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Updated: May 19th, 2014 4:28pm
Zulgad: Flip Saunders must act quickly, decisively in dealing Kevin Love

Zulgad: Flip Saunders must act quickly, decisively in dealing Kevin Love

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Considering Glen Taylor and David Kahn created this mess, it probably isn't fair that Flip Saunders is going to end up being judged for how the Kevin Love situation turns out.

But that's exactly what's going to happen.

Saunders knew last May, when he accepted the job to replace Kahn as the Timberwolves' president of basketball operations, that there were a few ways this could go.

The most desirable would have been for Saunders to spend the season convincing Love that Minnesota was the place to be and for the star forward to decide he had every intention of sticking around, even though the four-year, $61 million deal he had received in January 2012 had an opt-out clause after three years.

It was a nice thought but pure Pollyanna.

Love has every reason to want out of Minnesota.

He wasn't given the five-year, $80 million maximum contract he thought he deserved - the blame for that blunder goes on Taylor, the Wolves owner, and Kahn -- and this season was Love's sixth without a playoff appearance since he arrived from UCLA in a draft-day trade in 2008.

So now reports are swirling again that Love has made it clear he intends to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and that he isn't going to sign an extension to stay with the Wolves.

Anyone who thinks these reports aren't dead-on accurate is kidding themselves.

So how does Saunders proceed?

He is a long-time NBA coach with limited front office experience, but all Saunders needs to do is brush up on his Minnesota sports history and realize that not only must he trade Love as soon as possible, but he also has to use the only bit of leverage he is going to have in this situation.

That leverage isn't issuing denials the Wolves haven't decided what to do with Love. The Wolves are never going to admit that they are going to be aggressively shopping Love, and that's fine, but everyone knows they are fibbing when they act like they might hold onto him.

The thought of keeping Love on the roster and hoping for the best would be the ultimate in irresponsibility, and Saunders is far too good of a basketball man to make that mistake.

Do you really think the Wolves are going to risk Love getting hurt next season, killing any value he might have? Do you really think they are going to hold their breath and hopes he changes his mind, only to see him walk away for nothing? Do you think they are foolish enough to do a sign-and-trade with another team next offseason and maybe get a draft pick in return?

Kahn was capable of making any of the above mistakes. Saunders won't be because none of those scenarios contain any logic.

What does make sense is to make it clear to every NBA team that Love is available right after the draft lottery is completed Tuesday and then to start fielding bids.

Whether it's a team that wants to sign Love long term or one that is delusional enough to think it can, that can't matter to Saunders. Love's happiness? Also a complete non-factor.

This is an auction that won't last long and must be done with a calculated and business-like approach that contains no emotion.

The only leverage the Wolves are going to have is having teams bid against each other. Saunders' task will be to talk every team that wants Love into believing that the offers are coming fast and furious and that each offer is better than the next.

The lesson Saunders can reference is how the Twins handled, or mishandled, the bidding for star pitcher Johan Santana in the offseason of 2007-08. Then general manager Bill Smith arrived at the winter meetings and had offers from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Smith needed to decide if he wanted what was behind door No. 1 or door No. 2, but he had to decide quickly. That didn't happen. Smith froze and the bidding war ended.

Santana ended up going to the New York Mets because all the other potential dance partners had gone home. The Twins made the move all the worse by growing impatient with the one key player they got back in the deal, Carlos Gomez, and traded the outfielder to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Saunders needs to field all offers for Love, make a decision and then make the trade. Whether he wants current players and draft picks or a multitude of picks, Saunders is going to have to be the judge of where he thinks his evaluation skills are strongest.

If he holds onto Love for too long, and teams start to bail out of the bidding process, Saunders' leverage will decrease rapidly and other franchises quickly will realize that he has become desperate.

He can't afford that, and neither can the Wolves.

That's why Saunders must not only deal his best player away, but he must do it as soon as possible. It won't be easy, but it is necessary.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Kevin Love
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