Enjoy Wolves’ Love story while it lasts

Timberwolves forward Kevin Love has a player option after next season on his contract, which he's considered likely to exercise in order to get the most money out of a new, free-agent deal.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Enjoy it while it lasts.

March 28, 2014. Winter is hanging on for dear life in Minneapolis, in the aggravating form of freezing rain that coats the city’s snowdrifts and paints patches of black ice on the pavement.

Squeezed between Target Field and the Target Center, the nearby skyway teems with foot traffic. An early-30s father and his son walk hand-in-hand, each garbed in identical replica jerseys of different sizes. A pair of middle-school boys aren’t far behind, their backs emblazoned with the same moniker and numeral.

Love. 42.

Admiration and anxiety, hemmed together in an overpriced token of basketball fandom.

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The fans file in and watch its namesake fire off the second triple-double of his career — and of another ultimately futile season. Overpowering a depleted Lakers lineup and teasingly showing off the shooting and passing touch that have made him one of the NBA’s most versatile threats, Kevin Love misses four shots all night, pulls down 10 rebounds and throws out 10 assists, all in limited action as Minnesota romps to a 143-107 win that sets a franchise points record.

Then, while dozens of nightshift workers sweep popcorn from under seats and deposit used soda cups into trash bags, the Timberwolves faithful hang up their Love jerseys or throw them in the wash, unsure if they’ll wind up representing the way of the future or pains of the past.

Shivering in front of his locker following a postgame ice bath, Love tosses the Los Angeles reporter’s question aside like a pesky guard trying to inch around him for a rebound.

The inquiry involves the City of Angels, where Love played his one season of college basketball and where his parents currently reside. In many reputable  hoops circles, it’s a likely landing spot should the All-Star power forward decide he’s better served continuing his career away from the Twin Cities.

Love’s father Stan played for the Lakers in the 1970s. His uncle, Mike, was a member of the Beach Boys. His girlfriend, actress Cody Horn, is a California native. Kevin himself was born in Santa Monica. In a huge market with a storied history, Los Angeles has the appeal and the cap room to go after Love if he chooses not to re-up with the Timberwolves after next season.

So naturally, the beat guys from L.A. want to know what Love thinks of the buzz about him out west.

Nice try.

"You know, my parents live there and they had me there," Love responds, shortly after his latest triple-double. "It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it."

A month earlier, Love was even brasher, telling GQ Magazine, "people think it’s so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota. And I’m not (expletive) on the Lakers, but we have the better team, the better foundation. I’m having fun."

But that was before the Timberwolves were eliminated from playoff contention for a 10th straight season. And the sixth-year big man hasn’t been wont to express much vocal support of the franchise on a local front this season.

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Instead, he’s avoided eye contact with reporters all year long, often giving short, quippy answers and coming off as more disgruntled in general than enthused about the organization’s direction.

Only so much can be read from a professional athlete’s closed-off relationship with local media, though. Since blasting the organization near the end of last season — of which he missed all but 18 games due to injury — for not giving him a max extension off his rookie contract, Love hasn’t allowed much else regarding his relationship with the franchise or plans moving forward.

Here’s what we do know:

— Love has a player option after next season on his contract, which he’ll almost certainly exercise to leverage the most money out of a new, free-agent deal.

— Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the Timberwolves can offer him one more year and $26.5 million more than any other suitor. Signing an in-house, max extension would keep him around for the final season on his original contract, 2015-16, and four additional years. Any team wishing to sign him away could offer him a total of only four seasons.

— In addition to the Lakers, which have only $35.3 million due in player salary for next season and $25 million in 2015-16, the Knicks ($12.6 million in 2015-16) and Bulls ($42.7 million in 2015-16) are also potential destinations for Love should he choose to walk. Los Angeles, though, has the best chance of the group to trade for Love before then should he make it clear to the Timberwolves front office he’s hoofing it once next season ends. It’s been reported the Lakers would be willing to deal their first-round pick in the upcoming draft — most likely in the top half of the lottery — to Minnesota in exchange for Love.

But new president of basketball operations Flip Saunders remains adamant he and Glen Taylor are unwilling to pursue such a course of action. Their No. 1 priority, Saunders has said, is to keep Love here.

That means drafting well this summer and finding a free-agent gem with the Timberwolves’ $5.3 million mid-level exception. It means hiring a coach that gels well with Love, assuming current head man Rick Adelman retires or the club declines to exercise its option on the fourth and final year of his contract.

Even then, if Love makes up his mind he’s had enough, it’ll all be too late. Love has most of the bargaining power now.

So enjoy it while it lasts.

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Enjoy the triple-doubles, which Love also notched Feb. 22 at Utah and April 2 against Memphis. Four other times this season, he came within an assist of another.

Enjoy the 25-point, 15-rebound, five-assist performances. Love’s eight in 2013-14 are more than any other individual player has tallied in the past five seasons combined.

Enjoy the step-back 3s, tenacious interior play and deft outlet passing that have Love two games away from becoming the third player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 to average 25 points, 12 rebounds and four assists for a season.

Enjoy watching a man carry his team with his frontcourt partner in crime Nikola Pekovic missing most of the campaign’s second half with a nagging right-ankle injury.

"A lot is on his shoulders, and that’s hard," said Adelman, who’s expected to call it quits after 23 years as an NBA head coach. "It’s hard to keep moving night after night . . . but I think he’s handled himself really well. He’s had himself a heck of a year."

Enjoy those nights at the Target Center in which Love dazzles and at times outplays the NBA’s most elite.

"I mean, he couldn’t shoot a lick when I first met him and now he’s the best 3-point shooter in the league after Steph Curry," said league MVP candidate Kevin Durant, who’s known Love since Durant was 14 years old. "He’s one of those guys that has a quick trigger but can also mix it up in the paint and do a lot. I worked out with him all summer and stuff he was doing, you know, big guys are not supposed to do that."

And enjoy recalling Love’s rare openness when fans voted him into the All-Star Game as a starter for the first time in his career.

"It means a lot, and it doesn’t go unnoticed," Love said, still shaking with excitement after receiving the news back in January. "The fans have been so great this year, not only to me but the rest of the team. The entire team, the coaching staff, everybody’s just had my back and had our team’s back."

Perhaps, then, the conclusion isn’t as foregone as so many consider it to be.

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There is obvious frustration with missing the postseason. There’s even more stemming from the way the Timberwolves have handled his contract.

But this Love story is not over. Minnesota has an offseason to build, persuade and maneuver in ways that sell Love on staying. Or, the front office could bail and deal him this summer in hopes of securing the most return for the 2008 draft’s No. 5 overall pick.

The Timberwolves play Monday night at Golden State, then return home for a dubious regular-season finale Wednesday against Utah. It’ll be "Fan Appreciation Night," when the franchise will formally thank its followers for enduring another season that ends in players clearing out their lockers while 16 other NBA teams ramp up for the playoffs.

It might be the last time Love gathers his belongings and departs the Target Center. It might be the second-to-last. Or, if the franchise that traded away Kevin Garnett and has had a historically woeful time attaining and attracting talent can shed its inept skin and pull off a mammoth personnel coup, it may not be such a seminal moment.

But at some point, Kevin Love’s Timberwolves tenure will end — quite possibly sooner than later.

So enjoy it while it lasts, however long that may be.

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