The Minnesota Timberwolves are between a rock and a hard place right now. Trade Kevin Love (who is supposedly growing tired and weary in Minnesota) and they’d be parting ways with a top-10, franchise-changing talent. However, keep him around until his contract runs out and the risk of him walking for nothing becomes more and more apparent.
It’s a situation that puts grey hairs on the noggins of a general manager because it can do one of two things:
- Set a franchise up for a successful, promising rebuild by bringing in draft picks and/or young prospects in exchange. Example: Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
- Set it back years thanks to the gaping hole that is left when a multiple time All-Star leaves on his own terms. Example: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The thing is, not many teams can relate to the decision the Timberwolves will have to make in the coming months. The one that comes to mind is, by default, LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers in 2010 for greener pastures, but trading him was never really an option they explored leading up to The Decision because, well, you just don’t trade the best player in basketball. But the Portland Trail Blazers are actually one team that have endured something similar with their star, LaMarcus Aldridge, over the last 12 months, and it’s something the Timberwolves could learn from.
See, last season, it seemed like LaMarcus Aldridge’s days in Oregon were numbered. Heading into the 2013-2014 campaign, the team had racked up a cumulative record of 286-272 since he was drafted in 2006, and frustration was beginning to mount. The problem was, the Blazers were competitive for four of his first five seasons in the NBA, which included three trips to the playoffs (all of which ended in six games of the opening round, by the way). However, after they collapsed against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, they stripped the roster bare and built it from the ground up.* As expected, a lot of losing ensued and the Blazers’ roster had a lot of turnover. (Only three players from the 2011-2012 season remain on the roster, today).
*The Blazers were kind of forced to do so, though. Brandon Roy’s knees were fading into oblivion and Gerald Wallace’s best years were behind him. It was going to happen eventually, so biting the bullet and starting from scratch was the way to go.
With two guaranteed years remaining on his contract, there was little Aldridge could do at the time. Forcing a trade wasn’t really in the cards and he couldn’t opt-out and sign elsewhere because he didn’t have a player or team option. However, the threat of him leaving for nothing in return was enough to make management quiver in their boots.
It wasn’t as though the Blazers were left without any options, either. With Damian Lillard on board and a handful of young prospects, they could’ve dangled Aldridge under the noses of the other 29 teams and committed to the rebuilding process by seeing what they could get in return. Yet, instead, they sat Aldridge down and gave him the star treatment he deserved, picking his brain to find out where he thought the direction of the team was heading. He wanted a center who could protect the rim, and that’s what he got in Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard. He wanted more of a veteran presence, and that’s what he got in Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Earl Watson. He wanted players that were “hungry,” and he got that in Thomas Robinson and Will Barton.
Sure enough, eight months later, Aldridge and the Blazers couldn’t be happier. As a unit, they’re a budding young team, one who’s future is brighter than the majority of the teams in the Western Conference. The front office has done a formidable job, putting the right pieces in place to get the best out of Aldridge’s strengths. They’re fresh off of an appearance in the second-round — their first in 11 years — and although their season ended at the hands of a gentleman’s sweep, they were only a few tweaks away from making that a much more competitive series. But most importantly, with a new contract looming, Aldridge’s tone is very different to what it was before and the odds are, a hefty extension is coming.
“I would like to re-sign here. If they want to talk about it, I would talk about it. They haven’t yet, but I’m looking forward to the chance to do that.”
The situation isn’t that all that different to what is happening in Minnesota with Kevin Love.
Love has been the face of their franchise for the better part of the last four years, but he and management have butted heads on multiple occasions; namely, the Timberwolves didn’t give him a max contract in 2012 because they wanted to save it for Ricky Rubio. But, unlike Aldridge, Love has never made a trip to the playoffs. In fact, this past season was the first time he’s ever been close to sniffing .500, which, in the Western Conference, is never going to cut it.
But, despite a torrid few years, the Timberwolves are on the right path.
As is the case with most young teams, the Timberwolves were up-and-down all season long. According to CBS Sports, the 2013-2014 Timberwolves became only the third team in NBA history to win games by an average, and respectable, margin of 2.7 points and lose 50 percent of their games. They were 6-13 in games decided by four points or less, and 11 of those losses came in a row to start the season. Basically, they weren’t your run-of-the-mill sub-.500 team, and had they tidied up a few of those close games early on in the season, perhaps they would’ve had a fighting chance of making the playoffs.
They’ve also got a nice mix of youth and experience. Ricky Rubio made some much needed strides as a shooter in his second year and rookies like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng showed some promise. Nikola Pekovic has also proven to be one of the better centers in the NBA when healthy — emphasis on healthy — and Kevin Martin is still chugging along, quietly and efficiently putting up 20-points per game.
The Timberwolves certainly have potential to creep into the playoffs next season — they did this season, too, but injuries played a part in ruining that story — so it’s still far too soon to lose hope and rebuild this team from scratch. For that reason, there’s certainly value in keeping Love around for one last hurrah, and the Trail Blazers are living proof of that. Had they parted ways with LaMarcus Aldridge, trading him in for a new model when he was frustrated, they wouldn’t be in the situation they are today. They’re far from a finished product, but they’ve surrounded Aldridge with the players he wants. He’s happy, the team is happy and, most importantly, they’re winning again.
The Timberwolves could learn a lot by treating Love in a similar way. That doesn’t mean bending over backwards and give in to every command; it means keeping him around in the hope that enough takes place in the next 12 months for him to have a change of heart. And if that does happen — that being Love wants to stick with the team after next season (not to mention, the feeling is reciprocated, too) — it’s hard to believe they won’t offer him that max extension he’s due for. (It helps, of course, that Rubio hasn’t panned out like they had hoped).
The biggest difference between Love right now and Aldridge 12 months ago is playoff success. However, after three post-season appearances soon after Aldridge joined the team, the Blazers fell off the deep end and were in a much worse state than the Timberwolves are right now. Even though Love hasn’t been to the playoffs, the talent is there for him to get it done.
The Timberwolves have had their years, obviously — they were a misery leading up to this season — and Love has had his reasons to be upset. And while they’ve taken the step in the right direction, they were geared to make the playoffs this season. The problem with that is they already have a lot of money tied into their current core. Therefore, the question is, who knows if that’s good enough to make a Trail Blazers-like leap? Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury of going up to Love like the Blazers did with Aldridge and ask him what he wants and go out and do it. They’re tied down, in that regard, unless they dive into the deep end by trading one of their younger prospects — Rubio or Dieng, for example. But they were in the mix for most of this season without a big trade and it’s clear where they went wrong.
At the end of the day, the talent is there to bring Love what he wants and now, the pieces just have to fall into place.
Winning changes everything and being the star attraction on a championship-contending team has its perks. Aldridge had his name up in lights this season, being the catalyst on a team that shocked the world and all. He was a legit M.V.P. candidate and his performance in the playoffs cemented his place in the NBA’s upper-echelon. It’s not farfetched to believe that the same thing could happen to Love next season, and that’s why it may be worth taking notes from the Trail Blazers and keeping him around for, what could be, one final shot.