We can't bury David Kahn for refusing to offer Kevin Love a five-year Early Bird extension, which is exactly what Love says happened this week, solely because we don't know if Kahn actually made that decision. On these matters of expensive, long-term contracts that exceed in length the expected life span of any GM, let alone one with results as mixed (to be kind) as Kahn, team owners do often intervene. The Wolves' owner Glen Taylor is the president of the league's Board of Governors, a Board of Governors that pushed hard (to the tune of six locked-out weeks) to shrink the guaranteed commitments teams had to make. Taylor may very well feel that he had the cover to refuse Love a five-year deal, given that the Wolves had one shot at such an extension and might need to save in case a player better than Love, which is to say a player better than one of the top 10 players in the league, and possibly its best power forward under the age of 25 depending on how you rate Blake Griffin, came along.
Regardless of the source of the refusal, the result is the same: the Wolves have needlessly but a major future strain on themselves.
Most teams with rookie scale All-Stars do everything in their power to lock up those young bucks for as long as possible. The Oklahoma City Thunder have two All-Stars, and gave them both maximum value five-year extensions. The Chicago Bulls gave Derrick Rose a five-year deal, and wish it could be for 10. In fact, only five previous rookie scale All-Stars in the modern salary cap era have taken Early Bird extensions shorter than the five years allowed: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. LeBron and Bosh fled after Year 7, and Wade threatened to do so. Williams and CP3 were headed right down that path, so their teams traded them. Williams may still flee as an unrestricted free agent after Year 7, which is this season.
Those players' teams didn't want to be in that position. The Cleveland Cavaliers convinced themselves that LeBron would stay in 2010; many of us (raises hand) fell for it, too. The Toronto Raptors refused to consider midseason trades for Bosh in Year 7 (2009-10), and lost the power forward for nothing. Wade met with other teams in 2010 before returning with Bosh in hand and LeBron soon to follow. The Utah Jazz saw that same situation coming and moved Williams 18 months early; CP3 didn't really give the New Orleans Hornets much of an option but to follow suit six months later.
Of the five mini-max players of this era, four were gone before Year 8 began, and there's little question that all of those players' initial teams would rather wish that the stars had signed full five-year, Rose- and Durant-style extensions.
And the Wolves refused to offer such a deal, pushing Love -- an All-Star, a 25-14 player -- into a mini-max. There is no justification.
The Wolves' official justification is that it gives the team flexibility going forward. It only gives Minnesota "flexibility" in two ways: the flexibility to offer the five-year Designated Player contract to a player who hasn't yet proven himself worthy (Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams) and the flexibility to replace Love with a better player in 2015. The last and only high-profile free agent the Timberwolves have landed, by the way? Joe Smith, who came to Minnesota because of an under-the-table deal from Kevin McHale that essentially killed the Kevin Garnett era by costing the team three draft picks during The Big Ticket's prime.
In other words, the Wolves have no history that indicates free agents will suddenly flock to a Minnesota club without Love in 2015. Perhaps Kahn wanted "trade flexibility" in refusing to extend Love through 2017? He wants to flip Love like Utah flipped D-Will in 2011? Well, I assure you that Williams' impending free agency did not improve the take Utah received; trading an All-Star in the middle of a long, fair contract is better than trading an All-Star near the end of a long, fair contract.
No matter what rebuild model you choose, there is absolutely no reason to constrict the length of the contract for your best player. Free agency is the devil. Ask Cleveland, ask Toronto, ask Utah, ask New Orleans. Ask Orlando, who watched Dwight Howard skip the mini-max in favor of a full five-year extension with a final year opt-out. I think the Magic would prefer Dwight had signed a deal without an opt-out as they face losing the All-NBA center ... despite Orlando's being really good over the past few seasons. The Wolves can't even match that! Forget the weather and the lack of historical relevance. At least Cleveland and Orlando have been good. And you see where that's gotten them.
What happened with Love isn't a worst-case scenario -- no deal going into July would be worse, given that a pissed-off Love could have signed the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2013 -- but that's a low hurdle to overcome. With Russell Westbrook in OKC, the decision was easy: no, Russ (like Love) will not likely be a future MVP. But he's vital to the team and really, really good. Keep him for as long as possible. It should have been just as easy in Minnesota. The negotiations shouldn't have turned into this as reported by Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
I have heard from people I trust that David Kahn presented Love with a contract offer in the training room -- not sure if it was the only formal offer ever made or the latest -- after Monday's loss to Houston and that Love was seen leaving Target Center with it crumpled in his hand and visibly angry.
This is not how you run a basketball team.
The worst part: the Wolves are decent right now, and improving. We know how loyal Taylor has been to his top deputies; look at how long McHale survived as general manager, living for so long on one great draft pick (Garnett). Kahn, who was at least complicit in this mess, will probably be around for a good while unless Rubio falls (back) off of the map. So one of the few hopes Wolves fans can hang on to moving toward Love's free agency in 2015 is that Kahn will be gone and the new GM can build a better relationship with the All-Star. But given Taylor's history and the team's outlook, chances are that Kahn will still be in place.
I'm sure Love will be glad to deal with him again. In fact, I bet he can't wait to get back across a table from Kahn, the shackles of restricted free agency cast aside. Good luck with that one, Wolves.
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