Do double-doubles win championships? That seems to be the question no one is asking in the debate over whether or not the Phoenix Suns should part with either of their burgeoning star guards to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. While most people in the conversation have spent their time haggling over the number of first-round picks to package with Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe in exchange for the T-Wolves’ restless power forward, I’ve seen very few ask if Kevin Love is really worth the king’s ransom his soon-to-be-former team is demanding. This question seems as a good a place as any to begin making the case for keeping Bledsoe and Dragic.
Kevin Love has spent six seasons in the NBA. In that time, his team has not been to the playoffs. In fact, in the last six years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have not posted a record of .500 or better. There is no player in the NBA who has garnered the “superstar” tag so early in his career while achieving so little in terms of team success. There is also no player in the NBA who is defended as blindly as Kevin Love when the questions I’m asking are posed. His defenders are quick to point out the shortcomings of Love’s teammates, T-Wolves’ management, and the string of coaches he has played for. But how bad is Love’s supporting cast really?
Let’s start with the coaches. Love has, thus far, played for Kevin McHale, Kurt Rambis, and Rick Adelman. Kevin McHale is by no means Red Auerbach, but he has had a record over .500 in four of his five seasons as an NBA head coach. The one hold out? The year he coached Kevin Love. He also has two more playoff appearances as a coach than Kevin Love has a player. Kurt Rambis was probably never meant to be an NBA head coach, and his record in two years at the helm in Minnesota reflects that. But he was a four-time NBA Champion, and he, along with McHale, can certainly be credited with a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to Love over his first three years in the league. A player of Love’s caliber and pedigree could definitely do worse than two coaches with a combined seven championship rings and 27 years of playing experience. And then there’s Rick Adelman, a man with over 1000 wins as an NBA head coach. For the last three years, Adelman has been tasked with helping Love realize his playoff dreams. It has not gone well. In his first season, Ricky Rubio missed the last 25 games of the year, and the Timberwolves finished 14 games below .500. The next season, the first of Love’s near max contract extension, Kevin broke his hand doing knuckle pushups and played only 18 games. Last season, Adelman’s final year as head coach, Minnesota nearly broke through the .500 barrier, falling just two games shy. But for all that perceived success, they still missed the playoffs by nine games and were out of legitimate postseason contention very early. Adelman coached the late 80’s/early 90’s Trail Blazers and the immensely entertaining Sacramento Kings teams with Chris Webber and Co. While neither of those great teams won a title, they were consistent contenders in the Western Conference who were ultimately out down by the last two Laker Dynasties. I put all of this forth in order to make the point that Adelman is probably one of the 25 best coaches in NBA history, and even he couldn’t take Kevin Love to the playoffs.
As for Minnesota’s ownership and management, the foibles of David Kahn are well documented by Bill Simmons and many others. Suffice it to say, the T-Wolves fumbled several high draft picks and have had a serious problem attracting free agents. But that doesn’t mean Love has been surrounded by the scrap heap All Stars for the last six years. As I said before, Love has gotten the superstar treatment and defense from pundits and fans alike, but does his lacking supporting cast really explain his lack of winning? Are the players around him really any different than the players around Kevin Garnett when he was in Minny or Carmelo Anthony in Denver? I for one don’t think the difference in teammates is large enough to justify six losing seasons, but I’ll let you be the judge.
The best players Carmelo Anthony played alongside in his eight seasons in Denver were Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups, both past their primes, and the oft-injured Nene. In the 2005-2006 season, AI was still in Philadelphia, Billups was still in Detroit, and Nene played just one game, yet the Nuggets still made the playoffs with a supporting cast of Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, and Kenyon Martin around Carmelo. I don’t think Denver’s impressive streak of eight straight playoff appearances with Carmelo can be attributed solely to supporting cast and coaching when compared to Minnesota’s six years of futility with Kevin Love. There is a difference in the caliber and mentality of those superstars.
An even better comparison to the Love situation is Kevin Garnett’s time with the Timberwolves. The best players KG played with in Minny were Sam Cassell and Wally Szczerbiak, both of whom made one All-Star appearance in the talent void years between MJ’s second retirement and the 2003 draft. KG went to the playoffs in eight straight seasons under Flip Saunders, who is now Kevin Love’s coach in Minnesota. Interestingly, both Garnett and Carmelo made it to the conference finals once and lost in the first round seven times with their original teams. So the T-Wolves and Nuggets were by no means world-beaters, but their respective superstars were talented and driven enough to drag the team over .500 and into the playoffs. So why hasn’t Love been able to do so?
Love hasn’t played alongside an All-Star, but Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin are no slouches. Garnett and Melo made the playoffs with worse. There’s a chance that Love’s inability to win has nothing to do with the supporting cast around him. The answer could very well be in his head and his heart. A player’s will to succeed can be just as important to winning as talent. For proof, look no further than the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.
