The Question of Kevin Love

Minnesota fans understandably don’t want to hear this, but Kevin Love is about to become the centerpiece in NBA front-office jockeying over the next several months. In many ways, he already is.

Love has his warts, but just about every executive agrees he’s a top-10 player. He’s not yet 26 years old, he has just one guaranteed year left on his contract, and it’s an open secret around the league that he’s frustrated with the state of the Timberwolves. A player of Love’s caliber and age might become available — really, truly available — once every two or three seasons. This is an event. Every team piling up assets and talking about how they are “open” to acquiring a superstar should one become available is talking in code about Kevin Love.

All those teams have gotten the same impression, directly or indirectly, from the Timberwolves: They are not interested in trading Love ahead of his potential free agency. You can understand that, even if a game of chicken could result in the nightmare scenario of Love walking for nothing — or for the kind of petty returns Cleveland and Toronto got for LeBron James and Chris Bosh, respectively, in gun-to-your-head sign-and-trades.

A market like Minnesota just isn’t going to attract a top-10 player in free agency unless it already has one heading up a very appealing roster. Those are the most precious commodities in the sport, and Minnesota has one. Surrendering that kind of talent is so painful for a non-glamour team. You never know when or if you’ll ever get one again. Minnesota already knows this, of course; Kevin Garnett won a ring in Boston, and the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs without him.

Cleveland, Toronto, and Orlando went down to the wire with James, Bosh, and Dwight Howard, respectively. They just couldn’t pull the trigger on the Utah Jazz/Deron Williams timetable. It was too hard to swallow. The Magic were confident they had the Lakers in the bag as a Howard trade suitor, and given how all the pieces have farted around in the 20 months since that trade, people say the Magic “won” the Dwight deal. Maybe. But winning is going to involve years of pain, with no certain ticket back to championship relevance.

The Lakers are out of big-money trade assets; there is no Andrew Bynum chip left on the roster. Los Angeles does have a tasty first-round pick in this draft and an impatient old lion in Kobe Bryant, but it’ll also have the cap room to sign Love outright after next season. The Nuggets created a Knicks-Nets bidding war for Carmelo Anthony that produced one of the greatest bounties ever in a superstar trade, but neither New York team has an attractive trove of assets now. The Knicks, like the Lakers, will have the cap room to chase Love in free agency after next season.

Love is effectively an expiring contract now. Teams with little record of attracting superstars are wary of surrendering assets for stars who could leave soon in free agency. Love could grease the wheels by opting into his contract for 2015-16, promising to do so as a condition of any trade, or simply informing any suitor that he would likely re-sign if things go well. The new collective bargaining agreement has basically removed the possibility of an extension or extend-and-trade helping any team feel more secure about keeping a star. The rules are such that a max-level player has no financial incentive to extend his contract under almost any circumstance.

Minnesota has waited long enough that it will require some work to gin up a proper return for Love if it decides to bite the bullet. They should still be able to create a robust market for him. There are enough teams that have piled up extra draft picks and other trade chips with an eye on acquiring a Love-level player, but it will require proactive creativity. Rival front office people say Flip Saunders, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, is a creative and open-minded type, but he’s not having this conversation yet. The franchise is focused on convincing Love to stay. This has inspired some snickering from rivals who view Saunders as an ostrich with his head in the sand, but, again, you can understand Minnesota’s stance.

Minnesota’s funkiest statistical quirk will become a talking point in the discussion. The Wolves have the 10th-best point differential in the league, a positive scoring margin we’d normally associate with a 50-win team. Kevin Pelton at ESPN.com has written that they may be the strongest team ever by this measurement to miss the playoffs.

The Wolves will hold this up to Love and say, “We’re actually pretty good! We’ve approached the luxury tax to surround you with good players, and if we just have a normal record in close games next season, we’re breezing into the playoffs — especially if Ricky Rubio improves!”

Love’s side can counter with conflicting evidence. The Wolves have been a catastrophe without Love on the floor this season. When he plays, they outscore opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions and explode on offense, per NBA.com. When he sits, the offense dies, and they have a worse point differential than the Bucks.

We can debate Love’s shortcomings, and loudly revoke his superstar card for failing to lead his team to the playoffs in any of his first six seasons. And he has shortcomings. He offers no rim protection, he lollygags in transition defense, he’s not going to make spirited second and third rotations on the same defensive possession, and he often fails to challenge shots in order to secure boxout position — and precious rebounds. Love wants his numbers.

