Fire sales are one of the most disheartening things a professional sports franchise can do to their fan base. In most cases, selling every tradeable asset for pennies on the dollar means that the front office has raised the white flag and has committed to several seasons of misery.
Fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves are too familiar with this scenario. During the team’s most glorious era, then president of basketball operations Kevin McHale had to go back to the drawing board several times in order to surround Kevin Garnett with an adequate supporting cast. Flash forward a decade later, and Flip Saunders is faced with the same scenario to try and convince Kevin Love from leaving Minnesota after the 2014-15 season.
On the surface, it looks like the Timberwolves are on the verge of figuring things out. Their most glaring deficiency, an inability to close out tight games down the stretch (evidenced by a 4-12 record in games decided by five or less and highlighted by Grantland’s Zach Lowe) , can be easily corrected by turning that into a .500 mark and getting in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. Ricky Rubio is still young enough at 23 that he can still learn how to effectively make a jumper. Plus, the emergence of rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad could be the beginning of a formidable core.
However, the best way to please Love and make a return to the playoffs is by blowing up the roster and starting over.
That’s because there comes a time in every team’s window of opportunity where the front office realizes what they’re doing isn’t going to work anymore. Even David Kahn had the light bulb go off that “long and athletic” wasn’t getting the job done, so he tried to get established players even at the expense of several draft picks (Phoenix could get the Timberwolves’ first round pick because of the Wesley Johnson trade) and bad contracts (We’re looking at you and your $4.69 million, Jose Barea).
At this point, Flip Saunders needs to realize this and do everything he can to put a competitive team on the floor in a last ditch effort to keep his star player in the purified waters of Lake Minnetonka — even if that means making some unpopular moves.
Perhaps the most surprising domino that could fall would be the departure of and Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic in order to get a second marquee superstar to team with Love. Such moves would pull at fans’ heart strings, but it might be something that needs to be done.
Rubio has yet to take the step forward that many have expected the past couple seasons. While he had an excuse due to a nasty ACL injury suffered during his rookie season, his shooting hasn’t improved to the level it needs to be despite a career-high shooting percentage (37.9 percent) in 2013-14.
With the outstanding level of defense that he plays (2.4 steals per game over his career), it’s hard to not see a Rajon Rondo comparison, but Rondo never had a field goal percentage less than 40 percent until his ACL recovery tour this winter. (By comparison, Rubio has yet to eclipse the 40 percent threshold in each of his first three seasons.)
While getting rid of Rubio would require some serious teeth grinding, pulling the trigger on Pekovic may be more difficult after he signed a five-year, $60 million contract last summer.
While Pekovic has been able to be a physical offensive presence that’s rarely seen in today’s NBA, he’s also shown an ability to wind up on the bench due to his balky ankles. In his four seasons, Pekovic has missed an average of 21 games per season (assuming he doesn’t play the rest of this season after missing the April 8 game against San Antonio). That number makes it seem like he’s not worth the $12.1 million cap hit the Wolves are enduring as he sits on the bench.
By shipping away these two question marks, Minnesota might be able to go out and get a sure thing in their place. Possible scenarios could include giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a call to see if they could give Kyrie Irving the fresh start he wants (or doesn’t want) or freeing the Oklahoma City Thunder of Russell Westbrook‘s “Shoot First, Durant Later” philosophy (which could be in play if the Thunder don’t return to the NBA Finals and Westbrook takes more shots than Kevin Durant).
Then again, this could be a pipe dream, but it’s the exact train of thought Saunders needs if he wants any chance of not seeing Love get on the plane to Los Angeles (or New York, Chicago, etc.) next summer. If he’s unable to make a deal of this nature, it might be best to reverse course and upgrade the roster by making another bold move and trading their face of the franchise.
Chris Schad is a staff writer for Hoops Habit covering the Minnesota Timberwolves. His work has also been featured on Pro Football Spot and the Yahoo Contributor Network. You can follow Chris on Twitter @crishad.