11 months ago, pundits called Phoenix The Island of Misfit toys. They saw Bledsoe, Gerald Green, and Miles Plumlee as pieces that didn’t fit around Goran Dragic and the rest of the returning Suns. They were wrong. Each of the team’s new additions brought something to the table, and helped the Suns win 48 games. That’s right. With no player even approaching Love’s caliber on the roster, the Suns won 48 games in a deep Western Conference. No one predicted this team gelling together under a brand new head coach so effectively. No one saw Eric Bledsoe realizing his potential so quickly. And most importantly, no one could have knew how well he would play with Goran Dragic.
When healthy, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic formed one of the most exciting backcourts in the NBA. They had great chemistry, shared the ball well, and complimented each other on offense and defense. Transitioned to more of a shooting guard role, and move that sparked an offensive explosion in his game which earned him the Most Improved Player trophy as well as a Third Team All-NBA selection. Bledsoe, before and after his injury, displayed the great point guard instincts and toughness we had seen flashes of in Los Angeles. He guarded the other team’s best guard, picking up the slack from the one flaw in Dragic’s game. And together, they helped fuel one of the fastest and most effective offenses in the NBA.
But beyond the points, the wins, and the excitement, the most important product of this past season was the generation of hope. The Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt showed Phoenix fans, and the league as whole, something they hadn’t really seen before. In an era where an elite point guard is more and more important for team success (unless you have LeBron), the Suns suddenly had two near-star performers who could share the floor without losing a step. With Goran and Eric healthy, Coach Hornacek could keep one of them on the floor at all times and still play them together for 20+ minutes. Imagine trying to defend a Suns’ team playing at breakneck pace for all 48 minutes. With these two at the helm, Phoenix could run teams to death night after night, and they did just that many times this past year. This tandem is a serious weapon that is nearly unmatched in the NBA. The charts below show how the Dragic-Bledsoe tandem stacks up against other backcourt and superstar tandems across the league.
And again, these two have played less than half a season together. Their potential as individuals and a pair has not been reached. Dragic is still young, and Bledsoe is very young. Keeping them together for the foreseeable future could be the move that propels Phoenix back into perennial contention and makes the Valley of the Sun an attractive place for premier free agents over the next few years.
The issue is resources. To retain Dragic and Bledsoe, the Suns will likely have to pay Bledsoe the max this summer. Then they’ll have to extend Dragic, who has a player option for 2015-16, next summer because there’s no way he will be content to play for $7.5 million when he just made All-NBA. In that scenario, the Suns will have to commit $25+ million to their backcourt annually. That’s a very hefty price tag for a pair of point guards. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right move. Ryan McDonough should have been Executive of the Year by all accounts. Even with big resources committed to his backcourt, I have confidence that he can find cap room to attract free agents down the road, especially with the cap growing as much as it’s projected to. With a solidified backcourt, an offensive system that is sure to balloon anyone’s stats, and the ability to find great role players on the cheap, why wouldn’t free agents who want to win consider Phoenix as a landing spot for the next five years? Keeping Dragic and Bledsoe together is a gamble given the financial commitment necessary, Bledsoe’s injury history, and their short track record together. But there’s no way their joint potential is outweighed by the potential generated by splitting them up to add Kevin Love.
Love has never won in the NBA. Dragic and Bledsoe won straight out of the gate, despite only playing 40 games together. If the Suns want to win as many games as possible over the next several years, I’m not sure Kevin Love is the answer, especially if his acquisition breaks up Goran and Eric.
To be honest, there’s no way I’m writing this article today if Bledsoe had played the whole year. In that parallel universe, the Suns surely make the playoffs, probably as a fifth or sixth seed, and maybe knock off the Clippers or Rockets in the first round. Phoenix would be unanimously discussed as a surefire playoff team moving forward that was one star away from serious contention. But that is not the reality. Bledsoe missed half the year. The Suns missed the playoffs by one game.
Love is the most coveted guy on the market despite not being a free agent. I fully understand why the Suns are interested. But the tide is against them right now. Minnesota knows Love wants out and hopes to net a Godfather offer for him akin to what Utah got from Brooklyn for Deron Williams or Denver got from the Knicks for Melo. It’s important to note that neither New York team was successful in the immediate wake of those trades. That’s not a good omen for the Suns or any other team willing to part with the kitchen sink to acquire Love’s services. Plus there’s no guarantee Love will stick around long-term, especially if the team he lands with is gutted to acquire him. In so many of the proposed scenarios, Love would land with a team that has a worse supporting cast than he has now in Minny. Unless that team a big-market club with a history of attracting free agents that Love can rely on in the future, there’s no way he’s sticking around.
If this was a conversation about keeping Dragic and Bledsoe together and acquiring Love with other assets, I’d be unbelievably in favor because he compliments Phoenix’s deficiencies in rebounding and paint scoring so well in addition to his ability to space the floor. But Minnesota wants more than that. And that’s why the Suns cannot make this move. The price of Dragic or Bledsoe is simply too high for a player with no history of winning and no indication of building a future in Phoenix. Sometimes the way to Ignite the Future is to keep the powder dry.