We knew this was coming. Minnesota sports fans always know it’s coming. Watch one of the local teams long enough, and you'll see it: the bitter departure of a franchise superstar to a better, more functional team.
Every market has its losers -- look at the Knicks -- but in Minnesota, we've come to expect it from every pro franchise. We're consistently asked to believe in management that rarely, if ever, warrants it, and we’re consistently asked to believe in meaningless words such as “potential” and “future.” It’s the booze they feed us. And it’s the booze we guzzle.
In the past decade-plus alone, the Minnesota Twins attempted to coach David Ortiz to be an opposite-field bloop hitter, only to watch him carve a Hall of Fame career in Boston. The Vikings traded Randy Moss to Oakland for Napoleon Harris and a first-round pick that became Troy Williamson, who was so inept the team thought he had vision problems. The Twins sought a bidding war between the Red Sox and Yankees for two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana -- whom they of course decided they couldn't afford even though the owner, Carl Pohlad, was worth a reported $2.6 billion -- only to have both teams decide the price was too high, leaving the Twins with a Mets package led by then-35th-ranked prospect Carlos Gomez, who was so terrible in Minnesota they traded him to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
The worst departure of them all, of course, was Kevin Garnett, whose career with the Timberwolves came to an end after 12 seasons of Kevin McHale’s criminal mismanagement, which included, in no particular order: horrible drafts, horrible signings and attempting to illegally sign Joe Smith -- Joe Smith! -- to an $86 million deal.
So the story of Kevin Love’s departure didn’t begin in May, when he reportedly told the Wolves’ brass he intended to opt out of his deal after the 2014-15 season. That happened some 3 1/2 years earlier, when Love signed a four-year, $62 million max deal to stay in Minnesota.
In Love’s first season, coach Randy Wittman demanded Love stop shooting 3s, even though the 6-foot-10 forward had shot 35 percent from outside in college. After the 24-58 campaign, the fourth consecutive season with fewer than 35 wins, Wolves owner Glen Taylor finally fired McHale and hired David Kahn, somehow replacing the worst general manager in the NBA with an even worse one.
In his second season, after Love topped all rookies in PER (18.3), led the league in offensive rebound rate and posted a per-36-minute line of 15.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, coach Kurt Rambis, whom Kahn hired before the season, refused to start Love. It was a 15-67 season that began with the draft in which, yes, the Wolves selected four point guards, one of whom wouldn’t arrive in the country for two years.
Then came the 2010 draft, when Kahn drafted 23-year-old Syracuse wing Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Paul George and others. A starting lineup of Luke Ridnour, Johnson, Michael Beasley, Love and Darko Milicic (whom Kahn had signed to a four-year, $20 million deal) led to a dramatic two-win improvement. The 22-year-old Love? Merely 20.2 PPG, a league-leading 15.2 RPG, a PER of 24.3 and a 42 percent 3-point percentage.
In 2011-12, Love’s contract year, he was even better, averaging 26 and 13 with a PER of 25.4, trailing only LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. At 23 years old, readying for his first max contract, Love was a superstar. A No. 1 piece on a championship team. A cornerstone.
What Love deserved, what he desired, was a five-year deal (not the four-year deal he signed), the same one Russell Westbook, whom Love had outproduced in almost every raw and advanced statistic through their first four seasons, had signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder just a week earlier. (What he got, reportedly, was an offer sheet thrown at him by Kahn in the trainer’s room after a loss.) Love wanted to stay in Minnesota longer. A young star wanted to sign a maximum deal to stay in this cold, small market, the snow-swept Midwestern city we’re told no one wants to visit, let alone reside in.
But Kahn, perhaps viewing this as his last chance to save his job, supposedly preferred to save that five-year deal for Ricky Rubio, who, by the point Love signed his extension, had played a grand total of 18 NBA games and was known more for charming grandmas across the upper Midwest. We didn't even know if Rubio could shoot yet. (Spoiler alert: He can’t.) But it was his five-year deal. His “franchise player” designation.
Sometime during all of this, Wolves owner Glen Taylor -- who in 2007 accused Garnett of “tanking” -- said Love wasn’t a star because he hadn’t led the team to the playoffs, a sentiment so delusional it begs the question of if Taylor had ever looked at his own roster.
If you were Love, and you saw your franchise value unknown potential and floppy-haired adorableness over known superstardom, and show absolutely no aptitude for franchise-building in four noncompetitive seasons, wouldn't that leave you wanting something more? Wouldn't you have demanded that player option after Year 3?
To blame Love for this -- the departure of the team’s second franchise player in seven years -- is as unfair as it is disingenuous.
But that’s Minnesota sports. We like the future. Potential. Flying under the national radar. Kitten photos on Instagram. We're flyover country. We're Midwesterners. We're uncomfortable with stars and attention.
In May, Love informed Taylor and new coach and president of basketball personnel Flip Saunders that he planned to opt out after this season, forcing the team to once again entertain the notion of trading its best player, this time a 25-year-old entering the prime of his career. And there was Love, smirking his way across the country, visiting the likes of Boston and claiming intrigue at the thought of joining the moribund Knicks, as if either of those franchises were closer to winning than his own.
And now, some three months later, a deal seems to be in place to send Love to another small, snow-swept Midwestern market, Cleveland, for No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, 2013’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round pick.
It’s unquestionably the best haul the team could’ve received, and Saunders handled the situation perfectly, waiting patiently to increase the price of his most-prized asset. The process, shockingly, seemed measured -- controlled, even.
So are we excited about Wiggins? Sure. Will we embrace him? Of course we will. He plays defense, seems like a hard-working kid and has a nice smile. We love that stuff. And whatever Wiggins ends up to be -- a Tracy McGrady or a Corey Brewer or somewhere in between -- the Wolves win: If he’s close to the top of that range, they’ve got yet another chance to build around a franchise player, and on the cheap for the next five seasons. If not, if he’s an energetic sixth man, they'll once again find themselves at the top of the draft -- familiar territory for a team that’s made 20 lottery picks in its 25-year history.
It’s a win-win for the Wolves.
Except it’s not. In reality, they've already lost.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Ross Marrinson is an associate editor with ESPN The Magazine. Follow him @RMarrinsonESPN