Saunders recounts the past as he surveys his team’s immediate future, citing Thursday as an “artificial deadline” that did not produce a draft-day blockbuster deal every recent time an NBA star eventually forced his way out of town before he could walk away free.
Saunders notes that Orlando superstar center Dwight Howard was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers in August 2012, New Orleans sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers in December 2011, and Denver’s Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York and Utah’s Deron Williams to New Jersey near the 2011 February trade deadline.
“Let me ask you this,” Saunders said. “What great player has been traded at the draft?”
All four unhappy, aforementioned players eventually were traded before they became free agents, but Saunders maintains he could still bring Love back for next season. If he does so, it’s either because he believes he can strike a better deal at the February trade deadline or can still convince Love to sign a rich five-year contract extension.
He maintains Love can play again for the Wolves — even if Love appeared all but mentally checked out of Minnesota when he did promotional media interviews in Los Angeles earlier this month.
As Denver’s coach, George Karl lived through a season when uncertainty surrounded Anthony before the Nuggets traded their superstar late in February.
Karl has this advice for Saunders and the Wolves: Don’t put yourself through it. Find a trade you prefer by summer’s end and make it, because a season played under the big-top circus tent just isn’t worth it.
“The season will have a different pulse, it will have a karma you won’t understand,” Karl said. “It’s just a different vibe. The interaction of your locker room isn’t the same even when you win because you’re winning with a guy you know doesn’t want to be there. It’s not every day, but it’s every city you go into because it’s the same questions at a different time. It’s very tiring. It’s confusing. It’s draining. It’s frustrating.”
The Wolves probably have less of a reason to trade Love by Thursday’s draft because Saunders, by all accounts, seeks young yet established NBA players in an attempt to move forward from last season’s 40-42 record rather than rebuild with rookie draft picks, some of whom would need to be selected Thursday night.
Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Denver’s Kenneth Faried each are that kind of player, to name two.
“The reason you guys say there has to be trades, who’s putting it out there?” Saunders told a reporter. “It’s all the people who have draft picks. They’re trying to make trades because as soon as the draft comes … Sometimes the unknown is a greater commodity than the known.”
Improvement is goal
Whether it’s by the draft, after LeBron James and Anthony’s free-agent futures are determined in July or next winter’s trade deadline, Saunders insists he will only trade Love — or any other player — if it makes his team better. He claims he has enough leverage to do so, even if Love could walk away for no compensation in return as a free agent in July 2015 if Love is willing to forgo an extra $26.5 million that only the Wolves can pay him.
Love’s unique skills are valued enough that teams such as Denver and Sacramento presumably are willing to make a trade without an assurance that Love will sign a four-year extension with them a year from now.
“If something out there makes us better and helps us win, we’d move anybody,” Saunders said. “You get better in a lot of different ways. We want to still win, no matter who we have. It could be different ways: You can get better from a talent standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, an energy standpoint, a defensive standpoint.”
And if Love returns …
It’s not often a team gets better by trading its best player, which probably is why Saunders downplays the notion that he’s about to trade Love any second now. But does he think he can still bring Love back into his team’s locker room and expect him to be content, happy and productive next season?
“I know he’ll be productive,” Saunders said. “Whether he’s content and happy, that just depends. … My only comment to Kevin has always been, ‘You’re under contract, we expect you to be here. If anything changes and I want to trade you, we’ll trade you.’ We haven’t gotten to a point of saying, ‘Where is your head? Where are you really at?’ ”
“I’m going to say this: The one thing I hear Kevin say is he wants is to win. You know what? I want to win. I want to win as badly as he does.”
From his experience, Karl said he would tell the Wolves, if asked, to find a good trade plan they like and “go for it” without waiting for the perfect one. He considers a deal in which the Wolves could get Klay Thompson and David Lee back such a plan and said it’s possible to “retool” a team without rebuilding.
His Nuggets won 50 games — and played better — the season Anthony was traded and won 57 games the next season without him.
“It goes back to the saying a good plan aggressively executed is better than the attempt of a perfect plan that creates procrastination and frustration,” Karl said. “I think Kevin Love will come in and he’ll play. It’s what happens around the games, around the practices, around the team that will be very different. I’m not saying it was the worst moment of my career — it’s not as ugly as some losing and some firings have been — but the daily tedious nature of it was so unhappy.”