The Minnesota Timberwolves did the right thing Wednesday in signing All-Star forward Kevin Love to a four-year, $61-million extension that has a player opt-out clause after three.
It was the correct move not because there’s any guarantee that Love will turn into a top-5 player and therefore worthy of what’s essentially a max contract, but because, well, if not him, whom? The franchise has been so dreadful since Kevin Garnett left in 2007 that the only way to land a player of Love’s ability was to draft him.
And – cue Debbie Downer music – that’s part of the problem moving forward.
Signing Love does not make Minnesota a championship contender even as he and Ricky Rubio get better by the day. This move – or non-move, I guess – merely guarantees that the Wolves will not be awful for the next few years and opens the door for hope to sneak into Target Center.
I made this comparison Wednesday on Twitter: Even with Love aboard for the near future and assuming improvement by the core group, the current Minnesota roster is reminiscent of the recent Atlanta Hawks. Sure, they were good after landing All-Star guard Joe Johnson, improving their year-over-year win total for five years in a row starting in 2005 (going from 13 to 53). But they never got past the Eastern Conference semifinals and now are in position to backslide. Why? In part, because they didn’t make the proper subsequent moves and weren’t bad enough to get sure-fire draft picks.
One quick distinction: Love is not Johnson. For starters, they play different positions, and elite bigs are arguably more worthy of max contracts because there are fewer of them. (Tangent: You could argue that bigs AREN’T worthy of max deals because their bodies tend to break down, but Love is only 23 and has no Greg Oden-like history of injury … or of showing his privates.) And Love excels at (at least) two things – scoring and rebounding – while Johnson is a one-trick pony. Plus, Love’s contract shouldn’t handcuff Minnesota the way that Johnson’s (six years, $119 million) did to Atlanta even in the NBA’s new, more responsible economical system.
On the flipside, the clock is already ticking – four years is going to fly by. Yes, the West is getting older and, yes, the Wolves are on the up. But I have a hard time believing that the Lakers, Mavs and Spurs are going to stand idly by as their teams shrink into irrelevance in the long term. You don’t put together the kind of track records they have without front-office competency that goes beyond a single draft pick.
That brings us back to the Wolves. General manager David Kahn has made a couple shrewd moves in a row in convincing Rubio to come to America, hiring Rick Adelman and extending Love. Maybe he’s hitting his stride after an awkward start. But, again, two of those three acquisitions were relatively easy – using high-round picks that resulted from being dreadful. Now, he’s got to find a way to steal a star from outside of the top 10 in the draft (remember when he chose that foreign dude that wasn’t even eligible?) or find a way to package some of the spare parts (Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Martell Webster … do I need to continue?) for the shooting guard that the franchise has long lacked without giving up too much depth. Or maybe they try to take care of that via free agency, although this chart makes it look like there isn’t much room under the cap moving forward.
Sure, it could happen. But it’s a pretty large leap to assume it will given the way things have gone for the Wolves. And even if a third legit piece is added, can the Rubio-Love-TBD Wolves expect to get to speed quick enough to surpass, say, the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder? Or will Minnesota need that group (and some others, maybe Portland) to collapse in order to become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference before Love’s new deal expires? And what if bringing in a top-shelf shooting guard somehow negates Love more than complements him?
Retaining Love strengthens the foundation and makes Minnesota better, more relevant and more entertaining for the next few years. No doubt. It’s exciting. But it’s not the move that’s going to put the team over that hump. That will come later or not at all. So let’s make sure to enjoy the Timberwolves’ transformation into the Hawks and maybe beyond, while being ever mindful that Love could end up hoisting hardware in Boston or Miami or L.A.