MINNEAPOLIS _ There was a time when the Timberwolves promised to become the next big thing in the NBA, when Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury caused Charles Barkley to whisper praise in their ears. Then Marbury morphed into his erratic alter-ego, Starbury, and after a dalliance with the Cassell-Sprewell axis of evil, the Wolves backslid into oblivion.
The Wolves must decide by next week whether to offer Kevin Love a maximum-value contract. Sources have told the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda that they will do so. This would be the right decision, a decision much easier for them to make today than it would have been even a month ago.
Once again, Barkley is praising a Timberwolf named Kevin and the Wolves have a chance to build around a multitalented power forward and a gifted point guard. This time, the Wolves’ grand plans might survive longer than sushi in the sun.
Discuss Love’s value with an NBA insider not affiliated with the Wolves, and you may hear that he doesn’t project to be the best player or first offensive option on a championship-caliber team and thus is not worthy of a maximum contract. That might have been true last year. That might be true in New York or Los Angeles. It is not true right now in Minnesota.
To contemplate trading or losing Love is to forget how few good basketball players the Wolves have employed in their 22 years of existence.
They have produced two stars, Garnett and Love, and trading Garnett turned out to be one of the worst mistakes the Wolves’ brain trust has made. Losing Love would be another punch to the throat.
Any evaluation of Love should acknowledge that he has not only caused Barkley to call him the best power forward in basketball, he has also established in the first 14 games of this season that he is still improving.
It wasn’t long ago that Love struggled to finish near the rim and shoot with consistency. This season, after showing up for training camp looking like he was carved from a stout piece of swamp ash, Love has demonstrated more deftness when passing and maneuvering near the basket, and has become the rare player who is equally effective shooting three-pointers and pounding the offensive boards.
He has become the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA, ahead of such ball hogs as Carmelo Anthony and Monta Ellis, and more explosive athletes in Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard.
Love may not dunk like a superstar, but he produces like a superstar. He’s averaging 25.2 points and 14.5 rebounds per game. He ranks third in the NBA in combined points, rebounds and assists, and second in total efficiency.
The question should not be whether the Wolves are willing to sign him to a maximum contract, but whether they will be lucky enough for him to accept.
The Marbury-Garnett alliance imploded because of Marbury’s jealousy of Garnett.
Today, the Wolves are blessed to build around two grounded and complementary young stars.
In the Wolves’ dream scenario, Ricky Rubio and Love will be joined by a pure scorer who makes them impossible to defend and turns them into a playoff threat.
Even if Love and Rubio are able to do nothing more than make basketball entertaining at Target Center and the Wolves relevant in the NBA, that would justify whatever Glen Taylor invests in them.
If the Wolves don’t sign Love, they will be forced to trade him and start over. The Twins and Wolves have both proven that rebuilding is no sure thing, that it can cost a franchise a decade of ticket sales and television revenues, can lead to the brink of franchise contraction or relocation.
Being entertaining and relevant is underrated. The Wolves proved that the past two seasons when they were neither. Today, Love and Rubio make them the most entertaining team in town.
Wolves fans know how rare this can be, the opportunity to watch two wonderful young players grow up together. So rare that signing Love has become the easiest decision Glen Taylor and David Kahn will ever make.