There’s an old Kevin Garnett ad that you’ll likely remember if you were anywhere around basketball 10 years ago. Garnett and a friend walk out of a dry cleaner, and the friend begins to climb awkwardly and sort of surprisingly onto Garnett’s back. As Garnett walks the streets of a city that is clearly not Minneapolis, to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands,” people keep piling on top of him, turning him into a top-heavy mass of humanity, all while maintaining a cheery enough disposition to throw a “what’s up” chuck of his head to a disbelieving woman.
It was a simple but effective metaphor for Garnett’s identity on the Minnesota Timberwolves before everything began to unravel. The first time I saw it, it made me feel good about Garnett and, by extension, the team. Garnett wanted the work, wanted the weight. “Jump on,” the spot seemed to say. “We’re going there together.”
In 2004, faith in the Timberwolves was at an all-time high. Worn down by first-round exit after first-round exit (and perhaps finally realizing that Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith were not sufficient complementary pieces), the team doubled down on bolstering Garnett’s supporting cast by going out and getting Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. The result was something that seems nearly unbelievable now: The Timberwolves were the top seed in the Western Conference. Their postseason run that year ended ignominiously at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, but not before their semifinal series against the Sacramento Kings passed into legend as the best the Wolves would likely ever be involved in.
Then the wheels started to come off in odd ways. Bewildering and icky contract disputes with Sprewell and Cassell cratered the Wolves in 2004-05, and they missed the playoffs. The team began to rot from the inside out, leaving Garnett at the head of a team in 2006-07 filled out by the likes of Mike James, Marko Jaric, Ricky Davis and Mark Blount. When Garnett left via trade to Boston, he didn’t go with any of us on his back, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. That was never in dispute when it came to Garnett.
Kevin Love has never engendered the same kind of confidence. It’s not just because of the Wolves’ inability to get into the playoffs during Love’s first six years in the league, although that’s part of it for some. For all his immense and indisputable talent, for all his record-setting performances, for all his expressed desire to be the kind of leader the Wolves have needed during his time with the team, Love is simply not a guy to carry a team and its city on his back.
To be clear, being able to do that is not an unalloyed positive. Out of loyalty, Garnett gritted out a chunk of years in Minnesota that could have been spent profitably on a much better team. The fans prized that loyalty, but it seems possible that the lingering aftertaste of Garnett’s post-2004 time with the franchise took its toll on the fans’ willingness to embrace Love. They wanted another Garnett, but they also didn’t. They craved the security of a leave-it-all-on-the-floor, live-and-die-for-the-team centerpiece, but they also cringed to think how it turned out last time.
Instead, they got something different. Outwardly, Love appeared to fit a kind of Minnesota mold when he arrived: a big, not particularly athletic dude whose primary trait was lunch-pail rebounding. But as his 3-point shot developed, as he began to rack up double-doubles while the team floundered, a grim countercurrent to the positive vibes of his NUMB#RS campaign developed: This guy was showtime -- gaudy but empty. Not every fan felt that way; plenty embraced him. But it was enough to keep the whispers going: He only cares about stats. He doesn’t care about the hard work like defense. It was a stark contrast to Garnett.
It’s almost inevitable that the end of something brings on a flood of what-ifs, and this situation is no different. What if Love’s abilities had been better recognized early on by Randy Wittman and Kurt Rambis? What if Love had been surrounded by players like Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan or even Paul George? What if injury hadn’t derailed his 2012-13 season?
But the big what-if that everyone is quick to bring up -- David Kahn and Timberwolves management offering Love a three-year contract with a fourth-year player option instead of the maximum five years -- might be less of a regret than everyone supposes. From Wittman to Rambis to Kahn to J.J. Barea and other teammates, much of the rockiness for Love has been a result of conflicts with specific people in specific situations. He has sought to prove those people wrong, and his game has flourished. When he’s tried to prove he’s a leader, though, he’s faltered.
Maybe it’s rationalizing to say Love was never completely at home in Minnesota, but it’s also no terrible thing to admit that not every truly outstanding player can fit in with a team the way Kobe Bryant does with the Lakers or Tim Duncan does with Spurs. Even Allen Iverson and the Sixers -- a far less fruitful partnership in terms of on-court success -- seemed like an aesthetic and cultural match.
Maybe it’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. Do the players create the culture of a team, or does the team create a culture for the players? For now, the swirl of rumors and speculation, tinted with bad blood, is enough to signal that it’s time to move on. When Love eventually leaves, whether through free agency or via an increasingly likely trade, there will be more than enough time for blame to be passed back and forth from management to Love to departed executives and on down the line. Fans will pore over it and lament or accept it while they’re the ones left out in the cold, waiting on street corners in Minneapolis and hoping another player comes by and throws them on his back.
Steve McPherson contributes to the TrueHoop Network, Grantland and other publications. Follow him @steventurous.