Contract negotiations can be a perilous beast, a high-stakes affair between two parties ostensibly looking to show mutual admiration for each other hindered only by the sort of contention that stems from arguing over millions of dollars. By nature, contract negotiations aren't supposed to be easy, expect when they are. The Minnesota Timberwolves found it out the hard way with Kevin Love.
It was just over a year ago that Love helped program his own Woj Bomb(™). The Timberwolves power forward teamed up with Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports for an interview and corresponding column that left a serious impression Love's time in Minnesota was the sand sinking quickly to the bottom of an hour glass. Only 11 months after the ink on his new four-year, $62 million extension had dried, Love already seemed like he had his mind set on greener pastures.
Essentially, Love wanted to be Minnesota's designated player, meaning he could sign a five-year contract for $80 million, but the organization wasn't ready to commit. Legend has it that then-GM David Kahn "marched" into the trainer's room and "thrust" a contract proposal in Love's hands, a take-or-leave-it power-play at the end of what was surely a frustrating process. Love's words to Wojnarowski cut like daggers:
"I don't know who labels people stars, but even [T'wolves owner] Glen Taylor said: I don't think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn't led us to the playoffs," Love told Yahoo! Sports. "I mean, it's not like I had much support out there.
Love also felt stung that management questioned the origin of the hand injury that cost him all but 18 games last season, suffered by doing the same knuckle-pushups routine he'd been doing on his own for years. With an opt-out after three years in his new contract, Love seemed like a safe bet to change teams following the 2014-15 season, if not sooner.
Maybe all of that will still happen. The Timberwolves enter the weekend No. 10 in the Western Conference at 13-13. But with Love finally healthy and playing unquestionably the best ball of his career, the lingering sense of dread in Minnesota about the future of its best player has been at least partially replaced by something else entirely.
If there's a .500 team emitting more feel-good vibes than the T-Wolves, they're not in the NBA.
Make no mistake, it's almost entirely because of Love. Without him last season, T-Wolves basketball felt empty. Now Love's third in the league in scoring, first in rebounding, fifth in PER. Love's impact can be traced to the mood and atmosphere surrounding the Wolves as much as the numbers, but jeez, the numbers. The numbers show just how dependent Minnesota really is on its star forward.
The Timberwolves' offense is 20.6 points per 100 possessions better this season with Love on the floor, per NBA.com. Love's presence is literally the difference between Minnesota having the second best offense in the league (109.3 points per 100 possessions) and the worst (88.7). That disparity of 20.6 points per 100 possessions is topped only by Steph Curry (24.1) in Golden State. John Wall (17.2) and Paul George (15.7) are the only other players in the league close to having a similar type of impact on their team's offense.
Beyond the numbers, Love's presence has been a life-affirming force. Few casual fans would have wanted to spend a random weeknight with the Timberwolves last season, but Love has changed all that. In a loaded Western Conference, it feels like Minnesota plays at least one or two games a week you can circle on the calendar. It's largely because Love strikes the perfect chord between on-court domination and aesthetic appeal. The NBA has lots of star players, but none of them play the game like Kevin Love.
Love's three-pointers can spark a stagnant home crowd; his rebounding amounts to a necessary bit of dirty work. But the real show is in Love's passing, where the prodigious talent he's always harbored is blossoming in his sixth season.
To watch Kevin Love corral a rebound, plant, turn and fling the ball the length of the court with the accuracy of Peyton Manning is the basketball equivalent of a magic trick. You see it happen but you're not entirely sure how. Watch this pass to Corey Brewer or this one to Kevin Martin and it's easy to come away with more questions than answers. How does he even spot his streaking teammates so quickly?
It's showing up statistically, too. Love's assist percentage of 20.40 is an eight-point improvement from his previous career-high. As our Tom Ziller noted this week, Love is one of two players this season averaging 20 points per game while also posting a rebound rate and an assist rate over 20 percent. That's been done exactly once in NBA history, both times by another great Timberwolves forward, Kevin Garnett.
Love's opt-out will continue to cloud over everything in Minnesota, the final gaffe of Kahn's comically bad tenure as GM. Perhaps Love's picture-perfect floor-stretching and Jedi-like passing are destined for a change in address sooner rather than later if Minnesota misses the playoffs. But after too many unfortunate injuries and a spat with management that's now yesterday's news, the Timberwolves can take solace in Love making basketball fun again. That's his greatest achievement of all.