For the Timberwolves and owner Glen Taylor, this weekend's trade of All-Star forward Kevin Love marks the single biggest moment in the past seven years of the franchise. For better and worse, sending Love to the Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett stands as a watershed moment, one that Taylor has used to to explore his regrets and publicly air some grievances.
Remember, Minnesota not only hasn't made the playoffs during that time -- the post-Kevin Garnett era -- but it hasn't even cracked .500. Many of those years were spent under the bumbling leadership of former president David Kahn, and the team's coaches have come and gone in revolving door fashion. Ricky Rubio has excited and disappointed, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams have flamed out, Darko Milicic has fled the country, and Love has endured all of it, a lone All-Star in the middle of what has ballooned into a decade-long mess.
The buck for such an extended rough patch obviously stops with Taylor, as with any owner, as it was his decision to hire executives, coaches and players that produced such a result. Love's departure -- made possible only by Taylor's insistence that Minnesota not offer Love a full five-year rookie extension in 2012 -- threatens to plunge Minnesota deeper into the lottery next season and beyond.
1500ESPN.com reports that Taylor admitted Tuesday that he would have handled that negotiation differently if he could do it over -- that he would have given Love a five-year contract offer -- before raising a number of questions about his now-former player.
"The only thing that I still have a question mark about will be his health. I had that concern then, I still have that concern and I think Cleveland should have that concern, too," Taylor said. "If they sign him to a five-year contract like they're thinking about, I mean that's a big contract in a guy that's had sometimes where he's missed games."
"I question Kevin if this is going to be the best deal for him because I think he's going to be the third player on a team. I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit if they do really well. I think he'll get the blame if they don't do well. He's going to have to learn to handle that.
"I think he's around a couple guys are awful good. Now I'm not saying that Kevin's not good, but I think where maybe he got away with some stuff, not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure how that's going to work in Cleveland. So I would guess they're going to ask him to play more defense. And he's foul-prone," Taylor said.
Kevin Love explains how his relationship with LeBron James grew over time
At the Cleveland Cavaliers introductory press conference, Kevin Love explains his relationship with his new teammate LeBron James.
An emotional retort from Love might have questioned Taylor's basketball acumen, his decision-making in hiring executives, the franchise's constant coaching changes, and the fact that current president Flip Saunders simply named himself coach because his job search failed to produce a hire. But as FoxSports.com notes, Love chose to mend fences rather than make accusations in his introductory Cavaliers press conference.
"It was tough, but saying that I didn't enjoy my time in Minneapolis wouldn't be doing it right. I loved my time there," Love said after being introduced at Cleveland Clinic Court. "The people of Minnesota were great, the fans were great, they showed up, win, lose or draw, and I really developed a lot of relationships.
"I know that we had some rocky and bittersweet moments which holds true for any player in the league. But I hope they'll tend to look at the good times like I do after this is all said and done."
Love followed up those comments with slightly more candor in an ESPN radio interview Wednesday.
"I think emotions are definitely running high right now. For Glen to say that, I just think that he should be focusing on the players that he just received. I mean, he has two of the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts: Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. He has another guy who can really play in Thaddeus Young.
"I think he got a lot for me. So I'd be focusing even more on that. More than anything, I'm just excited to start my time in Cleveland, get to work with my new teammates, and start with this new family here."
With Love still playing nice, let's tackle Taylor's many claims for him in reverse order:
1. "He's foul-prone."
It's unclear whether Taylor knows what this phrase means. During a career that has spanned 364 games over six years, Love has fouled out exactly one time, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That ejection came in 2009, midway through a 20-year-old Love's rookie season. Since then, Love has finished No. 2 in the league in minutes per game in 2011-12. Last season, he logged a career-high 2,797 minutes, which ranked No. 18 in the league, and committed a career-low 1.8 fouls. Further, he picked up five fouls in a game just three times all of last season, but still logged at least 32 minutes in each of those games. Even further, Love committed two or fewer fouls in 60 of his 77 appearances last season.
Who knows? Maybe Taylor meant that Love is actually prone to being fouled rather than delivering fouls. If that's the case -- and there's obviously no way that's what he actually meant -- then he would have been completely correct. In fact, Love's 8.2 free throws attempts were by far a team-high, and he has twice ranked in the NBA's top-five in both free throws and free throw attempts. The best places to score on the court are at the rim, from the three-point line and at the stripe, and Love is a serious threat in all three areas. When it comes to fouls and free throws, Love is a huge, huge, asset. Minnesota will absolutely miss his foul-drawing ability.
2. "Maybe he got away with some stuff, not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure how that's going to work in Cleveland. So I would guess they're going to ask him to play more defense."
There is no question that Love's ability as an offensive player exceeds his ability as a defensive player. Taylor's jab here is likely to play well with many fans who expected more from Love on that end. The most obvious thing missing here is context. Could a losing environment have contributed to lesser effort on defense? Could constant coaching chances have contributed to lesser effort on defense? Could a massive offensive load contribute to lesser effort on defense? Could huge rebounding responsibilities contribute to lesser effort on defense? Could poor personnel complements contribute to the perception of lesser effort on defense? The answers, of course, are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
How does Kevin Love trade impact each team?
Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger breaks down the three-way trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers
, Minnesota Timberwolves
and Philadelphia 76ers
Here's an interesting statistical piece that might provide a sliver of context. Love ranked No. 20 in ESPN.com's "offensive real plus minus" last season, a placement that probably underrates his abilities on that end. None of the 19 players ranked above him -- including LeBron James -- tallied a better "defensive real plus minus" than did Love. That doesn't mean Love is the best two-way star going; it does suggest that making an elite impact on both ends is extremely difficult for any player, and that it's possible to compete for championships with centerpiece stars who post an excellent number on one end and a less than excellent number on the other.
