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Steve Aschburner

A four-year extension offer is on the table, but is that enough for Kevin Love?
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Extend Love some love? Clock is ticking on Timberwolves

Posted Jan 24 2012 11:02AM

Things come late in Minnesota. Like spring. Like Timberwolves coaching hires (Kurt Rambis in August, Rick Adelman in September). Like, apparently, rookie contract extensions.

Case in point: In 2002, Wolves management haggled until a few ticks before a Halloween deadline before extending a new contract to forward Wally Szczerbiak despite the franchise's difficulty, even then, in snagging and keeping talent around Kevin Garnett. How close did they cut it? One Twin Cities newspaper greeted rise-and-shiners with a story of "No Deal for Wolves, Wally," while the other (after one final late-night phone call) had "Szczerbiak agrees to 6-year extension." Garnett didn't find out until just before shootaround that morning.

So maybe it's a generally accepted business practice for Minnesota owner Glen Taylor to delay in committing the funds necessary to lock in forward Kevin Love for the next five NBA seasons beyond 2011-12. Maybe, if we were the ones spending $80 million, guaranteed, we'd hold off until the absolute last minute, too.

Taylor and the Wolves waited until the deadline in 2007 before cutting a $65 million extension with Al Jefferson and agent Jeff Schwartz (coincidentally, the same guy who represents Love). And let's face it: The owner and the team's president of basketball operations, David Kahn, didn't have to give Love a max deal four days ago or three days ago or two days ago. So they didn't.

But by Wednesday by 11 p.m. Central Time, the last chance for 2008 first-round Draft picks to build onto their rookie contracts, they have to. Because they must. Because they don't dare to not give him one. Because they are, after all, the Timberwolves.

Now, that very reality is what has some of their fans worried and more than a few casually interested observers perversely curious. Could Minnesota find a way to screw this up? Really? Anyone familiar with even a smidgen of Wolves lore, logic and luck already is nodding in the affirmative.

But new days have dawned in the NBA's Upper Midwest, we're told. The Rashad McCants-Michael Olowokandi-Nathan Jawai-Jonny Flynn eras are over. Or will be, assuming Taylor and Love get this done.

Let's be clear about something: It's unbecoming for grown adults to get too worked up over the gap between $61 million over four years and $80 million over five -- even if they're the ones getting or giving all that cash. (The lesser of those two winning lottery tickets is what Kahn and Taylor reportedly have presented to Love, so far sans signatures. The latter is the max package he seeks, similar to UCLA classmate Russell Westbrook's deal in Oklahoma City.)

With that many zeroes attached, high or low, insults are impossible. But stubbornness and posturing and even hard feelings are not. The Timberwolves -- one of the most entertaining and, yes, promising teams of this early season -- are risking all that unless they pay the man. The max. For the max.

What conceivable reasons might the Wolves have for showing Love a little less love? Here are a few possibilities:

Procrastination. Again, they haven't done it because they haven't had to. Some folks -- tick-tock -- need deadlines.

Negotiation. Love doesn't have immediate leverage, beyond the traditional snubbed-NBA player response of fussing, venting, trade-demand theatrics. The Wolves could be squeezing, knowing that his choice right now is between their best offer and a dip in the chilly sea of restricted free agency this offseason. Otherwise, Love would risk playing 2012-13 on a one-year, $6.1 million qualifying offer, dimes on the dollars from what he could grab right now. (If it actually gets to that point, he'd be foolish not to wait. The list of drooling teams, including the Lakers, Heat, Bulls, Thunder and others would be long.)

Anticipation. One theory behind Kahn's pursuit of Love with a four-year offer, instead of the five, is that he then could hold onto a five-year deal for, oh, a certain flashy, fan-pleasing European point guard who already was tough enough to sign once. The rule in the new collective bargaining agreement says that a team can offer five years, at max money, to only one player coming off his rookie contract. Anyone else, while that player is on the roster, has to settle for at most four. What if the market in four years for Ricky Rubio is even more bullish than it is, or will be, for Love as a restricted (this summer) or unrestricted (2013) free agent?

Imitation. Sure, the stars of South Beach all took a little less than max deals to gang up in Miami. But Westbrook and Thunder teammate Kevin Durant will be pulling down top dollars for maximum years. And besides, the Heat guys are on their third contracts, not their second.

Imagination. Could be, the Wolves are adhering to some ideal salary scale that exists only in their heads. Sure, in a perfect world, a max/max player would be a dynamic, athletic, highlight-reel shot creator capable of 29-7-7 nightly. Then the roster's Nos. 2 and 3 -- say, the ball distributor and the blue-collar power forward (with a 3-point touch) -- would slot in neatly after that. But LeBron James already is employed, and no other superhero seems headed Minnesota's way soon.

Demonstration. It's possible, coming off the nasty lockout, that the chairman of the NBA's Board of Governors and Kahn are setting a fiscally responsible example for small-revenue markets by doling out no five-year extensions at all. Most likely, this would lead to a different "-ation" at Target Center: consternation.

Constipation. The Wolves' reference point on Love might be a little, well, stuck. When Kahn arrived, he assured folks that, on a championship contender, the power forward would be its second- or third-best player. Then there's the inconvenient truth that Love is the only piece on the current roster that pre-dates the boss; he was acquired on Draft night in 2008 by Kevin McHale in a swap with Memphis for O.J. Mayo (among others).

Rambis held his minutes down in Love's second season and didn't warm up to him last year, either, until a flurry of garish double-doubles made that policy look silly. He's not a perfect player -- Love has trouble against bigger guys defensively and at the rim himself -- but he is a savant on the glass, he scores without plays called for him and he has that range beyond the arc. He also leads, is eminently marketable, is valued and liked by Adelman, and demonstrated his drive to improve via the 25 pounds he dropped in the offseason.

If there's anything to that last one as the reason behind the Wolves' deal-dragging, Kahn could take some satisfaction -- and maybe lighten up -- after the round of boos McHale got upon his return to Target Center Monday, his first time back since being fired soon after Kahn took over. Fifteen years of executiving with just one trip to the second round can do that, apparently, even to Hall of Famers.

McHale, with his Houston Rockets in tow, was gracious about Love's success and very presence in Minnesota. "What he's doing has nothing to do with me," McHale said at shootaround. "Kevin's really just become a world-class player. Believe me, he's exceeded what everybody thought he could do. You knew he was going to be a good player, but you start talking about 25 and 15, c'mon now ... I thought last year when he broke out and had that 30-30 game it seemed to not only give him confidence, it seemed to give the organization confidence to put him out there and let him play."

Then Love went out and got 39 points and 12 rebounds on 13-of-19 shooting while the rest of the Wolves went 20-of-61 in a 15-point collapse at home.

That's a plight with which NBA fans in Minnesota have been all too familiar. With two Kevins already gone (McHale and Garnett) and a third now at a crossroads, the Timberwolves could wind up right back there. Leading inevitably to irritation. Exasperation. Conflagration. And somebody's termination.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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