Kevin Love wants to play in the playoffs, which is good. If arguably the best power forward in the game were not enthusiastic about participating in the NBA's second season, the Minnesota Timberwolves would have a problem.
The way the Wolves have gone about building a so-called winner around Love this offseason, though, seems to be all wrong. Spooked by the Dwight Howard fiasco and Love's own comments about being tired of losing, the Wolves appear to have gone into the dangerous territory that often spells the end for clubs trying to win right away with emerging young stars.
It started with a reasonable trade for Chase Budinger, stretched with the addition of Brandon Roy, burst with the excessive offer sheet to Nicholas Batum (since matched by Portland) and jumped the shark with the signing of Andrei Kirilenko. For those scoring at home, that haul includes one impact wing forward in Budinger and two guys who did not play in the NBA last season.
But all that matters in mid summer is that those two players have names the casual fan will recognize. Star players like Love, for all their dedication to the daily grind, are mostly casual fans as it pertains to the rest of the league. Many follow the league's comings and goings as intently as possible, but with their own scouting reports, film, practices, shootarounds, games and personal lives to navigate, they are not always aware of how the dynamics of the league change from year to year — or even within a given year. Love, like many people, might even be under the impression that Roy and Kirilenko are better players than Budinger, who averaged 9.6 points and shot 40 percent on 3-pointers off the bench for the Rockets last season.
Roy and Kirilenko are "names," though. They are former All-Stars who were once paid as such, and they are probably still pretty good players. If healthy, both can do substantial things to push the Wolves, who were in the playoff discussion until the final month last season, into the postseason.
Kirilenko is 31 years old and spent last season playing in Russia, where the Utah Jazz were only too happy to see him go after failing to play up to his eight-figure salary in five of the last six years. Roy is 28 and spent last season as a retiree, due to what was a supposedly career-ending degenerative condition in his knees. Kirilenko will make roughly $10 million in each of the next two seasons, according to reports, while Roy will make about half that. (The second year of Roy's contract is unguaranteed.)
Forget for a moment that the particulars in this case are bat-guano insane. Ten million dollars for Kirilenko barely made sense in 2005-06, when as a 24-year-old he averaged 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.2 blocks — yet could not create his own shot. Any amount of money for Roy is too much, because just a few months ago we were told the odds of Roy and Bill Bradley getting back on the court were roughly the same.
No, the particulars are not what make Wolves' offseason so puzzling. It is the principle. Teams have tried this before, stocking up on past-their-prime or damaged former stars in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle for one or two years. The Orlando Magic attempted this, first with Vince Carter and then with Gilbert Arenas. The Nets have done it by adding Joe Johnson and overpaying Gerald Wallace this offseason, but at least Johnson and Wallace still can play. The Wolves even went down this road before, too, when a previous regime added Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell for a fool's gold run in 2003-04.
Unlike those moves, neither Kirilenko nor Roy's contracts are likely to handcuff the payroll for years to come, but they also reek of desperation. The Wolves actually have a fairly solid core of Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic around Love, with Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea and Darko Milicic (before he was amnestied) rounding out the incumbent rotation. Derrick Williams, given his disappointing rookie campaign, would have a lot to prove in his second season either as a backup to Love or a reinvented small forward. And not all of general manager David Kahn's moves were confounding. The addition of shot-blocking center Greg Stiemsma made complete sense given the Wolves' inability to defend the rim last season.
Now, the minutes of Williams, Budinger and Ridnour (who was one of Minnesota's most consistent players last season before he was felled by a sprained ankle on April 2) are bound to suffer with Kirilenko and Roy on board. Roy may be a natural shooting guard, but his knees could make it difficult for him to cover two-guards and may force the Wolves to use him at small forward — the same position as Kirilenko, Budinger and potentially Williams. Justifying a developmental tack with Williams and Budinger will be more difficult if Love (and Wolves fans) see the names "Kirilenko" and "Roy" on the roster. Even if — or especially if — both veterans play up to their contracts in the next two years and the team lets both deals expire in 2014, they will have robbed Williams, 21, and Budinger, 24, of two valuable seasons to gain chemistry and grow alongside Love and Rubio.
Love is not eligible to become a free agent until 2015, but as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard have proved, there are other ways to ruin a franchise without simply leaving via free agency. Given time, a few smart additions and the continued improvement of Love and Rubio, the Wolves' core could develop into a contender by 2015, but knowing the reality of the current NBA, the Wolves may not have that long. If Love does not like the direction in which the team is headed by, say, next year's All-Star break, Minnesota could quickly find itself in an Orlando-like conundrum.
Or the Wolves could trust in the developmental approach that made them one of the league's most exciting teams to watch for three months last season. That could be the most prudent approach, although the team would not be able to say, "Look how dedicated we are to winning, Kevin. We signed Brandon Roy!"
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