It seems insane now, but there was a time when Kevin Love wasn’t exactly a surefire franchise changer. From his lack of jaw-dropping hops and consistent defense, to concerns over offensive versatility, red flags—minor though they were—conspired to cast the UCLA star’s future into flux.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love’s loss rings as an all too familiar refrain—the ballad of a basketball hero who, like Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett before him, couldn’t quite parlay personal accomplishment into playoff results.
Which brings us to a question sure to be bandied about by many a Wolves fan: Was Love’s Minnesota sojourn a success, something less or an out-and-out failure?
Primarily and most painfully, of course, is the lack of postseason appearances—not a single one over Love’s half-dozen years in the Land of Lakes. The best Minnesota could muster being last year’s 40-win, 10th-place finish in the Western Conference.
On the one hand, competing in one of the most loaded hoops hemispheres in history is bound to yield disappointing results.
On the other, the list of Love-caliber players to go that long without at least one march into May is, to put it politely, pretty uncommon.
So how much of Minnesota’s lack of a playoff payoff falls on its best player’s shoulders, and how much of it should be reserved for the Wolves’ much-maligned front office?
Kevin McHale’s tenure as Timberwolves general manager was, on the whole, mired in mediocrity: The team managed to escape the first round of the playoffs only once (in 2004), eventually dealing the team’s best player—the mercurial but wildly talented Garnett—to McHale’s old team, the Boston Celtics.
One of McHale’s last big moves, however, was to orchestrate an eight-player, draft-day trade that sent O. J. Mayo (taken with the No. 3 overall pick), Antoine Walker, Greg Buckner and Marko Jaric to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Brian Cardinal, Jason Collins, Mike Miller and a doughy, thin-bearded 6’10” forward out of UCLA by the name of Kevin Love.
That Minnesota scored the fleecing is, by now, virtually a truism. At points promising and middling, Mayo has yet to approach the hype that heralded him as a high-school hoops hero in West Virginia. Love, meanwhile, would emerge as arguably the game's preeminent power forward.
Still, by the time David Kahn replaced McHale in May 2009, that eventual disparity was far from a foregone conclusion. Despite Love’s promising rookie season, Kahn understood that teaming his sophomore star with an equally upside-laden point guard was paramount to Minnesota being able to ditch the conference doldrums.
What happened next would go down in draft-day lore as one of the most head-scratching gambits in history.
One pick after selecting Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio at No. 5, Kahn—with plenty of ancillary talent still on the board—snagged another floor general, Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn, at No. 6. Not long after, Kahn selected North Carolina standout Ty Lawson, only to deal him to the Denver Nuggets for Luke Babbitt later that night.
At first, the strategy made some semblance of sense: If Rubio was to stay playing in Spain, might as well have a backup plan already in place.
Years later, however, longtime Timberwolves assistant Dave Wohl confided in Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams the real motivation behind Kahn’s now infamous gambit:
“He said, 'No, no. I want to play Jonny and Rubio',” Wohl quipped. “They remind me of [Walt] Frazier and [Earl] Monroe.’”
That’s not a minor miscalculation; that’s a delusion of grandeur.
It would take a full two years before Rubio landed stateside, while Flynn—despite a somewhat promising rookie season—bowed out of the league entirely.
Kahn’s subsequent selections didn’t fair much better, with Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams becoming the next two poster children of Kahn’s tumultuous tenure.
But for all his draft-day bungles and botches, Kahn’s biggest gaffe, by far, came in dealing with the one pick he didn’t make. From a 2013 post by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller:
The Kevin Love disaster is the single Kahntastrophe that could still screw Wolves fans into the future. In some way, Kahn lowballed Love in 2011, the offseason he was eligible for an early extension. It remains disputed exactly what happened, but essentially while Love was eligible for a five-year extension that would have kept the All-Star forward under contract through 2017, Kahn didn't offer it. Kahn wanted to maintain flexibility.
One year later, Ziller’s ominous analysis has, for Wolves fans, become nightmarish reality.
Looking back over Minnesota’s recent managerial history, it’s not hard to see why Love—sore as his shoulders must’ve been from carrying such an ill-constructed team—would've finally hit wit’s end.
All the same, Love’s sheer basketball brilliance, though it lacked in postseason returns, was by no means authored in vain.
Love’s Labor’s Lost?
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Love’s 47 win shares since the 2008-09 season rank 16th in the entire NBA—this from a player who missed nearly an entire year recovering from injury, and with exactly zero playoff appearances to his name.
In fact, you have to go all the way down to the 119th-ranked Ramon Sessions (22 win shares) to find another player without a single postseason showing in that span.
Conventional wisdom has it that joining the Cavs means Love assuming second or possibly even third fiddle. LeBron being LeBron and Kyrie Irving being the one entrusted with setting the table as head coach David Blatt’s on-court proxy.
At the same time, it’s not hard to see how teaming with players of James and Irving’s caliber could do wonders for Love’s game—if not in raw production, then certainly in terms of efficiency and defensive accountability.
It’s a luxury Love simply never had in Minnesota, where the supporting cast was slim and the playmaking so painstaking in its deliberateness, despite Rick Adelman’s best efforts to the contrary.
|Sharing the Burden?|
|Season||No. 1 (Win Shares)||No. 2||No. 3||No. 4|
|2008-09||Kevin Love (5.3)||Al Jefferson (4.9)||(Mike Miller (4.2)||Craig Smith (3.2)|
|2009-10||Kevin Love (4.9)||Al Jefferson (4.6)||Ryan Gomes (2.4)||Damien Wilkins (1.9)|
|2010-11||Kevin Love (11.4)||Luke Ridnour (4.0)||Anthony Tolliver (3.3)||Martell Webster (1.8)|
|2011-12||Kevin Love (10.0)||Nikola Pekovic (4.5)||Luke Ridnour (3.3)||Ricky Rubio (2.0)|
|2012-13*||Nikola Pekovic (6.7)||Andrei Kirilenko (6.0)||Luke Ridnour (4.3)||Dante Cunningham (3.5)|
|2013-14||Kevin Love (14.3)||Ricky Rubio (5.9)||Nikola Pekovic (5.9)||Kevin Martin (5.3)|
|* Love played 18 games|
Dearth of firepower aside, the Wolves managed to crack the Top 10 in offensive efficiency during Love’s final season, and even finished with a higher overall point differential than both the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies.
