Ricky Rubio hopes to convince Kevin Love to stay, says winning will be important when it’s his turn at free agency

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TREVISO, Italy — There has already been one big change to the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason, with Flip Saunders deciding to step out of the front office and back onto the sidelines after interviewing others for a head coaching position he ultimately decided would be best filled by taking the job himself.

Another, far more substantial change is potentially on the horizon.

Kevin Love reportedly wants to leave the Timberwolves in free agency as soon as that time comes, which would be at the conclusion of next season — if he remains in Minnesota for that long. The team is reportedly considering trading him before then in order to get something in return, which may be the right decision depending on the compensation offered, and assuming that Love can’t be convinced to stay.

Ricky Rubio was in attendance for day two of adidas Eurocamp on Sunday, and spent some time speaking with the Next Generation group of 15- and 16-year old international players. He was open in discussing Love’s situation and how it may affect the franchise, and of course, would want his teammate to stay. But seeing as he hasn’t yet heard it directly from Love himself, Rubio was speaking mostly in hypotheticals rather than accepting Love’s reported feelings as a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a lot going on,” Rubio told NBCSports.com. “He’s a great player who has been playing for the Timberwolves for six years, and gave everything. And he think he can still give us a lot of things, but it’s something more on the business part that the front office has to do, to try and convince him (to stay) if he wants to leave. Because I really only know that he wants to leave because of the media, but what I saw last year was him giving everything in every game, and that’s all you can you ask of any player.”

Love put up his traditionally impressive numbers last season, averaging 26.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists, while shooting better than 37 percent from three-point distance and playing 36.3 minutes per contest. But the Timberwolves failed to make the playoffs, which extended the team’s postseason drought to 10 straight years.

That recent history of failure is right at the top of Love’s list of reasons for wanting out. But despite missing out on the playoffs yet again, Rubio believes last season was a step in the right direction.

“I would say that every year we have improved,” Rubio said. “That’s something that you have to be proud of. Maybe everybody was expecting something more last year, but actually we won 40 games, something the franchise hadn’t done in the last eight or nine years. So it’s something to be proud of, but we know we have to improve. We know we have to make it to the playoffs. And with a lot of young guys with talent, I think we are playing the right way, but we really need to add some veteran players who can help us to understand what we need to get to the postseason.”

The last time the team won at least 40 games was in 2004-05, which ironically was Saunders’ final one in his first stint as Minnesota’s head coach that lasted into a ninth season. Rubio didn’t expect Saunders to take the job this time around, but looks forward to seeing what his role will be under his new head coach.

“I was kind of surprised,” Rubio said. “Because we were looking for a coach, and then suddenly he came down (from the front office) and wants to coach. But he’s been a coach for a team, so he knows the franchise and he knows the team. We’ll see how it goes, I want to sit down with him and talk because as a player, I want to know what the coach expects from me, expects from the team. But I was kind of surprised.”

Saunders can only do so much, and a lot of his success will depend on whether or not Love stays — or at least what may come back in a package for him if a trade is made this summer. One day it will be Rubio’s turn to make a similar free agent decision, and like many players, he said that being in a situation that offers him a key role on a winning team would be the one he’d be most likely to consider.

“The fact is, it’s about winning for me,” Rubio said. “It’s about being on a team that really has, I would say, a project with me involved. If that happened in free agency, and I’m not (already) on a team where there’s a project where you can get far enough to get a ring and win … I would say I would like to be on a winning team.”

That brings us back to Love. Rubio hasn’t spoken to his teammate about his reported trade request or his upcoming free agent decision, but plans to do so soon. If the reports are true, however, and that’s the way Love is leaning, then Rubio would try to convince him to stay — even though he knows that could be a very difficult process.

“It’s hard to convince someone who wants to leave,” Rubio said. “But I don’t know if he wants to leave or not; that’s the media. So I want to know his opinion. And it’s something that I don’t know yet, so I don’t know what to say to him. But of course, if I talked to him I’d say that I love to play with him and we can do great things tougher.”

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Whiteside. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?

Off-season priority for Spurs: Meet with Kawhi Leonard, resolve that issue

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There are other questions the San Antonio Spurs have to answer this summer: If Danny Green opts out of his $10 million deal (as many around the league expect him to) how hard do they chase him? Same with Rudy Gay and his $8.8 million option (he is a little more likely to pick it up). Tony Parker is a free agent, do they bring him back, and if so at what price? How do the Spurs add athleticism to this roster, something they clearly needed against the Warriors?

But all of that pales in comparison to the big question:

Can the Spurs mend their relationship with Kawhi Leonard and get back on the same page?

While the Spurs struggled through the first round against the Warriors, Leonard was sealed off from the team, spending time with his inner circle (led by his agent and uncle), seeing his doctors in New York (who did not clear him to play due to a quadriceps tendon issue) and working out at the NBPA facilities there. There is a disconnect right now, one that has other teams around the league planning trade packages in case one of the league’s elite players becomes available. Right now, those teams are being told he is not.

The Spurs want to fix this and keep him in the fold. He is eligible for a “designated veteran” max contract extension of roughly $219 million over six years (the last year of his current deal plus five more at 35 percent of the salary cap, the deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden just got). But before the Spurs put that on the table they want to see where Leonard is at. The goal is a meeting between Popovich and Leonard, as reported by Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

With head coach Gregg Popovich expected to take the lead, the Spurs plan to meet with Leonard over the summer to gauge whether the sides can work out their differences and continue what has been largely a positive and productive partnership, sources said…

While the decision regarding whether to offer Leonard a $219 million super-max extension rests with management — and even the current players, according to a source — ownership ultimately makes the final call. Convincing the team’s former chairman and CEO, Peter Holt, and his wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, could prove to be a difficult sell for general manager R.C. Buford. The couple is currently embroiled in divorce proceedings.

Last summer, Popovich had LaMarcus Aldridge walk into his office and ask to be traded. Popovich smoothed over that relationship, put Aldridge in spots he was more comfortable on the court this year, and the Spurs big man had an All-NBA level season.

The key was Popovich was able to sit down with Aldridge over dinner and talk it out, with both sides having an open mind. Will he get that chance with Leonard?

The players and team management want Leonard back in the fold, and they have the ultimate hammer with that extension — put $219 million on the table and Leonard isn’t walking away from it. The question is will the Spurs even put that offer on the table, and that right now is not clear at all.

All the other decisions around this team hinge on what happens with Leonard — with him they are potential contenders. Without him, a trade package back likely would be loaded with young players and picks that would have the Spurs thinking about a few years down the road more than the immediate future.