Between Love and Hate

What we talk about when we talk about Kevin Love, and what Kevin Love talks about.
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In the ongoing dust storm of dumb things uttered by NBA players this offseason, Kevin Love’s statement/threat/disappointment with his employers should be no more than a throwaway. Compared to Dwight Howard’s pouty egomania, Eric Gordon’s vocal misunderstanding of restricted free agency, everything Nicolas Batum's agent says, and the broad psychopathology surrounding Jeremy Lin, what are Love’s utterances, really, but just another voice for us to ignore until the Olympics start and we can ease back into game-watching?

Well, they're that, but not just that. There's nothing much to them, exactly—any Timberwolves fan would agree with Love's stated desire for his front office to make moves, just as any fan of any team would; and, of course, every front office in the league is doing just that right now. Still, as a Timberwolves fan, there's something deeply deflating about hearing these words and the frustration undergirding them. The point is, reasonable or not, saying all this OUT LOUD does nothing useful, and can do serious damage to a team with so little margin for error as the Wolves. It scares free agents, it gives other teams the green light to make inquiries about Love, and it alienates teammates. More to the point, it's not a good look: when Love makes comments about wanting to “surround greatness with greatness” all of a sudden, he looks a lot like Christian Laettner, who famously looked around the locker room after a game and pointed “Loser, loser, loser, loser” to each teammate before pointing to himself as the only winner.

The greater part of being a fan is overlooking all this, or simply not seeing it. It was not until Kevin Garnett left the Wolves that I realized how biased I had been in defending him at every turn. My record of this, for better or worse, is there in the pages and comments of Freedarko.com, where I can be found arguing on behalf of KG’s post game or his clutch instincts, trying to reason that he wasn’t merely a big bully who liked to punk younger players. Once KG left, I realized that a lot of these statements were blinded by my Minnesota fandom, and I decided I would try to remain more objective about my team in the future. In Love's case, that means looking at him clearly: I like him, but can recognize that his defense is nowhere close to sufficient yet, and he has a horrible habit of complaining about every foul call; it's an annoying habit for which I've knocked Tim Duncan for years. Love doesn't wear it much better.

All that said, Love is a joy to watch—a unique and uniquely attuned player, a special player, a top-seven talent and a deserving Olympian—and I am grateful to have him on a team I care about. But Love is all those things—unique and special and talented and deserving—in all the same ways that Carmelo Anthony is. Which is to say that, for all his obvious and undeniable brilliance, Love is flawed—forever almost-but-not-quite making up for his defense by offensive prowess, and probably not the guy to lead a team to the playoffs on his own. In the present NBA marketplace, this sort of player gets a max contract. This is the way it works, but it doesn't work very well for the teams offering those deals.

So, in a non-abstracted, non-fan way, I was thrilled last season when David Kahn offered the non-max contract to Kevin Love at four years and $62 million—an offer that was completely engineered by owner, Glen Taylor, by the way. Here, finally, was a player was getting offered exactly what he was worth—a lot of money, to be sure, but not too much. Instead, everyone from Bill Simmons to local Minnesota baseball writers were ripping the Wolves for not giving Love more and arguing that Love was a max player. Then, a few weeks later, Ricky Rubio went down and Kevin Love played exactly like a guy worth four years, $62 million. Which is not an insult, exactly, but is also to say that Love has a lifetime winning percentage of less than .270. After Rubio went down, the Wolves, who started 21-20, went 4-14 in the games in which Love played.

The non-max contract not only adequately matches Love’s ability to bring the Wolves wins, but does two excellent things for the franchise. First, Love's deal allows the Wolves to sign Rubio to the big money he will inevitably command and deserve, to say nothing of helping out in Nikola Pekovic’s impending contract situation. This is the first season since… well, it's arguably the first season ever that free agents have openly expressed interest in coming to Minnesota, and Rubio’s arrival is undoubtedly the main factor. Nicolas Batum’s explanation to David Aldridge as to why he wants to join Minnesota mentioned only two men, Rubio and Rick Adelman. Second, the size of Love's deal makes it easy enough to trade if Love is further revealed as the type of player—a star, if not necessarily one who turns a team into a winner—that he appears to be.

The same people who rip the organization for not giving Love the max are likely those enjoying a good hearty laugh at Amar'e Stoudemire’s contract (with a playoff team!). Note, please, that I fully recognize the reality of the current NBA climate in which non-franchise players (of which I mean anyone not named Bron, Kobe, Pierce, D-Rose, Howard, Blake, Durant, Dirk, Rondo, Paul, or Westbrook) get max deals. It's easy to play the card of, "If Brook Lopez and Eric Gordon get max deals, then certainly Love deserves one." But it's hard to understand why the Wolves front office should be criticized for not buying into this type of contract-maxing-madness that causes lockouts. The Wolves were patient with Kevin Love, sticking with him as he has developed into a star. Only six months into his new contract, he has not showed them the same patience.

Forget everything above about whether Love deserves the max deal or not. Forget whether he’s justified in saying what he did; I already said he is. The point is, Love saying these things out loud does nothing useful for a franchise whose still-parlous fate can turn on the wrong draft pick, an odd injury, or swirling rumors of unrest. For all last season's improvement, the situation in Minnesota is still delicate. Love surely knows this.

And in choosing to forget about that, Love comes off sounding like the kid who went to mock trial camp for the summer and is now too cool for his old friends back home. This is not Kevin Garnett asking, “What more can I do here?” This is a guy who is unclear on how to handle the responsibilities of leadership. I get it, I sympathize, and I like to see the desire to win; any Wolves fan would. But the first step toward getting to the postseason involves that cliché that LeBron James spouted all playoffs long: taking a good look in the mirror.


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