The exact details and mechanics of Kevin Love’s escape from the hinterlands remain a mystery. His destination is unclear; it could be somewhere approximately as cold with a roster just as far (arguably further) from contention as the one he’s leaving (Boston). It could be another Midwestern city with a core of players in place who are ready to take the next step, so long as they are healthy enough to do it (Chicago). It could still be Golden State, provided they put their talented shooting guard on the bargaining table. It could be Phoenix, who has a ton of assets and cap space to work with. It could be a mystery team that hasn’t yet revealed themselves. It could even be Denver, who dealt away their own unhappy superstar 40 months ago (Carmelo Anthony) but find themselves a longshot suitor to land themselves another.
It’s rather poetic, Love and Carmelo hitting the market at the same time. Love is, after all, merely trying to emulate Anthony’s 2011 blueprint by forcing his way out of a small market to a larger one while he’s still under contract, his looming free agency (and reported parameters for his desired destination) infinitely complicating matters.
There are differences, of course. The Nuggets won 59% of their regular season games when they employed Carmelo Anthony; he went to the playoffs his rookie year and didn’t miss out on them a single time while he wore the baby blue and white. George Karl led him to the Conference Finals in 2009, and the year he forced his way out, his teammates were Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and a healthy Nene. Ideal? Perhaps not. But there are worse situations.
Take Kevin Love, for instance. The Wolves have won 32% of their games since acquiring Love in a Draft night deal in 2008. One of the worst General Managers in the history of the sport (David Kahn) ran the franchise from 2009 through 2012, and one of the worst head coaches of the past decade (Kurt Rambis) sullied his second and third seasons in the league. His best teammates have been a somewhat nicked-up Al Jefferson, a peculiarly timid Mike Miller, the enigmatic Ricky Rubio, a declining Kevin Martin and the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic.
So while Carmelo’s abandonment of the Mile High City was motivated by naked ambition to play in the Big Apple, Love can at least frame his own maneuvering as simply “trying to find a way to win” (post-haste, of course, because right now, he isn’t really talking). But it’s possible, and not entirely cynical, to wonder if the Timberwolves would still be in this position even if a few things had gone differently in 2013-14 and they had snuck in as the West’s eighth seed. Winning at much higher levels than that didn’t assuage Carmelo in Denver. Would it really be enough to satisfy Love? Or does his rumored wish list (Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers, despite their sorry current states) reveal all you need to know about what he’s really after?
Anthony got what he wanted, and here he is, three and a half years later, hitting the open market of his own volition, though older and more weary, the target of jabs and criticism that he can’t be the centerpiece of a serious contender. Love finds himself on the receiving end of similar barbs, but his resume is short enough (and he’s been in such a dysfunctional situation) that it’s possible to argue that the jury is still out on that one. Carmelo turned 30 last month and next season will mark a dozen in NBA for him – there’s no ignoring the track record, which now includes a stop in a major market that appeared promising, but ultimately descended into a dystopian clown show.
Perhaps the ordeal has made Anthony wiser and more willing to forsake the superstar label in search of the right fit, even if that means leaving New York (and leaving money on the table). Rather than viewing Carmelo’s story as a cautionary tale, it appears Love wants to follow in the 2011 blueprint – get out of the small market, and into the big one, no matter the cost, and hope his second act goes better than Anthony’s did. It could be that Love’s unwillingness to waive his early termination option is the reason Golden State’s unwilling to part with Klay Thompson in order to get him. That’s certainly Love’s right, of course – to maximize his earning potential by hitting the open market as soon as he is able – but pairing with Stephen Curry for a team sporting back-to-back postseason appearances is probably his best chance to win both now and in the near future. If he’s hindering such a trade, just where, exactly, does winning rank on his list of priorities?
Call it youthful overconfidence, call it hubris, call it blind, misguided ambition – time will tell whether building around Kevin Love, in the market of his choosing, will bring him both the lifestyle and success he seeks. Given the track record, the post-trade-saga frustrations that have followed Carmelo (and Dwight, and to a certain extent Chris Paul) around, it’s probably a safe bet that Kevin Love be back in this spot four years from now, perhaps a bit wiser, looking to play anywhere so long as it’s the right fit, a chance to win for real, this time, with fewer superfluous stipulations. Much like the blueprint Carmelo Anthony could be drawing up, right now.