It'd be something of an understatement to call this a disappointing season for Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. After vaulting himself into rarefied air by averaging 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game last season, then becoming a key reserve on the gold-medal-winning 2012 edition of Team USA, Love entered training camp expecting to make the first playoff appearance of his career. As we know, that train got derailed before the season's first game, thanks to some knuckle pushups gone awry.
Two broken bones in his right (shooting) hand kept Love sidelined for a month, but he made a surprise comeback in the 10th game of the Wolves' season, scoring 34 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in a loss to the Denver Nuggets. The return proved to be short-lived, though; after just 18 games, Love reinjured his hand during the third quarter of a win over the Nuggets, suffering another broken bone that necessitated surgery. After that Nuggets game, Minnesota was 15-14 and ranked eighth in the Western Conference; since, the Wolves have gone 9-30, plummeting from playoff contention thanks to a slew of debilitating injuries to stars and role-players alike, compounded for a stretch by the unexpected absence of Adelman, who left the team to care for his ailing wife (and is reportedly considering retiring this offseason for the same reason).
While there's been relatively little to smile about in Minny this season, endearing point guard advice aside, Wolves fans got a sliver of positive news on Sunday — if a CT scan scheduled for later this week shows the broken bones have healed completely, Love could be cleared for full-contact work and a potential return to the lineup. But because this is the 2012-13 Timberwolves, no silver lining comes without a dark cloud — in this case, the prospect that even if Love can play, he still might not, according to Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
"If the doctor says another week to 10 days or something like that, who knows?" Love said [...] "I'd like to come back, but I know not playing [the rest of the season] has crossed the minds of other people, whether it's [Wolves president of basketball operations] David [Kahn], [Wolves owner] Glen [Taylor] or Coach [Rick Adelman]." [...]
Love said Sunday that having the surgery has made a difference in the healing "this time around," though his hand still has some light swelling from scar tissue caused by the surgery.
"That will go away in a couple of months," Love said of the scar tissue. "I have full range of motion in my hand and my shooting is better. After the first time, my hand never really felt right. I'm fortunate it's back to where it was [before the surgery]. Even at 80 to 90 percent, it feels good." [...]
"I have the confidence to come back and play, but I'm not sure if I'll play right away like I did the first time," Love said. "It depends on what the doctor says and what's going to be right for the team."
From a fan's perspective, it's great to hear Love say that his hand is (nearly) back to where he was before the initial injury, because there's no question that after he came back in November, he just wasn't comfortable physically.
Love made more than 45 percent of his field-goal attempts only five times in 18 games before re-injuring his hand, and shot just 35.2 percent from the floor overall, 21.7 percent from 3-point range and 70.4 percent from the foul line. That's a tremendous drop-off from the stellar shooting splits he'd turned in over the past two seasons — 47/41.7/85 in 2010-11, 44.8/37.2/82.4 on significantly increased volume in 2011-12 — and despite trying (perhaps too hard) to shoot his way through the discomfort and regain his rhythm, he rarely resembled the offensive force that elevated himself into the upper echelon of NBA talents en route to a 2011-12 All-NBA Second Team selection.
Even given best-case-scenario performances from offseason additions Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Alexey Shved, any potential leap for the Wolves depended heavily on Love performing at a near-MVP level that he just couldn't muster after his late November return; the same will likely be true next season. If continued rest can help him regain that form, then it would seem like a no-brainer for the lottery-bound Wolves to keep him on the shelf rather than bring him back for what ProBasketbalTalk's Kurt Helin calls "10 meaningless games."
Then again, those games might not be quite so meaningless.
No, there's not much for Minnesota to play for this season; the Wolves now sit 20 games below .500 and 11 games behind the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers with just 14 games remaining. Yes, anything the Wolves do to win more games only worsens their 2013 NBA draft lottery position — right now, they've got the seventh-worst record in the NBA — which would seem counterintuitive, since if your team's been bad enough to land in the lottery, you'd like to have as bad a record as possible to gain as many ping-pong balls for the lottery drawing as possible, giving you as high a chance as possible of landing the top overall selection. Even a rusty Love figures to improve Minnesota's chances of winning a couple of extra games down the stretch, which would reduce the Wolves' chances at the No. 1 pick.
That said: Check out Minnesota's salary structure going forward, and note two big issues:
• The two-year, $20 million contract Kirilenko inked has a player option for next season. Given his strong performance this season (14 points, 6.5 rebounds, three assists and nearly three combined blocks/steals per 36 minutes), it's likely the 32-year-old Russian forward could fetch multi-year offers north of $10 million per year if he opts out this summer.
• Bruising center Nikola Pekovic hits restricted free agency after the season. He's not a good defensive center, but he is a 28-year-old mauler who averages 18 and 10 per 36 minutes, has ranked among the league's best offensive rebounders over the past two seasons and is a far nimbler finisher on the interior than his brawn suggests. It would be shocking if a team with cap space looking for an upgrade in the middle didn't offer the Montenegrin big man a multi-year deal worth more than $10 million a season.
Total salary, options and cap holds have the Wolves right up against the luxury tax line for next year, according to ShamSports.com's salary database. The Wolves' front office has decided to build around Love and Rubio — though it has done so by not giving Love a full five-year max deal, reportedly keeping that longer-term option available for Rubio, which makes things weird — but for the team to be competitive in an increasingly murderous Western Conference next season and beyond, Love and Rubio need additional help in the form of apparent-perfect-fit players like Kirilenko and Pekovic ... except that foursome has shared the floor for a grand total of 12 minutes this season, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
That gives Adelman, Kahn, Taylor and the rest of the Wolves' decision-makers precious little data to use in determining whether that group can look as good in practice as it does on paper, and if it's worth spending big money to keep that core together. In the absence of that information, given the realities of the contract situations for Pekovic and Kirilenko, Minny could consider — via sign-and-trade, declining to match an RFA offer sheet on Pekovic or letting an opting-out Kirilenko pursue greener pastures — dismantle a promising nucleus before it ever has a chance to jell.
That, in part, is why Love told Grantland's Zach Lowe three weeks ago that getting back on the court with Rubio, Pekovic and Kirilenko, even for 10 to 15 games, "definitely matters for us, heading into the future."
It's important to see that core out there for the organization, and our coaches, all our teammates, and the fan base as well. The last two seasons, man … Last year was very promising, and Ricky Rubio was finally there, and then this year, we had so much hope. We were going to get back to the playoffs. I really believe that. I made that call before the season, and it came crumbling down. We’re just an unlucky team. It’s something we have to bounce back from, and it would mean a lot if we could end the season on a high note.
But does it mean enough to risk putting Love back out there with a scar-tissue-swollen right hand at anything less than 100 percent? That's just one of the fascinating, and as yet unanswered, questions that seems to be facing the Timberwolves these days.