"He needs to improve his defensive effort" is just such an elementary school synopsis of the problem facing a team with Love on it. Surely Cleveland will ask Love to put forth consistent effort on that end, but they will also likely realize that he will never be a rim-protector, and that he does enough valuable things that targeting players who can cover up his flaws should be a top priority. Another way to envision "how it's going to work": assembling an offense that's potent enough to compensate for mediocre or sub-par defenders, something the Cavaliers appear to have already done. Unbalanced teams might eventually get eliminated in the postseason, but an all-offense, average-defense outfit can stack up plenty of victories on its way there, particularly in the East.
3. "He's going to be the third player on a team. I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit if they do really well. I think he'll get the blame if they don't do well. He's going to have to learn to handle that."
No one would argue against the idea that Love is headed towards a greater degree of scrutiny than he's ever faced before. News flash to Taylor: Love would be better prepared for handling such criticism if the Timberwolves had been competitive at any point during Love's six-year career, so this whole line of thinking reflects back upon himself and his own organization.
Minnesota has never advanced to the Finals, let alone won a championship, so perhaps Taylor's ignorance on this subject can be forgiven. LeBron James and his former Heat teammates, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, are excellent case studies here. The credit poured in steadily as soon as Miami delivered on its championship potential, and it flowed down past James, to his Big Three partners, and even to Miami's many role players. If he wins, Love will receive credit, just as Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, and Chris "The Birdman" Andersen have received credit. And that's precisely what Love signed up for: a chance to win. And that's precisely what Love never had the chance to do in Minnesota.
The most laughable part here is the idea that Love is Cleveland's "third player." Love might be the third of Cleveland's stars to arrive, but he very clearly trails only James on the team's hierarchy. In James, Cleveland has the league's best player in his prime. In Love, Cleveland has one of the league's top three or four power forwards, at the very least, about to enter his prime. In Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has a very promising point guard who is still years removed from reaching his prime. The order goes James, then Love, then Irving, and Irving seems like a smart enough guy to intuitively understand that.
4. "I still have a question mark about ... his health. I had that concern then, I still have that concern and I think Cleveland should have that concern, too," Taylor said. "If they sign him to a five-year contract like they're thinking about, I mean that's a big contract in a guy that's had sometimes where he's missed games."
This is Taylor's most legitimate beef, and yet it still doesn't appear that he fully grasps the facts governing his decision to give Love only a three-year contract.
Quickly, here's Love's major injury history...
Oct. 2009: Broken bone in hand
Oct. 2012: Broken bones in hand
Jan. 2013: Re-fractured bone in hand
April 2013: Minor knee surgery
Note that only the first hand injury occurred prior to Love accepting his rookie extension in 2012. In Love's three full seasons prior to signing that contract, he appeared in 87 percent of Minnesota's regular-season games. After missing a portion of the 2009-10 season with a hand injury, Love responded by playing 73 games in a career year in 2011-12. After missing almost all of the 2012-13 season with his infamous "knuckle push-ups" injury, he responded by playing in 77 games and earning All-NBA Second Team honors in 2013-14.
Health issues are always a concern when evaluating a max-level offer, but they are only one concern. Maybe Love wasn't an iron man, but he wasn't Greg Oden, either. Should those missed games have been the ultimate hinge for the decision? What about the fact that Love made the All-Star Game for the loaded West at age 22? What about the fact that he averaged an eye-popping 20.4 points and 15.3 rebounds in 2010-11, becoming the first player since Moses Malone
in 1982-83 to put up those numbers. What about the fact that he was the only sure thing on Minnesota's 2011-12 roster? What about the reality that Minnesota has never been a premier destination for free agents, forcing the organization to turn to the draft or trades for its best talents? What about any of the other marketing or sales possibilities he might bring to the franchise?
The truth is, Taylor's concerns about Love's health issues were likely influenced by how poorly the Timberwolves were managed in his absence. With Love in the lineup over the last six years, Minnesota posted a .343 winning percentage; with him out, that number dipped to .250. Great teams have enough depth to sustain injuries; poor teams snap with a single broken hand. Miami managed to win two titles despite health issues with both Wade (ongoing knee problems) and Bosh (abdominal strain in 2012 playoffs); Minnesota probably could have canceled its 2012-13 season as soon as Love went down. There seems little doubt that Cleveland's assembled star power -- heck, the presence of James alone -- gives the Cavaliers a better shot at riding out any minor injuries that might come Love's way in the future.
So where does this all leave us? In a very different place than Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert found himself with "The Letter" in 2010, that Comic Sans rant that brutally attacked and mocked James for his decision to leave for the Heat. Taylor didn't come close to crossing those lines, and at the worst these comments are simply sour grapes and bitterness. Taylor shouldn't be torn down for deciding to express his thoughts; at the same time, he shouldn't be taken aback if doing so has opened him up to renewed criticism.
As with any break-up, Taylor would be well-served to conduct the same exacting analysis of himself and his organization that he subjected Love to publicly. What does Taylor see as his own weaknesses as an owner? What does he see as the Timberwolves' weaknesses as a franchise? How might he work around those weaknesses to accentuate his strengths? What are the key reasons for Minnesota's 10 straight lottery appearances, and why did the organization's relationship with Love get to this point? Is it really the best idea for someone with Saunders' forgettable resume to be both president and coach? Does such an arrangement represent a conflict of interest, especially when the team is a perennial doormat?
And, perhaps most importantly: What steps need to be taken so that the Timberwolves don't endure this type of franchise-altering split again?