the glass-greedy Love, become an outright machine. His production should improve noticeably, even if the increased touches compromise his steadfast efficiency.

Kevin Martin? After two seasons spent as a secondary option, the sweet-shooting guard will have enough plays run his way to make Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson blush.

Round out the roster with veterans like Thad Young (rumored to be headed to Minnesota in exchange for Bennett, per Mark Perner of the Philadelphia Daily News), J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger, sophomore hopefuls Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad and rookie phenom Zach LaVine, and Flip Saunders has the makings of a team sure to be compelling and competitive, if not conference threats. 

Dec 1, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) talks to Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Kevin Martin (23) in a break in action against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ma

But with Saunders now manning both the front-office calculator and sideline clipboard, it’s safe to wonder if Minnesota’s plans might entail striving for—to put it as diplomatically as possible—a decided lack of competitiveness.

Indeed, with Rubio slated to become a restricted free agent next summer and the 19-year-old LaVine waiting in the wings, another all-out rebuild—by now listed ahead of “Adelman, Rick” in the Timberwolves’ lexicon—seems painfully possible.

Writing at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chip Scroggins brings to bear equal parts optimism and resignation in distilling the essentials of the Love-Wiggins deal:

Be prepared for growing pains. The trade will make them incredibly young, the Minnesota Timberpups. Wolves fans have had their patience tested to immeasurable depths, but this young core of talent will need time to develop with no guarantees of a sweet reward.

But this looks like a promising deal, potentially a great one. Kevin Love did not want to be here and had one foot out the door. And Saunders managed to replace him with a young player who realistically could become a star, along with other pieces in the deal.

After watching two superstar forwards sour on their Timberwolves tenures—first Kevin Garnett, now Love—Minnesota fans can be forgiven for being a bit gun-shy.

No matter how savvy their front office or fortunate their draft-day hauls, the Wolves will always be seen as a second-class NBA market, a place where superstars are born and reared but never, ever stay.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  Andrew Wiggins #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers takes a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs at the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 13, 2014 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
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Still, recent remarks by Wiggins’ former coach, Kansas’ Bill Self, sound at least sincere enough to make the soon-to-be hardwood honeymoon one to remember, even if they aren’t a permanent harbinger, via ESPN.com:

When all this trade stuff started, I talked to Andrew and Andrew told me, 'I hope I get traded,' And I'm like, 'No you don't.' And he said, 'Coach, I do. It's better for me, knowing my personality and what I need to do, to go somewhere where I'm forced to be something as opposed to going in there where they're going to be patient with me and I'm going to be a piece.'

This puts Saunders in something of an awkward position. Can he somehow convince Wiggins that the best path forward—four, five, perhaps six years—would be to clear the cupboards and start from scratch, thereby risking Love-like franchise fatigue?

Or does he do what he can to build around a core quartet of Rubio, Young, Pekovic and Wiggins in hopes their next-level leaps are big enough to make Minnesota a legitimate free-agent destination?

Much will depend on how good Wiggins can be straight out of the gate. Even with Love leading the way, the Wolves were by no means an offensive juggernaut, owing in no small part to a palpable lack of perimeter punch. Wiggins, for all his tantalizing talent, is nowhere near the go-to scorer of, say, a Jabari Parker.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 30:  Jordan Lauf #25 of the Toledo Rockets shoots over Andrew Wiggins #22 and Jamari Traylor #31 of the Kansas Jayhawks in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse on December 30, 2013 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Image
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Wiggins’ defense, however, is about as NBA-ready as it gets. Which could mean a strategic about-face for Minnesota, why with Saunders having led the Detroit Pistons to three straight top-10 finishes in overall defensive efficiency from 2005-2008, per Basketball-Reference.com.

In a Western Conference loaded with offensive juggernauts, staking your claim at the other end might not be as crazy as it sounds. Particularly with a potential top-tier defensive duo of Rubio and Wiggins—to say nothing of Dieng and Luc Mbah a Moute—at Minnesota’s disposal.

That the Wolves will miss a player of Love’s cut and caliber goes without saying, Wiggins’ stratospheric ceiling aside. That kind of steady production can take years to replace, if it ever happens at all.

But depending on how he reassembles the leftover pieces, Saunders can assure that next year’s labors aren’t totally lost. Even if the Love has to be.


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