Early last week, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love announced to his team’s front office that he would not be signing an extension with the franchise, and that next year would be his last in Minnesota. It was news that did not come wholly unexpected—there had been rumours that Love was unhappy with his underachieving team since 2012—but it’s still news that has spiraled the NBA world and the off-season transaction landscape into a frenzy.
Timberwolves fans will be deeply disappointed with the news that their star man wishes to depart. Love was, and still is, seen as the franchise’s great hope to return the team to the relative successes of the Kevin Garnett Era, a time when the team came closest to hoisting the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
Few fans in Minnesota, however, fail to understand Love’s reasoning for wanting out. During his six years in the league, the Timberwolves’ front office (David Kahn, mostly) made some dreadful selections in the draft and failed to build a sufficiently effective team around Love. To make things worse, at the end of Love’s rookie deal, the Timberwolves insulted their star man by offering him a four-year extension as opposed to the five-year max. The franchise is paying for those transgressions now.
That said, part of the responsibility for the Timberwolves’ failure to make the playoffs since 2008 (when Love entered the league) falls on their star man’s shoulder. Superstars—and Love is a superstar—are often expected to do more with less. Love’s failings on the defensive end, where he is suspect at times, and as a leader can be called into question. In a recent interview, Ricky Rubio wondered aloud about Love’s lack of leadership qualities.
Ultimately, however, Love has put up spectacular offensive numbers during his time in Minnesota. He has averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and has had a PER of 26.9 last season, but his team failed to make the postseason. In part, that’s because they have had the misfortune of playing in the uber-competitive Western Conference, but it’s also the inevitable result of a supporting cast around Love that simply hasn’t be good enough—Rubio’s dismal shooting included.
If it’s any consolation to the organization and the fans, Love has made it clear where he stands and is not leading the team on a futile chase for his validation and signature. Dwight Howard essentially held his Orlando Magic team hostage for a year, alternating between renewing his contract and threatening to leave on what felt like a weekly basis. Eventually he opted in to his final year, but demanded a trade soon after. Love will not sign an extension, and he will not opt in on his 2015-16 Player Option with the Timberwolves. He has essentially told the team to go get a return for him while they still can.
The Timberwolves can expect that return to be hefty. Kevin Love is a top-10 player in the NBA, and Flip Saunders will want a package that reflects that fact. Minnesota reportedly wants a first-round draft pick in this year’s draft—preferably a high one—and one or two ‘ready-now’ players who will have an impact on the team next season.
But this is where things get a little complicated.
The teams with the top three picks in this year’s draft—Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia—are all teams that the Timberwolves’ front office would love to do business with. And in an ideal world, those teams would consider trading their picks, and some other pieces, to Minnesota in exchange for Love.
But Kevin Love himself has some real leverage here. He’s contracted for next season, but can opt out for 2015-16. Unless he can give Cleveland or Philadelphia, for example, assurance that he will sign a long-term extension—and that’s unlikely—those teams will feel like it’s too much of a risk to give away a pick, in what looks to be the deepest draft in a decade, for what would essentially be a short-term rental.
In all likelihood, Love wants to play in a large market for a team that stands a chance to win now. (Remember that Love hasn’t made the playoffs yet in his career.) The Cavaliers would undoubtedly be a playoff team with Love on their roster, but it’s unlikely that his presence lifts them to the standing of a genuine title contender.
Two teams that Love is reportedly interested in being traded to—and would likely give his word to sign an extension with—are the Chicago Bulls and the Golden State Warriors. Both teams possess genuine superstars to pair with Love (Derrick Rose in Chicago, Steph Curry in Golden State), and both teams play in large markets that would open up the potential of huge endorsements deals for Love.
The Bulls don’t possess a top-10 pick to bargain with in this year’s draft, but could offer the 16th and 19th picks, and possibly Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. For Love personally, playing in the weaker Eastern Conference where he would stand a great chance of making noise in the postseason could be very appealing. On the other hand, the Warriors don’t actually have a first-round pick to trade, but could offer the Timberwolves a juicy package of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and either Draymond Green or David Lee in exchange for Love’s services.
There are other, outside contenders for Kevin Love’s signature—the ever-alluring, historic franchises of the Celtics and Lakers, for example. But neither of those teams possess the win-now potential that Love desires, nor a high enough draft pick, nor the young talent that Saunders would need to have coming back in the other direction.
Irrespective of their relative chances at landing Love, all twenty-nine general managers will be, if only tentatively, looking to see if they can find a way to land Kevin Love this off-season. Superstars are hard to find in the NBA. You can hope to draft one, which takes years of luck and patience, land one in free agency (hard for the small market teams), or trade for one.
For obvious reasons, superstars don’t become available in trades very often—the Rockets, with James Harden, lucked out in that respect—but when they do, sometimes you just have to swing for the fences.