When Love comes to town, Wolves fans can boo past and cheer future
MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders gazed around an empty Target Center after practice Thursday, his battle-worn but energetic eyes panning 180 degrees past the lights, club suites, advertising signage and chair backs.
"Players play," the Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations said wistfully, "’cause of this."
It’s a rare occasion when more than 18,000 people slice into their bank accounts to watch an 8-37 team try to piece together some semblance of NBA basketball. But when the lights go down Saturday, they’re expecting at least that many here.
They’ll be loud, at least until LeBron James — if he’s able to play — or Kyrie Irving takes over and shoves the young, wounded Wolves back into submission. And even if that does happen, the latest star to scorn their fair land expects to receive his fair share of vitriol.
"Tomorrow will be a chance for them to show me how they really feel," embattled Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love said Friday.
An electric atmosphere not germane to Minnesota professional hoops the past decade is expected to erupt at 7 p.m. Saturday. It’s the kind of environment Saunders, rookie star Andrew Wiggins and the rest of a future-based core hope to replicate on a regular basis the next several years.
But this isn’t expected to be a party. More of a roast, minus a lot of the backhanded humor, and replaced by genuine displeasure at Love’s forced departure away from the franchise that traded for him in the 2008 draft.
Diverging paths of failed management decisions and peevish bitterness on Love’s part lead back to downtown Minneapolis.
And once they turn the lights off Friday night, they’ll branch their separate directions again.
When Love, angered at former president David Kahn and owner Glen Taylor’s decision to withhold a max contract from him and failure to surround him with enough auxiliary talent to make the postseason, forced his departure this past summer, he packed up the belongings from his Minneapolis apartment and set up residence firmly under a wine-and-gold microscope.
As detailed in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune last year, Love knew his summer of "NBA purgatory" was giving way to a difficult transition. James, too, said from the moment he decided to rejoin the Cavs this would be a process.
They were right. By many folks in the Rust Belt’s standards, too right.
For the moment, Cleveland (27-20 and fifth in the Eastern Conference) appears to have righted the wrongs that contributed to an over-documented slow start and midseason skid, winning eight games in a row after dropping six straight. LeBron’s been LeBron, Irving just scored 55 points and is finding his stride, players are learning how to operate in coach David Blatt’s system, and a series of aggressive moves by general manager David Griffin have the Cavs back on a suitable direction.
Overall, Love — 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game — hasn’t hurt the cause. But his inconsistencies shooting (42.4 percent, a career-low when excluding 2012-13 when he played just 18 games) and lack of defense (the latter should sound familiar in the Upper Midwest) have drawn heavy criticism. In Minnesota, it was that he couldn’t carry a team. In Cleveland, it’s that he can’t fit congruently into one.
"Kevin was the main focus here," Saunders said earlier this season. "He got a lot more touches. He was able to get into a comfort zone, and he’s the third option here. He’s trying to adjust to that."
And when success-starved Cleveland fans turn the microscope toward Minnesota, they see a budding, 19-year-old star who wore their colors for four Summer League games in Las Vegas.
As closed-off and unassuming as they come, Wiggins still doesn’t remember which Wolves assistant pulled him aside after his 27-point outburst Dec. 23 at Quicken Loans Arena.
But the message is one he’ll never forget.
"’Any player can do it one night,’" Wiggins recalled the aide telling him, "’but a great player does it every night.’
"That really stuck in my head."
Drafted first overall by the lottery-lucky Cavaliers then traded to Minnesota following a summer of uncertainty, Wiggins began the year by validating scouting reports highlighting his passivity. But since that night at the Q, aggression has been his closest companion.
In 19 games since then, Wiggins has averaged 19.4 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting (35.3 percent from 3-point range). He continues to nag teams’ top opposing scorers, most recently Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Boston’s Avery Bradley and Evan Turner.
Leading all rookies in scoring, Wiggins was one of four Wolves named to the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge and is the far-and-away favorite to win rookie of the year — albeit among a ballyhooed 2014 draft class rocked by injuries.
"I’d say right now, he’s probably ahead of what anybody anticipated what he’d be," Saunders said.
Said Ricky Rubio, who’s still out with a sprained ankle and won’t play Saturday: "Andrew is finding his way to score. I think he’s adapting to the league faster than I thought. Everybody knew he was a great player, but we didn’t know he was going to have this big impact right away."
No one, perhaps, except Wiggins himself.
"Surprised? No," said Wiggins, who spent the latter part of his childhood in Toronto garnering comparisons to James himself. "I’ve always been confident in myself. I just needed to know how to do it at the NBA level."
Fellow trade pieces Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett, also a former No. 1 pick by Cleveland, have had their fair share of struggles. But in trading away its disgruntled franchise player, there’s a good chance the Wolves received another one.
The Wolves’ "#TheReturn" video that went viral Thursday drew a good laugh from Love, whose return to the Target Center isn’t mentioned and instead usurped by former Minnesota swingman Mike Miller.
Miller spent one season in the Twin Cities. Love was here six seasons, reaching the All-Star Game three times.
"That’s hilarious," Love said. "I thought it was really funny. Mike’s one of those guys who wakes up every day and the sun’s shining and blue skies. So for them to do that was pretty good."
Love left angry, pouting his way through his final season before telling the Wolves he’d opt out of this season on his contract. Today, he seems to be taking Saturday’s awkward reunion in stride, expecting along with the rest of the NBA community to hear himself booed.
"There will probably be more of that then a mix of cheers," he said.
"I’m sure once I get there, it will be a little different feeling for me. I’ll be playing on the visitor’s side, going in the visitor’s locker room, going to the different bench.
"Instead of staying at my apartment in Minneapolis, we’ll be staying at a hotel."
When he came back with Boston, Wolves luminary Kevin Garnett — traded way in 2007 — received more of a mixed welcome. But he led Minnesota to its only postseason berths, and told management initially he didn’t want to be dealt.
Love wanted out, and for that, he’ll hear it Saturday.
"Minnesota people, they’re pretty loyal," said Saunders, who coached those Garnett-led teams in the ’90s and early 2000s. "When you turn on Minnesota, they don’t forgive you."
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