This weekend, Kevin Love took a well-publicized trip to Boston, feeding the frenzy surrounding the bizarre courtship that’s underway for him, a player under contract for the 2014-15 season. Some may view the jaunt to Beantown as little more than a 25-year-old multimillionaire kicking back in one of America’s finest cities; the more cynical among us look at it as a calculated maneuver to inform the Wolves front office (and, perhaps, the fan base) that he’s already begun to move on.
In the midst of all the uncertainty, Flip Saunders, Milt Newton and Glen Taylor are supposedly searching for a new head coach. This weekend, while hosting draft prospects at Target Center for a workout, Flip rebuffed the idea that coaching targets were turning down the Wolves due to Love’s ambiguous status with the team. “That’s not true,” he said. “I could hire someone in five minutes.” A few days before, General Manager Milt Newton spoke to the Associated Press and said something similar: “We’re not rushed for time to select a coach, the process will take care of itself… I guarantee we will have one before the season starts next year.”
As far as the Love speculation itself, Flip was direct and downplayed the encroaching media circus. “My position hasn’t changed… Last I knew, Kevin was under contract with us. And I expect him to be playing for us next year. I don’t really dictate where guys go on vacation. They can go wherever they want to go.” Milt Newton was more willing to discuss the alternative timeline. “Our first inclination is to keep him on board. If that’s not the case, you best believe we’ll be a better team based on what happens.”
Saunders’ dismissiveness notwithstanding, the Timberwolves now find themselves in an uncomfortable spot on two fronts: the coaching search and the status of their franchise player. One feeds the other, an ouroboros of misinformation, spinning narratives and grandstanding. Dave Joerger was coming to Minnesota, it seemed, until he suddenly wasn’t anymore. Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan politely declined Flip’s advances. And meanwhile, Love is meeting up with Rajon Rondo in Boston, one of the cities reportedly on his wish list.
It’s understandable why coaches would be hesitant to commit to Minnesota until the situation is resolved, one way or another. Love’s actions are also understandable, if a bit unsavory for fans of the team; he only has so many cards to play, and openly visiting prospective trade targets is one of them. Given his contract status, Kevin Love’s leverage only goes so far. Thus, Saunders’ proclamations about “expecting (Love) playing for us next year” are sensible. He is, in essence, attempting to extract a king’s ransom from some team, rather than publicly putting the franchise cornerstone on the open market, thereby driving down the price. Both sides – Love, and the Wolves’ front office – are exhibiting prudent, if prickly, tactics.
That being said, the stakes of the staring contest between Kevin and Flip are much, much higher for Saunders, who must proceed cautiously. Until two weeks ago, the perception in Minneapolis was that he had somewhat mended ties with Love, who was now more open to sticking around. Everyone sort of took him at his word that he was achieving this goal. Maybe Flip really thought he was repairing the franchise’s relationship with Love, only to be stunned at his recent power play. Or maybe Flip was putting on airs. In any case, it’s painfully obvious that nothing changed when the cantankerous David Kahn was shown the door and the affable Flip Saunders sauntered in.
Love wants to go, and eventually, he will. Love will get to play somewhere else, free to make a fresh start with his new team. LeBron James was reviled when he left Cleveland, even by the national media, who robbed him of an MVP in 2010-11 as retribution. LeBron endured his trials and tribulations, and is now almost-universally beloved, except for a small, almost silent contingent of Clevelanders. Everyone moved on.
The Love divorce from Minnesota will be even less complicated. He’ll leave town, a la Deron Williams (from Utah) or Carmelo Anthony (from Denver), and the fans he leaves behind will be upset for a little while, but then they’ll get over it. If Love ends up in a good situation with the right teammates, playing an exciting brand of basketball while contending for a title, who knows? We might just cheer for him, or at least appreciate his newfound success for the sheer entertainment value.
Flip Saunders, on the other hand, is chained to the coming decision. It’s his. He’ll own it. Whether that’s fair or unfair, Flip paying for the sins of a past regime, this is what he agreed to when he marched back into the offices at 600 1st Avenue North to be the Timberwolves’ chief decision-maker. So while Kevin Love moves on, Saunders will be here, and if the pieces received in the seemingly inevitable trade don’t pan out, he will be remembered as the guy who traded an All-Star and got little or nothing for it.
Or, if he holds onto Love through the summer and the Timberwolves open training camp with him on the roster, the cacophony will grow louder and louder as tensions mount, the distraction of any impending deal making the locker room an increasingly uncomfortable place, possibly submarining the season. Would Flip want any part of that? Is it possible he’ll deal Love as much for the basketball reasons as self-preservation, and the preservation of what remains of the team?
It’s easy to view the Summer of Love from the outside and wax rhapsodic about what the Wolves ought to do, or what they should get back in a trade. It’d be much different to be inside the luxury suites, offices and long-distance phone calls where the actual business is done. Few people have jobs where a singular moment will define their entire tenure, and to most people, such a thing sounds like a frightening proposition. But that’s what Saunders faces, right now, and the franchise is in a holding pattern until it’s done. Despite his assurances. Flip will have a hard time hiring a coach until the raincloud of Love’s discontent moves on from the greater Twin Cities area.
All this talk – the incessant, speculative, often insipid talk – is leading to a single act. After it’s over, several players will be in new cities and (likely) future draft picks will be in the Wolves’ hands, but Flip will stay put, reflecting on the shuffling that’s been done, knowing that the talk is over, and that consequences are on the way, and he’ll be the guy to bear the brunt of them.
Trading a star rarely nets you just returns. Flip Saunders has more to lose in this situation, both on the court and off of it.