NBA: Timing key in Wolves, Love ‘divorce’
When Jalen Rose came across reports that Kevin Love appears ready to leave the Minnesota Timberwolves, the situation didn’t add up.
“Something is wrong with that relationship,” he said.
Rose, who earned $102 million during his 13-year NBA career, said it was strange that Love apparently is willing to leave the Wolves’ bigger contract offer on the table to become a free agent next summer.
In January, the Wolves can offer their all-star forward a contract worth $26 million more than any other team. But a report last weekend said Love has told the team he will opt out of the final year of his contract (2015-16) and has no intention of signing an extension in Minnesota.
While Wolves owner Glen Taylor said the franchise has no plans to move Love, Rose said, “I think this marriage is pretty much about ready to end in divorce.”
An amicable divorce would be a trade either before the June 26 NBA draft or before the trade deadline in February. A messy divorce would be Love walking away in free agency — without any compensation for the Wolves.
Any result would be monumental for the franchise. Last season, only two NBA players — Kevin Durant and LeBron James — were credited with more “estimated wins added,” an ESPN advanced stat of a player’s value above the production of a “replacement player.” Durant, the league’s MVP, had 30.1, James 27.3 and Love 21.5.
Yet another option could be the Wolves pushing their chips in for one last run to persuade Love to stay. Team brass made efforts last season to sell Love on his “legacy.” That could be aided by surrounding him with more pieces, similar to moves made last offseason when the Wolves brought in Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin.
Team president of basketball operations Flip Saunders’ hope is that winning could cure the hard feelings created by his predecessor, David Kahn, who put the Wolves in this mess when he didn’t offer Love a five-year “designated player” deal initially.
When previously asked about his future in Minnesota, Love repeatedly has told local media that he just wants to win. But in his six seasons, the Wolves are 153-323, including 40-42 in 2013-14, the best record of his tenure.
Love has put up gaudy numbers to make his case as one of the top 10 players in the NBA. He has proven to be a prolific scorer and rebounder. Last season, he added distribution — including jaw-dropping outlet passes to streaking teammates — to his arsenal.
He was the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo nearly 40 years ago to average 26-plus points, 12-plus rebounds and 4-plus assists in a season.
But still no playoff games on his resume. The Wolves have missed the postseason in 10 straight seasons, the longest drought in the league.
“I love everything about him — except he doesn’t produce winning,” former NBA coach George Karl told KDSP-FM in Denver this week.
Love’s defense has been a shortcoming. In his third all-star season a year ago, he still lacked an ability to protect the rim, averaging just 0.5 blocks per game.
“His defense is adequate,” Karl said. “I don’t think you could ever ask him to be a great defender, but I think he could be a little bit better defender than he is.”
Health has been another reason for losing seasons. Love missed all but 18 games with a broken hand in 2012-13. Point guard Ricky Rubio missed parts of two seasons with a knee injury.
And during Kurt Rambis’ run as coach from 2009-11, Karl added, the Wolves “didn’t have a talented enough roster.”
“He’s endured some tough seasons in Minnesota,” said former player and coach Avery Johnson, now an ESPN analyst. “I think he wants to get to the next level.”
Trading Love could take a commitment that he agrees to sign a deal with the next team, meaning a winning situation.
On the Wolves’ side of the trade, his absence could mean a slide back into rebuilding mode and maybe extend their playoff drought. The Golden State Warriors own the longest absence from the playoffs (1995-2006) since they were expanded to 16 teams in 1984, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
So, if a trade is coming, when is the opportune time for Saunders to pull the trigger?
“The timing can be a little bit tricky,” Johnson said. “I don’t see anything happening around draft night.”
Rose said patience would benefit the Wolves, as possible trade partners will be clamoring for Love before the next season.
“If you’re Minnesota, you have the asset, and between now and the trade deadline, teams are going to get more desperate,” Rose said. “But (don’t) allow it to turn into a Dwight Howard situation where he leaves and you don’t get anything.”
That’s the risk. Howard was traded from Orlando to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a four-team deal in 2012. He then left to sign as a free agent with the Houston Rockets in 2013.
So what’s the best compensation package for Love: draft picks or established players? Both, Johnson and Rose agree.
“I think you have to get a guy that is approaching the star level,” Johnson said. “I think they have to get two players in return and definitely a high first-round draft pick.”
Rose said some of the trading partners mentioned last week — Golden State, Houston and Boston — don’t have that first big piece or don’t appear willing to part with it.
“I think Golden State has (it) with a guy like (guard) Klay Thompson, but I’m sure if you want to bring on (Love), you want to keep your backcourt intact,” Rose said of Thompson and running mate Stephen Curry. “That’s what makes it tricky.”
Although Love hasn’t produced a single playoff appearance, Karl believes the 25-year-old can improve a team.
“He could take a good team to be a very good team,” Karl said, “and he probably could take a very good team to be a championship team.”
If Love leaves and wins a title in another city, it wouldn’t be the first time. Franchise figurehead Kevin Garnett was traded to Boston in 2007 and won a ring with the Celtics in 2008.
If Love leaves, it would reinforce the belief that the Wolves can’t hold on to players, said Stephen Ross, associate professor of sport management at the University of Minnesota.
Ross specializes in branding and says it would be hard for the Timberwolves to yet again attempt to sell rebuilding to their fans.
“You really can’t,” Ross said. “The fact that they haven’t had a winning season reinforces that they can’t compete, which frustrates the fans here in town.”
But if a divorce happens, Ross said, the hate won’t be directed at Love.
“If he leaves, the local market won’t be surprised,” Ross said. “People aren’t going to blame Kevin Love for leaving.”