In June 2008, Kevin Love was a bright young NBA prospect—armed with a killer jump shot, a nose for rebounds and a knack for pretty outlet passes—a certified top-10 pick awaiting his destination. Among friends, Love openly dreamed of three teams:
- The New York Knicks, who held the sixth pick.
- The Los Angeles Clippers, who had the seventh pick.
- And the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were picking third.
Yes, Minnesota—the land of 10,000 lakes, brutal winters and occasionally brutal basketball.
Love was intrigued, undaunted. He idolized Timberwolves Vice President Kevin McHale, a fellow big man with enviable skills. He envisioned himself as the Wolves' next franchise star, a natural successor to Kevin Garnett. He saw in Minneapolis an opportunity to grow, to thrive, to win.
"Kevin wanted to go to Minnesota," a longtime confidant of Love said recently. "He said, 'I believe in Kevin McHale. Let's do this.' He thought he could learn a lot there."
The dream was realized on draft night, when the Timberwolves—who initially passed on Love at No. 3.—acquired him in a multiplayer trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, who had taken him fifth.
Six years later, the dream is dead.
On Saturday, Love and the Timberwolves completed a long-simmering divorce, with Love being shipped, at his own behest, to Cleveland.
There, Love will join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on a virtual All-Star fantasy team, turning the Cavaliers into instant title contenders. The Timberwolves will receive No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, 2013 first overall selection Anthony Bennett and Sixers forward Thaddeus Young, a respectable outcome under the circumstances.
And they will be doomed to irrelevance for the foreseeable future.
That's generally what happens in the NBA when you surrender a top-10 player, as Orlando (Dwight Howard), New Orleans (Chris Paul), Denver (Carmelo Anthony) and Cleveland (LeBron James) can attest. Elite talent is hard to acquire and often impossible to replace.
The Timberwolves know it well, too. It was only seven years ago that they reluctantly shipped Garnett to the Boston Celtics. They haven't made the playoffs since.
At a glance, the Love trade looks like another sad chapter in the NBA's continuing drama, "Superstar Divas Deserting Small Markets." It's tempting to view the deal through this prism, to sympathize with the Timberwolves and to fret over competitive-balance issues and the burdens of cold-weather cities.
But this deal is not about market size or mercury. Love is forcing his way out of the league's 14th-largest market to play in its 18th-largest market, and the weather will improve only marginally. Love's championship odds, however, will improve dramatically, and that is the only prism that's relevant here.
"He wants to win," said the longtime confidant. "It's not about Cleveland. It's about winning."
The trade—instigated by Love, using his impending free agency as the hammer—is the product of years of incompetence and mismanagement, of clumsy ownership and poor leadership, of squandered opportunities.
Mostly, it's about the fecklessness of former general manager David Kahn and the folly of owner Glen Taylor, who empowered him. The Timberwolves failed Kevin Love, thoroughly. They earned this fate.
For six years, Love waited for help that never arrived—a worthy co-star, a stud backcourt scorer, an enforcer in the paint, a reliable bench. Indeed, no current NBA star has had less help over the course of his career, according to ESPN statistical ace Tom Haberstroh.
Love has not played with a single All-Star or even, as Haberstroh termed it, a single "fringe All-Star" in his six NBA seasons. "From a supporting-cast standpoint, Love has probably been dealt the worst hand of any star in the league," Haberstroh concluded (subscription required).
Love kept performing Herculean tasks—going for 30 points and 15 rebounds, or 30 and 20, even 30 and 30—only to miss the playoffs every year. He alone has carried the burden.
"That killed his morale," said the longtime confidant.
|Kevin Love's Cold Minnesota Tenure|
|Season||Love Player Efficiency Rating||Timberwolves Record|
Kahn and Taylor further inflamed the relationship when they gave Love only a four-year extension, reserving the team's single five-year "designated player" contract for Ricky Rubio. That decision is haunting the Timberwolves today. If Love had been granted the longer deal, he would have been locked up through 2017, with an opt-out in 2016, and no means to force a trade this summer.
Until the NBA, Love had known nothing but success, leading his high school team to the Oregon state title game three times, winning the championship his junior year. His AAU team, co-anchored by Brandon Jennings, once went 47-0. In his one season at UCLA, Love powered the Bruins to a conference championship and a Final Four appearance.
"He's won his whole life," the confidant said. "Until he got to Minnesota."
For six years, Love has watched his friends and draft-class peers bask in the glow of the postseason—Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Derrick Rose in Chicago. His rivals at power forward, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, are playoff fixtures.
"After a while, all that stuff wears on you," the confidant said.
Even these last 12 months, as Love's discontent grew more pronounced—and rumors of a coming trade demand swirled—he still held out hope for a turnaround. One blockbuster trade. One free-agent coup. One playoff berth.
"I would stay in Minnesota," Love would tell friends, "if I believed this team could win."
The moment never came.
So Love is bound for Cleveland, with a championship parade (or several) in his sights. The Timberwolves are bound for irrelevance, traveling the same depressing path carved by the Magic, the Pelicans, the Nuggets and (until recently) the Cavaliers.
When Anthony issued his trade request, in 2010, the Nuggets were just a year removed from a Western Conference finals appearance. The Hornets had made the playoffs in three of the prior four seasons when Paul demanded his trade. Howard had been to the NBA Finals with the Magic.
Their power plays made them villains, in their home markets and beyond. But Love might be the first trade-demanding, franchise-hopping superstar to walk away unscathed, unvilified. Love's motives seem pure, his rationale unimpeachable.
If this video parody is any indication, Timberwolves fans cannot even summon the anger to criticize Love.
"I think instead of burning his jersey," one fan says, "we should send him a thank-you card for trying so hard."
In this particular chapter of small-market despair, the villains were the guys in suits and ties.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.