Kevin Love will walk onto the Target Center floor Friday expecting some boos, just as he did every other time he returned to Minnesota after being traded to the Cavaliers in 2014.
The difference this time: He might have to get in line behind the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, who has already said he expects to be booed by the home crowd.
The Wolves, who lost their opener 112-108 Wednesday in San Antonio, have their home opener Friday. As of early Thursday afternoon, there were about 1,800 tickets left for the game, so the crowd will be big.
This is a season that has begun amid the drama of Butler asking for a trade, but agreeing to play with the team until a deal can get done. For fans, the limbo has added an air of ambivalence around the team, which made the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2004.
How will they react to the strange dynamic of watching a team that figures to look different after a Butler trade but for now still employs him as one of its best players?
“It’s tough, it’s never easy. You see in this league guys switch over teams,” Love said Thursday after the Cavaliers practiced at Target Center, when asked about the Butler situation. “Every situation is different. There is ambiguity in every situation. So I say, just keep your head down and keep working. He’s a worker. He’s a guy who is very competitive.”
Perhaps it’s fitting the Wolves will open their home season against Cleveland. Love was the last Wolves star to ask out of the Twin Cities. In his case, the late Flip Saunders was able to work a deal — one that brought then-rookie Andrew Wiggins here — before the 2014-15 season. When Love returned to Target Center that season with the Cavaliers, he was loudly booed.
Last week, talking with local media for the first time since news broke of his desire to be traded, Butler acknowledged he might hear some boos Friday.
“Sure, boo me,” he said. “Ain’t going to change the way I play. Probably going to make me smile more. Please, come with it.”
At the team’s only preseason game at Target Center on Oct. 5, with the Butler drama ongoing, president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau received a smattering of boos as well.
The Wolves, coming off a playoff season, are starting the same five players as in last year’s home opener, a franchise first. Still, there is a feeling of uncertainty that makes the beginning of this season feel considerably different from the anticipation of a year ago.
“Has it been a challenging few weeks for everyone inside the organization? Yes, it has,” Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson said. He and his team on the business side have been gearing up to celebrate the franchise’s 30th season. The job of promoting a team whose situation is “fluid” — as Thibodeau has said many times — can be a challenge.
Casson said he can understand some level of frustration from the fan base.
“But I think it’s coming from a good place,” he continued, “where the fans are excited to have the team back playing, and hoping for a more successful year. We look at the silver lining in this. It’s adversity. Every pro sports team goes through something every year. [Friday] night is really important. Not just to play well, but to see the team back together. [Wednesday] night was a great indicator. The guys played hard in a tough place to play. I think you’ll see a crowd that’s excited to get back to basketball.”
Casson said the Wolves have sold about 500 fewer season tickets compared to last year, but he’s optimistic the team can match last year’s attendance with single-game ticket sales.
The Wolves still will be in the top 12 of the NBA in new season tickets sold, Casson said, while corporate support remains strong. He said he’s looking for interest to build much like last season — which ended with the team selling out 16 of its 41 regular-season home games, the most for the franchise since the 1991-92 season.
“People, more than anything, are ready for the Wolves to get back to action,” he said.
Still, it’s fair to wonder how fans will respond to Butler being part of that action. Love was asked how he would have dealt with it had he found himself still with the Wolves after asking for a trade.
“Just embraced it,” he said. “Embrace the city, embrace the fans, just go out and leave it all out there.”