On Zach Lowe, Kevin Love, and Russell Westbrook


Apr 4, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (left) reacts next to teammate center Ronny Turiaf (right) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. The Minnesota Timberwolves won in 2 overtimes 122-121. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

About a week ago, Grantland’s Zach Lowe, one of the great basketball writers in the basketball world today, posted a hefty piece centered on Kevin Love‘s impending contract situation, and how the Wolves might choose to handle the process.

Lowe touches on the “front-office jockeying” that already has begun and will continue to take place surrounding the 2015 free agent class headed by Love, a consensus top-ten, if not top-five or six NBA player. Front office personnel across the league are snickering to themselves at Flip Saunders’ allegedly naive expectation that he has a prayer to re-sign Love, and Lowe also acknowledges this somewhat sobering fact.

The rest of the article focuses largely on the warts of this year’s underachieving Wolves squad, and Lowe is spot-on with much of criticism. The crunch-time play has been poor, and while the late-game offense can’t be blamed on Love, his defense down the stretch, coupled with Nikola Pekovic, has been sub-par. Additionally, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer are net-negative defenders (despite Brewer’s undeserved reputation), largely due to their frustrating propensity to gamble, gamble, and gamble some more.

Lowe finishes the piece by stating the Minnesota is “the league’s most uncertain situation.” It’s an interesting concept, centered on the following possible outcomes over the next 13-15 months: Love could announce an intention to re-sign in Minnesota, he could force Saunders’ hand and ultimately cause a trade by letting it be known that he will not re-sign, the Wolves could sell off their ancillary pieces in a last-ditch effort to improve the 2014-15 squad and convince Love to stay, or they could roll the dice and gamble with Love exercising his player option following next season and likely walking in free agency.

There are a host of possibilities, and every single one of them could absolutely alter the course of the league as a whole over the next couple of seasons. As someone who thinks that the most likely endgame is Saunders rolling the dice in free agency with a 35-40-ish percent chance that Love stays (completely arbitrary and just a guess, of course) in Minnesota, I believe that he’s ultimately likely to sign elsewhere.

But it isn’t nearly the slam dunk that the national, mainstream media types might have the fans believe. As everyone should remember, Saunders was able to get a superstar by the name of Kevin Garnett to remain in Minnesota for a full decade and the prime of his career. He’s been reported to have maintained a close relationship with Love, and his stubbornness and past success with superstars named Kevin will likely keep him from dealing Love.

So that leaves these two possibilities: the Wolves largely stand pat through the summer, either because of the limited flexibility that Saunders has brought upon himself with the Brewer, Martin, and Chase Budinger signings prior to the current campaign, or because Saunders thinks this team will continue to jell and improve, and overcome the relative bad luck that they’ve encountered throughout the 2013-14 season, especially in close games.

The most intriguing option, of course, is making a major move. There are a number of problems with this, and most center around the lack of cap space and attractive, team-friendly, deal-able contracts that Saunders has on his current roster. The only contract coming off the books is Dante Cunningham‘s modest $2.1 million salary, along with the combined $1.3 million or so from pending free agent Robbie Hummel and the recently waived A.J. Price.

The only real trade pieces for Saunders and the Wolves are Ricky Rubio, who is still on his reasonable rookie contract but will be due a large raise after the 2014-15 season, and a few contracts that expire after next year but also belong to borderline rotational players in J.J. Barea, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ronny Turiaf, and Alexey Shved. Nobody is trading for the bad contracts of Martin and Brewer, and Budinger’s injury issues have likely rendered him all but un-tradeable as well.

That leaves us with Nikola Pekovic and the $47.9 million over four years that remains owed to the hulking Montenegrin. That’s a lot of money for anyone, and Pek’s tendency to miss 10-20 games per season will play into his overall trade value, too. But he’s also one of the top three or four post players in the league, and one of the premier offensive rebounders and paint threats in the entire league.

And it isn’t a secret that the defensive synergy between Pekovic and Love is anything but perfect. While both average-y defenders, neither is a “rim protector”, and both are generally a step slow in their rotations on long defensive possessions.

Before moving forward, let me be clear: I am not saying that the Wolves must, or even should trade Pekovic/Rubio/etc. But if Saunders has any indication that Love is leaning towards bolting and he wants to try and salvage next season by rolling the dice (and freeing up future salary by moving Pek’s deal, regardless of whether or not Love returns), there could be some options.

I also want to preface this idea by saying that a) Thunder G.M. Sam Presti would likely not make this trade, b) I’m not sure that Flip Saunders would, either, and c) quite frankly, it almost makes too much sense. (Small hat tip to Lowe, as though this is a trade I’d been tossing around for a year or so, prior to Pek’s extension, he keeps giving it life by mentioning it in this column, and re-tweeting a David Thorpe piece suggesting a Pekovic trade, as well. Lowe knows some folks, so I don’t think that there’s absolutely nothing there…)

Thunder receive: Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, two 2014 second-round picks

Wolves receive: Russell Westbrook, Perry Jones III

Think about it: the Thunder have been searching for a threat in the paint to balance Durant’s perimeter threat for years, and although rookie Steven Adams has been a pleasant surprise, he’s not quite Pekovic. Serge Ibaka slots nicely next to Pekovic as a stretch-‘four’ and a rim protector, and Pek’s ability to both roll to the rim on the pick-and-roll and hard hedge with the best of them (this is something that Kendrick Perkins is actually decent at) would fit nicely with the Thunder.

Throw in a pass-first, top-three defensive point guard that can knock down a spot-up three-pointer at a decent clip, and is just 23 years of age, and Presti would have a nice haul. No, the Thunder are not better without Westbrook, but they also aren’t likely to be able to afford Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka moving forward. Having Pekovic/Rubio is a great consolation prize, and their skills will augment Durant well enough that there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in overall team performance.

The Wolves would pair Westbrook with his college roommate in Love, and they’d immediately employ two top-10 players. A high-usage, dynamic point guard is a perfect fit to pair with Love. They’d both get as many shots as they want, and Martin and a healthy Budinger would still be there to spot-up and space the floor around a penetrating Westbrook and posting/popping Love.

It would give the Wolves a better-than-fighting chance to re-sign Love, and if they guess wrong, they’d still have three years of Westbrook on his current contract. Certainly better than the current situation.

It would very tough to see Rubio go, but if this deal is ever on the table for Saunders and the Wolves, they need to think long and hard about the possibility. Gorgui Dieng‘s recent play has no doubt encouraged the front office that they may have the rim-protecting, defensive-minded center to pair with Love, as well as having Turiaf on a team-friendly $1.5 million pact for next season to give them a veteran defensive presence off the bench for 16-20 minutes per game.

I’m not about to claim that Dieng is a star, but he’s absolutely a viable rotation player in the NBA. A Dieng/Turiaf rotation with some Love at the center spot when needed is certainly enough when coupled with Westbrook, Martin, and Budinger. The bench would still need some help, to be sure, but it would be an intriguing squad.

All that to say, this trade will not happen. But it’s fun to think about, and it isn’t outrageous from a purely basketball perspective. The same-division aspect, the comfort aspect, the uncertainty factor, and the stubbornness/loyalty factors (i.e. “We just gave this guy a big extension, we aren’t moving him already…”) will play a huge part, of course.

But it’s a fun concept, and it’ll be interesting to see if this moves from fun idea to legitimate rumor at any point in the following months. If the Thunder stumble in the playoffs with a healthy Westbrook, look for there to be some steam surrounding this idea, regardless of the true likelihood of a deal.