On Wednesday afternoon, Yahoo!'s own Marc Spears reported that All-Star power forward Kevin Love will miss 8-to-10 weeks after undergoing hand surgery on the same broken right hand that kept him out of the Minnesota Timberwolves first nine games this season. Love reinjured the hand in a January 3 game against the Denver Nuggets and had already missed the team's last two games as he sought medical opinions and weighed options. This report built off an earlier note from Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com that Love was likely to miss at least three months while rehabbing..
It's obviously bad news for the Wolves, a playoff hopeful that's had to deal with a number of injuries to key players already this season. Will the loss of Love be too much to handle? And what does it mean for a young team that expected to make great strides this season?
Minnesota has reason to be optimistic that the team can win one of the final playoff spots in the West. In the first nine games of the season without Love, the Timberwolves went 5-4 and generally looked like a well-coached, intelligent team predicated on sharing the ball on offense and beating teams with hustle plays and solid defense. They were able to be effective in large part because of the play of Andrei Kirilenko, a veteran forward who, while not a rebounder or scorer on Love's level, brings a certain level of versatility and helps reshape the team into a different sort of outfit..
The Wolves can also feel decent about the rest of this season because Love wasn't exactly performing at his highest level. His numbers certainly weren't bad — 18.3 ppg and 14.0 rpg is nothing to sneeze at — but his shooting percentages (35.2 percent from the field 21.7 percent from beyond the arc) represent serious dips from his stellar marks of 2011-12. Add in Love's usual problematic defense, and it's not as if he was only doing things that helped the Wolves. On top of that, the Wolves are a good rebounding team regardless of Love's presence, so they may be able to deal with that loss even if they'll miss his presence.
So, yes, Minnesota can still make the playoffs. But it's worth remembering that not all playoff appearances are created equal, and that the specific goal of this season was to earn a postseason berth with Love leading the way (along with Ricky Rubio, who has played only six games this year due to his recovery from last season's ACL tear and recent back spasms). Growth isn't really defined by the result — it's about the process that gets the team there. And a playoff appearance without Love just doesn't mean the same to the Wolves.
Ever since he was given a not-quite-max-level extension last January, Love has been very vocal about his displeasure with the franchise. Love wants to see meaningful accomplishments before he decides to stay in Minnesota, and the assumption is that if he doesn't he'll bolt as soon as he's able (whether by trade or in free agency).
If the Wolves don't make the playoffs without Love, it's possible that he will think there isn't enough talent around him to compete. (Never mind that the vast majority of teams that play without their star would have trouble making the postseason.) But even if the Wolves get to the playoffs without Love playing a major role, he won't have been a big part of the journey that got them to that point. The accomplishment will belong to the franchise, but not to the core that was supposed to lead them to contender status. That's a problem, because Love needs to feel like he's part of that growth if he's going to stay.
All hope is not lost, of course, and it's very possible that the Wolves will forge a new, Love-less image as part of an inspiring run towards the playoffs. On the other hand, the West is very competitive, and the Wolves already have to make up 1 1/2 games to become one of the conference's Top 8 teams. But even this particular success may not be enough to set the Wolves up for the future they want. They need more than a particular result. They need a replicable process, as well.