When a team has had seven straight losing seasons and appears to be on the brink of winning, it’s hard to fault a star for his mistakes.
When an injury kills that team’s chances two-thirds of the way through what should have been a breakout year, it’s even more difficult.
When that team is the Minnesota Timberwolves and that star is Kevin Love, it’s impossible to pass judgment. The team lost in spite of him, and it will win because of him if all goes to plan. Right now, the Timberwolves need Love. They need Ricky Rubio as well, but in a different way, as some sort of shaggy-haired boy-wonder sidekick.
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This is Love’s team. It will be built as such, and rightfully so if he continues to produce seasons like his last. Rubio is still at least partially unproven, no matter how much impact he had last season, and Love is on a steady climb to greatness. Around the country, casual fans will know the Timberwolves as Kevin Love, Rubio too, and little else. And as long as there are faces to latch onto, bodies to see at All-Star Games and on television, that image will work.
Once the wins come, that strategy is enough to help propel a team to national relevance. In fact, it’s crucial. Just look at the 76ers, who led their division for much of the 2011-12 season and advanced to the conference semifinals. After years of mediocrity, they seemed poised to contend, but a casual fan would have a hard time naming the team’s most impactful player.
That doesn’t bode well for a team’s chances of catching the nation’s attention. And really, if Oklahoma City can generate a national sensation, Philadelphia should be able to. But with less of a defined face, it’s more difficult.
Winning isn’t about national exposure. It’s not about who likes a team and who can’t name a player on its roster. But having a marquee player, a LeBron James or Kevin Durant, even a Kevin Love, attracts attention. It can bring free agents, good coaching – the kind of living, breathing resources that translate to wins. Having that kind of clear face is how teams are built, but it’s not how they succeed. It’s not how they stay sane, not in the world of Twitter and constant sports talk television.
Once a team succeeds, the player who’s responsible for bringing it to relevance is still its face. Except then, everyone is watching. And even in a season when deferring to one player in games was rightfully criticized, hero ball has still been rampant off the court. We know there are 14 other players, and we discuss them, to an extent. But in the end, complicity and blame still often come down to one player. That’s natural, to follow a team because of a star, but teams shouldn’t be pigeonholed into such narrow definitions. This year’s NBA Finals are a perfect example of the negatives of such one-sided perceptions.
Durant and the Thunder are the good guys. James and the Heat are the villains. Anything the Heat do can be tied to James, somehow, no matter that Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers each scored just one fewer point than James in Game 4. It’s so easy to forget that James was on the sideline for the end of a game that came down to its final seconds. How can that be, really, when this is James and the Heat and not the other way around?
It’s the same with Durant. When he makes just four shots from the floor in the fourth quarter of a game, he bears the burden of a loss despite Russell Westbrook’s idiotic fouling, despite scoring 28 points. Durant failed when it mattered most, but so did many of his teammates.
And then there are those images. Good guys vs. bad guys, despite Westbrook’s temper (he’s supposed to be a good guy) and Shane Battier’s reputation as the ultimate team player (he’s a bad guy in this story). It’s all so ridiculous, the result of one or a few players’ reputations – or the ones that have been forced upon them – coloring entire squads. It overshadows other players’ achievements, turning Westbrook into a selfish player when he has a good night and Wade into a sideshow to the LeBron circus. It forces easy meaning upon championships that should be more complicated to define.
The Heat’s championship is in part James’ redemption, but it’s also Eric Spoelstra’s brainchild and the victory Wade has been waiting for since the summer of 2010. A Thunder win would have been the validation of the unproven despite Derek Fisher’s five championships and Kendrick Perkins’ one.
Yes, Durant remade the faltering SuperSonics into the championship-caliber Thunder. James turned the Heat the most controversial and talented team in the league. But this isn’t a game of one-on-one, not even three-on-three. It’s so easy to simplify, but it takes more than just Durant or James to win a championship.
The Timberwolves aren’t ready to think about championships. They’re still wrapping their minds and talents around the concept of a playoff berth, with Love as their selling point. But think back to last January, when his contract extension talks went down to the last moments, when he eventually negotiated a player option for a fourth year. Kevin Love is not the Timberwolves, not forever, and eventually his errors will mean something, when the stakes are higher and the spotlight burns.
This summer, the Timberwolves will build. Likely next summer, too, and as they do so, they’d be wise to combat such a simple image. Love is an appealing face for a team, and he should remain as such. But there should be a way for the team to have a personality – personalities, even – aside from his.
If the Timberwolves succeed, it might be in a pattern similar to the Thunder’s, and by going after, they can learn from them. So early in the process, there’s still time for the Timberwolves to build something different, to incorporate a star without losing their identity to him.
Even heroes screw up, and even sidekicks deserve credit. When each are allowed to do so, these teams can become so much more interesting.