He generally plays hard, and he strikes me and others around the league as someone who will grow out of his bad habits. He’s never going to be an elite defender, but he can be an average one, and he has a quick mind and sound understanding of where he needs to be.

He is an offense unto himself — a 3-point bombing machine who warps entire defenses Dirk Nowitzki–style, dominates the glass, passes well, and has developed a strong post game that draws regular double-teams. He’d have made the playoffs by now had the Wolves not whiffed on so many draft picks and free-agency signings. If a team can get Kevin Love, it should get him. He is a superstar, period. David Kahn’s refusal to offer Love the full five-year max deal in 2012 wasn’t just a mistake. It was one of the great front-office blunders in modern NBA history.

The Wolves can blame the team’s horrific Love-less numbers on injuries to Ronny Turiaf, Nikola Pekovic, and Chase Budinger; the general disappointment of J.J. Barea; and the non-development of the team’s young players. Gorgui Dieng has been a revelation lately, and if he truly emerges as a reliable two-way big, that opens up interesting trade possibilities.

But blaming crunch-time performance on bad luck doesn’t pass the smell test anymore. It’s true that team clutch performance tends to regress to the mean over long samples; ask this season’s Blazers. Some teams and players chronically over-perform in crunch time, and others chronically shit the bed.

This is Minnesota’s third consecutive season of catastrophically bad crunch-time play. This is no longer a blip we can assume will self-correct. This is a disturbing trend, one that infects both sides of the ball.

The Wolves are a sound defensive team overall, but they’ve been bad on that end in crunch time, and one trend has surfaced across all three seasons: A team that rarely fouls in the first 45 minutes can’t stop fouling at the end of games. Only Denver has allowed more free throws per field goal attempt in the last three minutes of close games this season, per NBA.com, a carryover from the two prior seasons. Overall, the Wolves have allowed 116.1 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, the third-worst mark in the league, and one that would rank miles below the NBA’s leakiest overall defense.

Some of this is noise. The minute samples are small, and when Minnesota falls behind, it has to foul to prolong the game. About half the fouls it’s committed inside the three-minute mark of close games have been intentional.

But some of it is not noise. I’ve watched every crunch-time Minnesota foul over those three seasons, and a few trends emerge:

• Love and Pekovic tend to reach in against paint scorers. It’s as if they know they can’t block shots, but are so desperate to stop any potential scoring opportunity that they’ll risk fouls in chasing knockaways. Love has gotten better about this — it was a plague two seasons ago — but it still happens:

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(Note: I’d link to clips of these plays, but NBA.com’s public stats sites allow for such links on almost every play type but personal fouls.)

• Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin, two key wing free agents, gamble their way into crazy fouls all over the floor. Like, there’s no reason for Martin to be crowding Ben McLemore away from the ball here:

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These guys are serial gamblers, and a lot of their crunch-time fouls happen before Minnesota’s opponent is in the bonus. But those fouls also put opponents in the bonus.

• Quick opposing point guards can puncture Minnesota’s scheme. The Wolves play a conservative pick-and-roll defense in which Love and Pekovic hang near the paint to corral ball handlers instead of chasing them far from the hoop. It works in the aggregate; neither big is a major plus defender, but they both understand the scheme and approach it with solid footwork.

But when Ty Lawson/Chris Paul types dial in late, they’ve been able to either blow by those guys or bait them into fouls. Ricky Rubio is a steals hound, and his chest-to-chest defense has also cost Minny a few whistles.

That’s really the main problem here. Opponents don’t shoot a high percentage against Minny in the clutch, kill the offensive glass, or nail a huge number of 3s.

The more high-profile meltdowns happen on offense, where the normally hard-to-guard Wolves have managed just 87 points per 100 possession on 24-of-76 shooting from the floor, per NBA.com.

Love is not the problem here. He’s 12-of-27 in these situations, with a pile of monster makes — of 31 players who have attempted at least 25 such shots, only LeBron James, Damian Lillard, and Tyreke Evans have hit a higher percentage, per NBA.com. He draws double- and even triple-teams all over the floor in crunch time. The rest of the team is 12-of-49. Rubio is 1-of-5, and two of those attempts came in Minnesota’s first game of the season.

