MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Kevin Love sat in front of his locker after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ season came to a close, his sixth year in the NBA and his sixth without a trip to the playoffs.
Love hung his head and stared at the floor while reporters asked questions about this particularly disappointing season. His body language is more a personality quirk than a referendum on Love’s happiness or unhappiness with the only team he’s played for, but nevertheless it projects a dour image that makes Timberwolves fans very nervous.
Asked if he expected to be in a Timberwolves uniform next season, Love gave a long pause and kept staring at the floor, offering no answer before the interview was cut short. And with that, an offseason of uncertainty in Minnesota began.
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The Timberwolves won nine more games than they did a year earlier, and Love and Ricky Rubio made it through the entire season healthy after struggling with injuries in 2012-13. Yet after a loss to the lowly Utah Jazz lowered their record to 40-42, the overwhelming feeling that pervaded the locker room was one of disappointment.
This was supposed to be the year the Timberwolves snapped the lengthiest current playoff drought in the NBA, rose out of the decade-long abyss and delivered a strong message to Love that he should stay in Minnesota.
Instead, the Wolves put forth one of the most inconsistent seasons in coach Rick Adelman’s 23 years in the league. They won 12 games by at least 20 points and beat the Heat, Grizzlies, Rockets and Spurs late in the season. But they also lost 13 by four points or fewer and fell to the Jazz, Magic and Kings in the last two weeks.
Love put up monster numbers, averaging 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. But it wasn’t enough to get the Timberwolves into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
”I carry a lot of the weight,” Love said. ”That’s what I get paid to do. A lot of it rides on my shoulders and I’m going to keep working hard to change that.”
It is widely expected that Adelman will not return next season, but President Flip Saunders’ ability to land a high-profile replacement may be challenging with the uncertainty of Love’s situation. The forward can opt out of his contract after next season, and he might look to go to a bigger market with a better chance to win if things don’t improve significantly very soon.
When asked if he still had faith in the future in Minnesota, Love replied, ”Sure. Of course.”
Saunders has said he will not trade Love under any circumstances this summer and remains confident that he can do what it takes to convince his star to stay. When Love opts out – and it’s a virtual certainty that he will – the Timberwolves can pay him about $26.5 million more than any other team. He is the face of the franchise here, which may not be the case if he were to move elsewhere, and Love also proved that a player in a smaller market can achieve star status when he was voted an All-Star starter this season.
But unless Saunders makes a significant trade, he will have only the mid-level exception (about $5.5 million) to sign a player to improve the roster around Love. Saunders has taken great pains to include Love in the decisions and make him feel a part of the operation.
”I’m sure like last summer I’ll be pretty heavily involved,” Love said. ”Just continue to keep working, and I know I have a big summer ahead of me as far as USA Basketball and adding a few more things to my game.”
Saunders also has a decision to make on Rubio, who is eligible for an extension off his rookie deal this summer. Rubio struggled with his shooting for much of the season. But he was much more aggressive offensively over the final month and will work with a shooting coach at home in Spain this summer.
”I don’t have to be worried,” Rubio said. ”I’m just worrying about playing. Of course I want to be on a team that’s winning, and I think this team is growing up and we can do it. I want to play in the playoffs, you know?”
He’s not alone. Love will head to the world championships this summer, where he will be surrounded by superstar teammates who have won titles and been to the playoffs over and over.
Love desperately wants to be in that group. Whether he does that in Minnesota or somewhere else remains to be seen.
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