Kevin Love looms large over all the proceedings at the 2014 NBA trade deadline because he's the rare superstar that seems like a candidate to skip town in his prime. Love started in the All-Star Game on Sunday and has an All-NBA honor to his name. His numbers are absurd (26 and 13 this year) and despite some defensive shortcomings, he'd make any team better. He's the Platonic ideal of the star stretch four. He's also pretty popular with fans. (See: All-Star starter despite playing in non-mega-market Minnesota.)
Also, he's never been to the playoffs. The Timberwolves have the NBA's longest active playoff drought, having seen no postseason action since 2004. Since Love was drafted in 2008, the Wolves have the league's second-worst record (138-309, .309), just better than that of the Kings (134-313, .300). Currently, they are six games out of the West's final playoff spot with a better Memphis team also in front of them. Minnesota is three games under .500 despite Love missing just three games, Ricky Rubio playing all 53 and Kevin Martin having missed five. Nikola Pekovic has missed nine, but other teams competing for the No. 8 spot — especially the Grizzlies and Pelicans — have had it much worse with injuries.
The losing weighs on Love; he does not hide it. He bristles at criticism that his team doesn't win, and it must be incredibly frustrating to see another season come up short of expectations. But there's really little Love can do about that other than grouse, mope and bristle, and none of that is productive. His hourglass comes up in July 2015, when he can opt to become an unrestricted free agent and take his future into his own hands. That's less than 18 months away.
That's what drives all of the hullabaloo over Love now. Teams are saying: "So come on Minnesota, whaddaya say you trade him now?"
The Wolves do not appear to be interested in doing that. Doing so would be to follow the Deron Williams model: the Jazz traded their star point guard a year and change before he hit free agency to maximize their return. The theory goes that you'll get more for a guy with more time on his deal than you will for a rental.
All you need is Love
The problem is that the teams that (apparently) want Love the most have relatively few assets. The Lakers don't have anything of value to deal, unless you like a large expiring contract attached to a friendly, skilled and rapidly disintegrating big man (Pau Gasol). The Mavericks have more enticing pieces, but not the type you'd typically see used in a blockbuster deal (young elite prospects, high draft picks). The Knicks, if they are interested (they should be), have about as much as the Lakers. Few other teams have been mentioned.
There's no sense in the Wolves putting Love out there on the market if there are no superlative offers coming in. Love is the kind of guy who will bring the suitors to you. If the best offer out there is Pau, Xavier Henry and a 2017 first, there's little reason to open the sweepstakes. The starting bid is insulting.
But the Wolves do need to be active, because at this point the only way to reasonably keep Love into 2015-16 and beyond is to become a playoff team. Like, now. A six-game deficit with 29 games to go is a pretty big gap, especially with Memphis in place to capitalize if Dallas or Phoenix falters. (Don't forget that the Nuggets and Pelicans are breathing down the Wolves' neck.) Basketball-Reference's Playoff Forecast puts Minnesota's postseason probability at 14 percent.
If Minnesota misses the playoffs again, Love might agitate a little more this offseason. At that point, June might be when Flip Saunders decides that it's time to find a deal. Or, Saunders could continue to retool the team and hope for a Blazers- or Suns-like rise early in 2014-15, which would hopefully let Minnesota cruise into the 2015 trade deadline with a great shot at the postseason and a bit more certainty that there's a strong chance they can keep Love in July 2015. (How's that for covering my tail?)
But if things don't go well again and Wolves are still mediocre this time next season, how much value will have been lost? What will Love command on the trade market? Everyone will know Saunders has a gun to his head. A hard deadline. An emptying hourglass. That's disadvantageous to his bargaining position.
That's why now is the time to go for it. Everyone should be on the table, including Ricky Rubio. The Spaniard remains one of the most intriguing prospects in the league at point guard, but Minnesota needs production. Trading potential for production — a no-no in most cases — can be the right choice when a star like Love hangs in the balance. If Minnesota can turn Rubio into an older stud point guard — someone like a Goran Dragic or Rajon Rondo — that would boost the Wolves' playoff hopes and potentially ensure safer travel in the choppy Love waters. It might buy the Wolves more sand in that hourglass.
For a team as bad over the past decade as the Wolves, losing Love would be a horrible disaster. Every move, every decision should be focused on preventing it.