By Alex Berg
I will be seeing former Timberwolf Kevin Love play in-person tomorrow for the first time since he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014. Even though this meeting is not quite as anticipated as his first return last January, Love will still get a ton of reaction from what should be a packed Target Center. I’m guessing I am in the minority, but to me, there is no reason to boo the former Timberwolves all-star.
It is not easy to defend a player that left the team, albeit in a trade, at age 25 when he could have been entering the prime of his career. For Love, I think there are a few important distinctions.
First of all, it is not that preposterous to blame Love if he did not want to sign with Minnesota after his contract had expired. He already had been snubbed of the max-contract that he supposedly wanted that would have kept him under contract for the Wolves through the 2016-17 season. I understand that happened under a different regime, but the majority owner -- the same one who proclaimed Love was best as a “third scoring option” -- remained.
Pairing the two accounts of lack trust/faith from the front office with six seasons that resulted in zero playoff appearances, three head coaches, and no clear plan at any point, it is hard to fault a 25-year-old for wondering what greener pastures might look like.
Secondly, Love improved his game year-by-year and almost single-handedly (with the help of Ricky Rubio) made Timberwolves basketball watchable again. Love came to the Timberwolves as a bigger player that posted high rebound rates. Over his six years he lost weight, became an elite 3-point shooter, and one of the better passing big men in the game. He left Minnesota as a player that, statistically, could have been argued as a top-five player in the NBA.
As a rookie, Love played 81 games and shot 10.5 (not a typo, I swear) percent on his 19 attempts from behind the arc. By his third season, he was averaging over 1 make from long distance per game and shot 41.7 percent from behind the arc. Fast forward to his final season here in 2013-14 when he bumped that average to 2.5 made 3-pointers per contest and also raised his assist total to 4.4 helpers per game, which nearly doubled his previous high of 2.5 assists per game in 2010-11.
Finally, Love’s honesty indicating it would be unlikely that he would opt-in to staying with the team beyond the 2014-15 season gave Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves ample time to move him for the right package instead of desperately flipping him in February simply to salvage something for losing the team’s best player. The right package happened to include Andrew Wiggins, the No.1 overall pick of the Cavs in the 2014 draft. Wiggins alone gave the Wolves their best centerpiece in over a decade for a true rebuild. Building around Wiggins, paired with injuries, other circumstances, and a rare stroke of luck allowed the Timberwolves to parlay Wiggins’ talent with yet another centerpiece in 2015’s top pick Karl-Anthony Towns. There is no way the team would be in the position it is now if Love had waited until 40-plus games into the 2014-15 season to suggest he might explore other options.
It’s never fun to see your favorite team lose its best player, that happens all too often here in Minnesota, but not only did Kevin Love help put Minnesota basketball back on the map after a few really dark years, he also -- as unintentional as it was -- helped the team plunge into the true rebuild it desperately needed. Not to mention, his playing career here (aside from the length) should be a blueprint for Wiggins, Towns, and any other young player to wear a Timberwolves jersey. If the team’s current young players can improve individually year-to-year like Love did, the team will be in a much better place in the next few seasons and beyond.