To call Love the sole reason for Minnesota’s near-playoff coup would be to cheapen not only the contributions of Pekovic, Rubio and the rest of the Wolves; it completely misrepresents the interplay of the sport itself. At the same time, there have been few modern instances of a player this good—in metrics beyond the individual, even—having so little in the way of a consistent supporting cast.
Kevin Love didn’t compile a near-30-percent usage or take nearly 20 shots per game these past three seasons because he wanted to, or because that’s somehow his Platonic ideal as a basketball player; he did it because he had to.
The fact he’s done it as efficiently as he has, with every team in the league knowing the drop-off from Minnesota’s first and second options needed an elevator between them, casts into high, gleaming relief just how great he’s been.
Love’s eagerness to join James and Irving not only lends credence to his claims that he only wants to “end up in a great place where I can win” (via ESPN.com); it shows he’s willing give up his alpha-dog status in order to achieve that end. For all the talk of Love’s selfishness, the ends, if they don’t quite justify the means, certainly rationalize them.
That might not give Wolves fans much in the way of immediate consolation. To many, Love is just the next in a lineage of false saviors sent to save their franchise. Always, it seems, less by duty than sheer dint of circumstance.
Ironic, then, that the very transcendent talent Love brought to bear over six seasons in Minnesota—and that sowed the seeds of his disgruntled departure—might end up giving the Wolves their most bountiful basketball yield ever.
Silver Linings Playbook
From the start, the market for Love has been in Minnesota’s favor. From early front runners like the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls to the dark horse Denver Nuggets, plenty of teams were ready, willing and able to part with prospects aplenty if it meant reeling in—and eventually re-signing—the Wolves' keystone.
So when, just weeks removed from drafting high-flying phenom Andrew Wiggins with the first overall pick, the Cleveland Cavaliers received word that James was taking his talents back up Interstate 75, the Love lottery suddenly had its winning ticket. Key to the equation was Love’s leaking he would, indeed, sign an extension with the Cavs at the end of the 2014-15 season (per ESPN’s Chris Broussard).
Cleveland’s offer: Wiggins and last year’s No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, for Love. However, due to the league’s summer moratorium period, the two teams wouldn’t be allowed to commence the deal until August 23.
Days later, the Philadelphia 76ers, operating according to a very different near-term calculus, swooped in to offer the Wolves forward Thaddeus Young in exchange for the younger, cheaper—and, perhaps most pertinent of all, worse—Bennett (according to the Philadelphia Daily News’ Mark Perner).
While Young exercising his 2015-16 player option is by no means a guarantee, the Wolves will, at this point, have a little bit of uncertainty, especially if it means more immediate flexibility. Meanwhile, Wiggins—and all the questions and speculation surrounding him—is as good a fetch as it gets.
Minnesota didn’t merely save face in landing Young and Wiggins; they might’ve just saved the franchise itself. Because unlike the aging David Lee, the gritted Kenneth Faried or even the precocious Klay Thompson, Wiggins gives the Wolves the kind of near-future distraction capable of commanding a crowd—a project of such tantalizing promise that, even in the worst of times, Wolves fans will rally around.
Especially after Wiggins, via his former coach at Kansas, Bill Self, openly relished the challenge of making Minnesota the staging ground for his ascent up the NBA ranks (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.'
From go, the worry for Wolves fans will doubtless be front and center: How long until Wiggins, wings spread and headlines garnered, goes the way of the Kevins?
That such a nightmarish refrain is still years away won’t be of much condolence, of course. For that, Minnesota might have to wait until Wiggins—waifish frame given way to the grace and power lying seething beneath the surface—truly takes off.
Love Not In Vain
Sports—the franchises and stars, champions and records—are, by their very nature, fluid. In a realm where careers seldom span a distance greater than kindergarten to college graduation, it’s imperative, fight it as we might, to not get too attached.
There are surely some Wolves fans for whom Love’s departure digs at a deeply-seated wound, goading them, perhaps, into abandoning the good ship Shirsey once and for all. Still, others, by now numb to what they know is beyond their control, can only shrug or shake their head.
Was Kevin Love’s tenure a failure? If your only metric is playoff appearances, it sure feels that way. Even if the one currency agreed upon by so many as sports’ gold standard—championships—would relegate a vast majority of athletes to the laundry heap of losers.
A more nuanced take—one that includes front-office missteps, conference disparity and, above all, Love’s increasingly superlative seasons—can’t help but render a kinder judgment. For six years, Minnesota bore witness to one of the game’s greatest players. So great, in fact, that the talent he drew in return might, in mere weeks or even months, make fans forget he ever left.
The Minnesota Timberwolves lost a superstar, and no amount of money or market growth will ever bring him back. For that, the Wolves faithful have a right to feel jaded. Cheated, even.
But like stargazers with eyes trained to a midnight sky, we understand the stars in front of us never burn forever. Wolves fans know this as well as anyone and have watched them ignite and brighten and burn and hide, only to wait far too long for the next in line.
This time, though, the one now fading will be followed immediately by one that might—with the right breaks—burn even brighter.