Kevin Love is not a happy camper, and as usual, he isn't afraid to share his feelings about it.
Even without the Timberwolves' latest close-game failure on Wednesday night against Phoenix -- which infuriated Love and inspired him to rip two of his teammates without naming them -- Minnesota has a familiar issue on its hands. Facing the eternal question that confronted the Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony, the Magic with Dwight Howard, the Jazz with Deron Williams and the Cavaliers with LeBron James, the Timberwolves must at some point ask themselves the following: When do you trade a star player who doesn't want to be there?
Love, in his sixth season and the second of a four-year extension (more on that later), has yet to make the playoffs in Minnesota. The team's highest win total since drafting Love fifth overall in 2008 was 31 last season.
With Ricky Rubio healthy and new leadership in the form of Flip Saunders replacing the erratic, irascible David Kahn, the Wolves seemed to be on their way to better days. But with a 104-103 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday night, Minnesota dropped to 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer.
Based on their 2.7-point pace-adjusted scoring differential, the Wolves should be a top-10 team in the NBA. Instead they're 17-18 and 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Nerves, understandably, are frayed.
Whether Minnesota's inability to win close games is a random event or something more sinister is a matter of interpretation (as is, frankly, Love's culpability for it). But with Love's boiling point registering again, there's no debating the similarity between his situation and those of impatient stars who came before him and used impending free agency as leverage.
When time came to sign Love to an extension during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Kahn declined to give Love a five-year, 30 percent max deal under the newly minted Derrick Rose rule. Love had to settle for a four-year deal in which he demanded -- and received -- a player option after the third season.
That opt-out is coming in July 2015 and will be a guiding force in every decision that the new GM, Saunders, makes between now and then. Essentially, Saunders will be faced with the same predicament that encumbered Masai Ujiri in Denver with Anthony; Otis Smith in Orlando with Howard; Kevin O'Connor in Utah with Williams; and, once upon a time, Danny Ferry in Cleveland with James.
It's worth noting that, of the aforementioned executives, only O'Connor in Utah is still running his team. Ujiri left by choice, and with a massive raise, to take over the Raptors. Smith and Ferry were fired.
James' situation was a special circumstance. His talent and impact are so immense that you couldn't fault the Cavs for rolling the dice and making every last-ditch effort to persuade him to stay. At the same time, James left Cleveland almost four years ago, and the Cavs have yet to recover.
Ditto for the Magic, who could've saved themselves a whole lot of trouble if Smith had gone against conventional wisdom and traded Howard a year before his final season in Orlando. Howard has since spurned a second team, the Lakers, who got literally nothing in exchange for Howard on his way out the door to Houston.
Anthony's situation in Denver was the most unique because he was the last impending free agent to take advantage of a now-defunct provision in the previous collective bargaining agreement whereby he was able to force a trade to the team of his choice and receive a max extension at the same time. The extend-and-trade tool was done away with in the 2011 CBA, and the length of extensions in general was reduced to the point of irrelevance.
Three years after the Melo deal, it's still unclear which team won. The Knicks got one 54-win season and a trip to the conference semifinals out of it, but now are in shambles and have few tradable assets left after going all-in with Anthony. On top of that, the Knicks face the threat of Anthony's next flirtation with free agency this summer, when he will exercise his early termination option and hit the market. The Nuggets are still trying to find their way back to contention with new leadership after the departure of Ujiri and ownership's decision to dump coach George Karl.
The situation most similar to Love's, by far, was Utah's showdown with Williams in 2011. Coming out of the lockout and on the heels of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teaming up in Miami, the Jazz got wind of Williams' wandering eye around the 2011 All-Star break in LA, where Williams was telling All-Star teammates that he longed to join Amar'e Stoudemire with the Knicks when he became a free agent. The information was so credible that O'Connor, the Jazz's shrewd top basketball executive, decided not to wait for the door to hit Williams in the rear on his way to New York. A season-and-a-half ahead of Williams' free agency, O'Connor traded him there instead -- to the Nets, who were on the verge of a move to Brooklyn.
O'Connor had far more leverage at the 2011 trade deadline than he would've had a year later, when all of his potential trade partners would've known that he was going to lose Williams as a free agent. It was a masterstroke, though even in getting out in front of the problem and securing reasonable assets, it still isn't clear that O'Connor won the deal.
The Nets got Williams to re-sign and subsequently tried to build a superteam around him -- a team that is 14-21 with a massive luxury-tax bill and few options for changing course. On top of it, Williams' chronically bad ankles have slowed him again and have become such a concern that even Rockets GM Daryl Morey -- who not long ago was intrigued by the possibility of pairing Williams and Howard in a deal with the Nets involving Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin -- has backed away.
The Jazz enjoyed two straight winning seasons without Williams, but are 12-25 this season, dead last in the West. Derrick Favors, the centerpiece of the Williams trade, has since signed a four-year, $49 million extension and is the team's second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading shot-blocker. Two key draft picks acquired, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke (via trade with Minnesota) are still developing.
So what do Saunders and the Timberwolves do about Love? Play their hand to conclusion and hope for the best, as Ferry did in Cleveland and Smith did in Orlando? Or get out in front of the problem, like O'Connor did in Utah?
There's no clear answer, and no guarantees that one strategy will work better than the other. It's worth noting, of course, that Love shares the same wanderlust for a bigger market that led to Williams' departure from Utah. He also shares the same agent, New York-based Jeff Schwartz.
“They should trade him,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “No one thinks he's staying. Everyone knows he wants to go to the Lakers.”
But not all executives agree, and while none would wish Saunders' dilemma on his worst enemy, there's another situation that bears comparison to Love's. That would be the one involving LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers.
As Portland endured front-office turmoil and the bad luck of losing No. 1 pick Greg Oden and franchise cornerstone Brandon Roy to devastating knee injuries, it once seemed that Aldridge's days in Portland were numbered. Though he frequently said all the right things publicly, suspicions around the league were growing stronger that a third straight non-playoff season this year would force the Blazers' hand as Aldridge approached his 2015 date with unrestricted free agency.
Portland GM Neil Olshey stayed the course, found Damian Lillard in the draft, put the right pieces around Aldridge, and voila: the Blazers have been the surprise story of the league with the third-best record in the West.
Just like that, things can turn. And as GMs who've been through the free-agent dance with star players know all too well, it can go either way with Love. Whichever strategy Minnesota employs, there's one thing for sure: the result, one way or the other, will be transformative for the franchise.
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