Imagine for a moment that Kevin Love was never on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Imagine that he was on some other team for the first six years of his career, but that he experienced a similar story there: at first pigeonholed as a post-player, he was eventually set free to become one of the premier shooting big men in the league, enough so that when LeBron James returned to Cleveland he was still the best power forward available and James coveted him. Imagine his career with the Cavs has been largely the same, and that we’ve arrived at the place we are now: Love as the third wheel on a Cavs team that is fighting for its playoff life largely without him.
If that were the Love we knew — an All-Star who never truly fit in with his first team as a primary option and then couldn’t find his place alongside James — how badly would Timberwolves fans be coveting him as the missing piece for their team?
Really consider it. The Wolves have 3.5 of their starting positions locked in for the long term with Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine — he’s the .5, since of those four he’s the one I could most see being replaced in the starting lineup. (This, of course, doesn’t mean that they won’t pursue trades, but that’s 3.5 starting caliber players.) Gorgui Dieng is probably a .5 as well, but the only problem is that he’s ultimately better suited to the center role that Towns occupies. The Wolves need perimeter shooting, and so they’re likely in the market for a deadeye shooting guard, but a true power forward who can stretch the floor is likely a more pressing need.
Last year, the Wolves ranked 29th in 3-pointers attempted per game and 25th in 3-point percentage. They were 29th in rebounds per game. Love obviously doesn’t provide the kind of defense that Tom Thibodeau prizes, but he’s capable of providing both 3-pointers and rebounds in abundance, particular if he can be unmoored from a system that mostly plants him in the corner. Given that Towns can also step out and shoot, there would be some tantalizing opportunities for high-low action with either of them taking either role. Both are solid to gifted passers, and you can imagine Love’s outlet passes finding happy homes in the hands of Wiggins and LaVine streaking upcourt for highlight reel finishes.
And the defense thing might be overblown. When Love and Nikola Pekovic were on the same page briefly before Pek’s career got derailed by injury, they were a passable duo defensively. Love, though, has never played with a big man anywhere as mobile and capable on defense as Towns. Towns would be an excellent backstop for teams trying to put Love in the spin cycle on pick and rolls, and he’s also capable of straight up switching on to guards, meaning Love wouldn’t be responsible for backstopping him most of the time. Furthermore, if anyone can coax just a replacement level of defense out of Love, it’s probably Thibs.
On paper, it looks like a near perfect fit. But.
But Kevin Love was on the Timberwolves, and so anyone following the team through those years is intimately familiar with the weirdness that is Love on your team, a weirdness that has not abated in Cleveland. When he was in Minnesota, it seemed at times like Love was a person playing a sports hero in an RPG video game, like his responses came from selecting options like “condescending,” “terse,” “bitchy” or “virtuous” from a conversation wheel. It was like he felt his actions should earn him points, and that x number of points would earn him a quantifiable amount of respect or success. Calling his teammates out might cost him -5 influence with them but it could gain him +10 notoriety on social media! At other times, he was more like a non-player character in one of those same games, with conflicting needs and desires: he wanted a better supporting cast around him, then complained when the roster got turned over. In short, it felt at times like a performance of a role, like button pushing.
On the court, it’s almost as if the revolution passed him by. He was supposed to be in the vanguard of the shift to stretch fours, but before that change even happened it seemed like the league moved on to smallball fours — genuinely undersized guys who were agile enough to switch onto guards or bigger players as needed while still delivering shooting and playmaking, like Draymond Green. We all thought Anthony Davis was going to destroy the world when he started adding a 3-pointer, but instead the Pelicans last year showed us how much more useful all around utility is than specialization right now. In the Finals right now, Love is losing playing time to smaller players and a more traditional big man in Tristan Thompson.
Yet for all the grief he’s getting for his performance in the Finals, it seems ludicrously early to write off the play of a former All-Star who’s just 27. But how do you square that wealth of discrete on-court talent with Love’s persistent problems with making the most of his surroundings? Elements of the difficulties he’s had in both Minnesota and Cleveland have been beyond his control, from David Kahn’s shenanigans to Rick Adelman’s lukewarm swansong to David Blatt’s ouster to facing an all-time great team that happens to be built to exploit his specific weaknesses.
Eight years into his career, though, it’s certainly valid to wonder just what’s eating Kevin Love. It’s become commonplace to look at his shortcomings on the court and conclude his big numbers in Minnesota were inflated, illusory. What we see as his roughly jointed personality is then held up either as the underlying reason for his poor fit in this or that situation or pointed to as the result of how awkwardly his game fits with a given team despite its outward gaudiness.
This, however, mistakes the complex geometry of a player’s personality and game for a simple cause and effect loop, a straightforward push-pull. In just about any other line of work, Love’s prodigious skillset and dedication would handily overcome any awkwardness about precisely how he fits into his role. It’s maybe the lens of the NBA itself that’s distorting and warping how we think of Love.
With all that said, though, is it even possible to conceive of Love returning to the fold in Minnesota? From a basketball standpoint, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s tempting to say that emotion and history has to be left out of decisions like this. But what is a basketball team if not an engine built of people? Their concrete skills have to mesh to make the thing go, but so do the various ways in which they work as people. The way things have gone for Love in Minnesota and Cleveland has not been entirely his fault nor under his control. But it’s also fair to wonder if the way he deals with the things that are under his control is something that won’t ever change, and if that’s the kind of problem the Wolves would want to take on when they have such an intimate knowledge of the way it’s gone in the past.