MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The Kevin Love era officially ended in Minnesota in August when he was traded to Cleveland to team up with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. In retrospect, it may have been over far sooner.
It may have ended on that January day in 2012 when former Timberwolves President David Kahn refused to offer him a max contract extension.
It may have ended on Jan. 8 when a frustrated Love lit into J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham for their attitudes in his comments to the press following a home loss to the Phoenix Suns that started the Timberwolves toward a path of missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
Or it may have started the next morning, when Cunningham seethed in his vehicle in the loading dock at Target Center, waiting to confront Love over those comments before teammates and team employees talked him down.
No matter the actual date, it became clear long before the trade was completed on Aug. 23 that Love’s days in Minnesota were numbered. Love had worked tirelessly for six years to improve his game as much as any player over that time and had become fed up with watching the Wolves fail to surround him with a roster that could compete in the rugged Western Conference.
And his teammates had grown weary of having to answer questions about Love’s uncertain future and hearing the narrative that the star was some kind of martyr stranded in an NBA wasteland. Those teammates that Love left behind started training camp on Tuesday determined to prove that they were more than just weights around Love’s ankles.
“I think the loss of Kevin Love, I think there was something somewhere in the air toward the end of the season,” Nikola Pekovic said. “Still, we had some hope that he would stay. But we tried to make our team younger, and I see a lot of new faces, a lot of younger guys. Just waiting to see how Flip (Saunders) and the rest of the coaching staff are going to put everything together.”
There was no animosity in this divorce. The players know how talented Love is and how much they’ll miss him on the court. But at the same time, there was a noticeable lack of chemistry on the team, and veteran Kevin Martin said he had a phone conversation with owner Glen Taylor this summer about how the fractured team underachieved.
“We both felt like last year was a disrespect to Rick Adelman,” Martin said of the coach who retired after last season. “We had enough veterans to jell the team, but there was just something that happened around February. I couldn’t put my hand on it but our team just went in a totally different direction. We dealt with a lot of off-the-court issues.”
No one here is putting all the blame on Love. Cunningham wound up mired in a court case for domestic assault that was later dropped, Pekovic missed huge chunks of time with injuries and Martin admitted to cutting corners in practice.
But it did become abundantly clear that it was time for Love and the Timberwolves to go their separate ways.
It was time for Love to join a team ready to contend for a title and finally discover what playoff basketball is all about.
And it was time for the Timberwolves to move away from what Saunders deemed earlier this summer “the lone warrior” approach.
“I knew he was going to get out of here. I’ll be honest,” forward Corey Brewer said. “But it is what it is. You’ve just got to adjust. We’re young. It’s not an excuse not to win. A lot of young teams win. Think about it. Phoenix was young last year and they should’ve made the playoffs.”
The Timberwolves received quite a haul in return, getting the last two No. 1 picks in the draft — forwards Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — and veteran power forward Thaddeus Young to add to a core that includes Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Martin and rookie Zach LaVine.
“Kevin was a superstar last year,” Rubio said. “It was his team. Now we have to step up. (Martin), me, have to step up and put this team higher than it has been the last 10 years. We’re gonna make it, and I think we’re excited to do it. That’s it.”
Young will step into Love’s starting spot.
“I’m not trying to replace 26 (points) and 12 (rebounds),” Young said. “Twenty-six and 12 hasn’t made it to the playoffs. If we can get to the playoffs with me doing 10 to 18 or something like that, I’m great with that. I just want to win basketball games. I’m not trying to come here and be a stat stuffer.”
That’s always been the knock on Love. His critics say he’s just a numbers guy, more worried about individual stats than team success. Never mind that gold medal with Team USA.
Now that he has James and Kyrie Irving by his side, he gets the chance to prove that he’s more than a human box score.
And now the Timberwolves have a chance to prove that they can get by without him.
“I feel like we can still compete,” Brewer said. “I played on a Denver team that was the third seed and we didn’t have a superstar at all. You don’t have to have a superstar to be able to compete.”
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