Rubio had a frisky month of games stretching from mid-February through mid-March in which he shot 47 percent and hit an acceptable percentage of shots in the restricted area. He has also emerged as close to an average 3-point shooter, though his raw percentage is a bit misleading. He takes only two triples per 36 minutes, a career low, and he gets those shots because teams don’t bother guarding him.

Rubio’s lack of scoring punch indisputably hurts Minnesota late, which is why Adelman has overplayed Barea in fourth quarters to the frustration of every breathing basketball fan. But with Rubio neutered as a scoring threat, Minnesota has almost no off-the-dribble creator. It has no one who can take the ball from the perimeter into the paint and get buckets. Martin’s off-the-dribble game stops outside the paint and results in brutally tough shots like this.

Love can take bigger defenders off the dribble from the elbows, but he’s not the quickest cat, and other teams swarm him late whenever he approaches the basket. Minnesota has defaulted to complex set pieces, many of which involve the two-man game between Love and Martin. They are a prolific combination overall, confusing defenses with handoffs, weird screening action, and other goodies.

In the hothouse of crunch time, out of timeouts against locked-in defenses, it doesn’t work as well. Teams are ready for the gimmicks, and they will often just switch defenders to avoid breakdowns.

The Mavs are content to temporarily switch smaller defenders onto Love on these plays. That would seem to invite disaster, since Love is a powerful post player, and the Wolves often go to him on the left block in crunch time. (He has developed a nifty right-handed jump hook from there.) But other teams have made the same switch late; they are unafraid to double Love, force him to pass, and live with the consequences.

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It seems weird that a team with Love at power forward is poor on shooting, but the Wolves are poor on shooting. When Rubio, Brewer, and a traditional center are on the floor together with Love and Martin, opposing teams have lots of places from which they comfortably send help. Pekovic has gotten a lot of little crunch-time floaters precisely because the defense tilts away from him toward Love, and he has mostly missed; Pek is 2-of-14 in the last three minutes of close games, including 2-of-11 in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

That’s partly bad luck. Some of those shots will fall next season. Minnesota’s best chance at keeping Love is simply to be good — to give Love hope for the future, as Portland has given LaMarcus Aldridge hope. (Note: Can you imagine if Portland misses the playoffs this season, suddenly a real possibility? All hell might break loose.)

Augmenting this roster is going to be tough. Nobody wants contracts like those attached to Brewer, Martin, Barea, and Budinger. The Wolves overshot the market for midlevel types in a voracious attempt to surround Love with talent and shooting. They owe Phoenix a first-round pick that is top-13 protected for this season, meaning Minnesota will keep it if they hold steady in their current projected lottery position. It is top 12 protected in each of the next two drafts, and the lingering protections make it hard for the Wolves — for now — to deal a future first-round pick, though they could still theoretically do so.

The Wolves have $66 million in committed salary for next season before accounting for a possible first-round pick. They should be able to use the full midlevel exception regardless, but adding the cost of a first-rounder would take them dangerously close to the projected tax line.

Those players will be available, both on draft day and later via trade. You can get a Thaddeus Young/Brandon Bass/Omer Asik/Jason Thompson–type big man if you’re desperate enough to surrender a first-round pick, and the Wolves could protect such a pick in a way that they’d keep it for several drafts in the event Love walks and they bottom out. The Wolves could use a little boost at almost every position, but finding a well-rounded backup big man might be the most pressing need.

The Wolves could chase a splashier trade for someone else’s productive/expensive player, but doing that may require the inclusion of Pekovic or Rubio. Pekovic has value, but he’s also 28 and slated to earn nearly $12 million in 2017-18. Rubio is among the most divisive players in the league now, in part because of the sense that his agent, Dan Fegan, is going to demand an eight-figure extension that Rubio does not yet deserve.

Beyond that? It’s trading Love if the Wolves conclude they have no other choice, or that doing so is the best option. Minnesota isn’t going there yet, and it has two other connected internal questions to sort out: Rick Adelman’s future with the team, and whether there is hope for a Rubio leap. Adelman has one year left on his deal and has known Love since Love was a kid, but it’s unclear if he wants to return for next season. Rubio is the best hope for this roster taking the next step.

There are just so many wild cards in play, with a top-10 overall player — and perhaps a top-five overall player — at the center of it. This is the league’s most uncertain situation.

Filed Under: NBA, Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA