Few NBA events are more seismic than a superstar asking management for a trade. Franchises can spend decades searching for a singular talent who can lift a team into title contention. They spend millions trying to surround those All-Stars with complementary players and personalities. And within one meeting, one phone call, that marriage suddenly heads for a devastating divorce.
Take the Houston Rockets. Daryl Morey's regime meticulously collected assets, biding its time, until the Oklahoma City Thunder made James Harden available for trade in the fall of 2012. Houston paired him with Dwight Howard. Then Chris Paul. And then Russell Westbrook. And after eight years of playoff appearances and two trips to the Western Conference Finals, Harden has told ownership he'd prefer to play elsewhere.
With Harden, Houston is a bona fide championship contender. Without him, the Rockets would seem destined to return to the lottery for the first time since 2012—and likely trapped in the league's cellar for quite some time.
This is just the latest reminder of how razor-thin the line can be between competing and rebuilding. Just as Harden informed Houston of his preference to flee for Brooklyn or Philadelphia, Paul George and Russell Westbrook asked out of Oklahoma City, and one year later, the Thunder are entrenched in a dogged pursuit of first-round picks. Kawhi Leonard's desire to leave San Antonio in 2018 upended a dynasty and brought a championship to Toronto.
Flash back even further to 2014, when Kevin Love sought a trade from Minnesota. The events that followed ultimately sent the Timberwolves back to the top of the draft in 2015 and again this November.
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever, set when the "Summer of Love" blended all aspects of team building: a superstar trade request, rebuilding franchises seeking to recoup as many assets as possible and the championship implications of all of the above.
While every NBA draft scatters prospects across the league, each pick also starts the clock on that team's long-term efforts to retain that player. Teams can control a first-round pick's rookie contract for four seasons before they reach restricted free agency, where teams still have the right to match any rival's offer. Stars typically take at least a three-year deal for their second contract. So after seven years, when a 19-year-old draft pick emerges as a 26-year-old All-Star, if his franchise hasn't done enough to impress that player, he'll likely signal the end of their marriage before their final season even begins.
Cleveland ultimately ran out of time with LeBron James, as with Orlando and Dwight Howard, not to mention Denver losing Carmelo Anthony and New Orleans Chris Paul. Now Timberwolves forward Kevin Love marked the latest marquee player to request a trade from the only NBA team he'd ever known.
Love broke the news to Timberwolves executives days before May's draft lottery: He intended to reach free agency in 2015 if Minnesota didn't move him sooner.
Love made three All-Star teams since the Wolves selected him in the 2008 NBA draft. His 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game during 2013–14 vaulted him into MVP discussions, yet Minnesota's 40–42 campaign left the Timberwolves outside of the postseason once again. Phoenix, after all, was even left out of the playoffs with 48 wins.
Minnesota hadn't reached the postseason since Kevin Garnett carried the Timberwolves to the 2004 Western Conference Finals. And like K.G. before him, Love finally determined his best chance at capturing an elusive championship resided in a different city than Minneapolis.
Team president Flip Saunders had rebuffed all offers for Love before the February trade deadline. Only now, with Love's free agency less than 14 months on the horizon, Saunders finally realized Minnesota's grim reality. "He understood," Love says. "But we had come so close, it was tough for me to let that relationship, to have to kind of push that aside to get to a different team and win."
Surveying the league, Love initially viewed Golden State and Chicago as attractive destinations. Before Los Angeles fell to No. 7, the Lakers hoped lottery luck would bring a top selection that could entice Minnesota. Phoenix and Boston boasted a trove of future draft capital that surely interested Saunders, except neither team presented the immediate contending situation Love desired, and no rival franchise would acquire the skilled big man without assurances Love would re-sign the following July in free agency.
The last Friday night of May, Celtics fans conveniently ignored that context when Love entered a bar near TD Garden with a gaggle of friends. Photos of the All-Star strolling down Boylston Street flooded social media. Over the coming days, Love's group was spotted eating in the Seaport District, lunching at a sports bar outside of Fenway Park and partying on a hotel rooftop near Boston Common. "Somehow somebody leaked most of our schedule, what we were gonna do for the rest of the weekend, and then it became chaos," Love says.
"Listen, I ain't no dummy. If you told me I could trade Jared Sullinger and get Kevin Love, I'd do that s--t in a heartbeat," says Sullinger himself.
The pandemonium reached a crescendo Sunday afternoon when cameras captured his crew watching the Red Sox's 4–0 victory over Tampa Bay from a suite. A photo of Love shaking hands with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo in the ballpark's Champions Club erupted Boston sports social media once more. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski soon joined Love. And David Ortiz, the Red Sox's powerful designated hitter, later tweeted at the All-Star, "If you need any advice on moving from Minnesota to Boston just let me know." The slugger, too, spent his first six professional seasons in the Twin Cities before signing as a free agent with the Red Sox in 2003.
"I was like, 'Man, this is getting out of hand,'" Love says.
In reality, Love maintains the trip merely brought the All-Star to Boston for a vacation with friends and his agent, Jeff Schwartz, a longtime Red Sox fan. Living in New York for part of the offseason, Love scooped up a buddy in Rhode Island on the drive to Massachusetts. His skills trainer, Rob McClanaghan, also joined the weekend of festivities.
Love insists his interaction with Rondo was plain happenstance. The point guard strolled from his luxury seat to Love's accommodations simply to say hello. "We were just chilling, having a beer, eating food," Love says. No sales pitch occurred. By the time Love's group boarded a private plane to Los Angeles on Monday morning, news of his noisy Boston getaway headlined studio show after studio show. "Everybody was talking about this trip," Love recalls. "It was out of control." What became known as the "Summer of Love" only quieted momentarily when the NBA Finals took center stage on June 5.
Come July, James' official Cavaliers return rightfully stoked the embers of trade chatter between Cleveland and Minnesota. What long seemed possible now appeared probable. Even before James' signing, shortly after the draft, Thaddeus Young's agent, Jim Tanner, phoned Philadelphia's own disgruntled forward. "We got a deal on the table. You're gonna be a part of the Kevin Love trade," Tanner disclosed.
Saunders had continually discussed his potential Love return with the Sixers. Minnesota's dual president-coach understood moving an All-Star would lower his roster's ceiling, and he saw Young's success during 2013–14 as the perfect veteran lighthouse for his eventual group of unproven athletes. "You're gonna be a part of it," Tanner told Young. "You're going to Minnesota."
He would, however, have to wait until August. Cleveland needed to sign Andrew Wiggins in order to actually facilitate the blockbuster deal for Love. Adding Wiggins' $5.5 million check helped the Cavs' outgoing package come within the necessary range of Love's $15.7 million, in accordance with the CBA, as both Cleveland and Minnesota were operating over the salary cap. But per league rules, no trade could be consummated until 30 days after Wiggins inked his rookie deal with Cleveland. The Summer of Love raged onward.
Originally slated to participate in the FIBA World Cup, Love withdrew from Team USA. "The Wolves and the Cavs were like, 'Nah, we need to wait for this trade to go through,'" Love recalls. "It was tough for me." Winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics, after all, originally sparked Love's relationship with James. They'd overlapped on Nike's campus in Oregon and throughout the AAU circuit as teenagers, but there's something magnetic about the experience of collaborating on Team USA for NBA stars. "It's just the pride of playing for your country, kind of a lot of extra s--t goes out the window and you're all competing for a common goal," Love says.
Rumor of course indicates James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh first imagined their Miami troika back during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, two years before James and Bosh reached the open market. "There's just nothing better than being around guys that want the same things out of life," Love says. "I think you kind of see where people come from, different walks of life, and to know guys on a higher level than you typically would elsewhere."
Minnesota finally granted Cleveland permission to contact Love in early August. The context of James' short-term contract, having signed a two-year max with a player option for the second season, blanketed not only Cleveland but the NBA at large. Cavs officials couldn't risk renting Love's services for a single winter before he left in free agency, and perhaps James following him out the door. It was only after Love divulged his prolonged interest in Cleveland did the Cavaliers agree in principle to soon swap Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and future draft compensation for Minnesota's All-Star.
"We were kind of in a position where we probably needed to do something," says former Timberwolves executive Rob Babcock. "And to get that level of talent, we felt pretty good about that."
Exactly 30 days after Wiggins signed his rookie contract, Cleveland officially rerouted its No. 1 pick to Minnesota. The Sixers indeed unloaded Young as part of the blockbuster, effectively morphing matters into a three-team swap while landing the Heat's 2016 first-round pick, originally acquired from James' sign-and-trade in 2010. Sam Hinkie finally netted the future first he'd long required to move Young. The Sixers president also came away with Alexey Shved, a 26-year-old shooting guard, and, more importantly, Luc Mbah a Moute. With No. 3 pick Joel Embiid staring at a similar lost rookie season to that of Nerlens Noel the year before, Philadelphia now added Embiid's mentor, the fellow Cameroonian who first discovered him playing basketball. Mbah a Moute, overall, would also bring much-needed experience and defensive prowess to head coach Brett Brown's rebuilding roster.
Hinkie supporters of course cheered another savvy Sixers acquisition. Patience and pragmatism still ruled the day in Philadelphia, while the NBA world braced for another contender to emerge in Cleveland. Hinkie's Sixers would truly be ready to compete for a title once James, fast approaching his 30th birthday, slipped out of his prime.
For now, San Antonio had sacked Miami's dynasty, yet The King somehow seemed destined for an even greater effort toward capturing the throne with Love and Kyrie Irving by his side. "When I got traded there," Love says, "it was a life-changing thing for me."
This excerpt of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever, by Jake Fischer, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to pre-order a copy please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.