This is the second part in a two-part series debating whether the Cavs should trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. — Ed.
What a timely gift from the basketball gods. As we all try to figure out what, exactly, wins titles—you know, drafting well and continuity versus clearing cap room and hoping for the best, etc. — and in which direction the League is headed—you know, here-ish or here-ish—a perfect case study is dropped in our laps.
The Spurs/Heat two-year, 12-game Finals series offered us a petri dish in which to study the two ways that title contenders are usually built: Free agency and a popular market versus the Draft and buying into a system, to wildly oversimplify things (Miami’s system was damn impressive, too).
But we never got to watch either team make a difficult No Turning Back Now decision in their early construction. The Spurs’ growth was steady. Miami was cool with shipping away Michael Beasley and picks to clear room for LeBron James if he wanted to play there. It didn’t matter which option was best—going for gold or staying patient—because each team’s respective path to greatness was clear, opposite though they were.
Sure enough, it’s now obvious that Miami’s route works. So does the Spurs’. We can argue over which is the better one; better for the teams, better for the League, better for the players, better for the fans—just pick your favorite debate. We don’t really have an answer, and that’s fine, because we haven’t needed one.
The Spurs and Heat meeting for the title yet again briefly made us (me?) stop wondering about the value of developing young players and maintaining financial flexibility versus just fucking going for it already. Both strategies could clearly pay off.
This offseason had featured much of the same stuff early on, outside of Houston. The Knicks were always going to re-sign Carmelo Anthony if they could. The Cavaliers were always going to sign LeBron if they could.
And they actually did it. And now the decisions get hard.
The Cavs own perhaps the League’s most coveted non-superstar: a 19-year-old athletic marvel locked up for four cheap seasons and likely four more after that. The T-Wolves own, for now, one of the game’s top big men—an excellent rebounder who shot threes roughly on par with Chandler Parsons, Chris Paul and Ray Allen last season.
The teams are fairly natural trade partners—the money lines up easily and everything. But Cleveland would be foolish ship away Andrew Wiggins right now.
I get the appeal of Kevin Love. It’s tough not to picture him as a 25-year-old Chris Bosh alongside LeBron, spotting up and nailing threes while providing space for LeBron to work offensively. The Cavs’ power forward spot is a little iffy—Tristan Thompson improved so little last year that it’s actually eerie. Anthony Bennett looks good but who the hell knows. There’s not much depth beyond them two, and Anderson Varejao is hardly the type of dominant center that eliminates the need for a strong power forward. Of course Kevin Love would be sweet in Cleveland.
But aren’t the Cavs going to be really, really good anyway?
Kyrie Irving has been knocked for his not-so-pretty shooting numbers and him maybe not being the most fun point guard to play with. Wiggins may only be a good defense-and-transition guy as a rookie. Bennett’s a tweener who doesn’t have a defined offensive skill set; his PER last season sandwiched him between Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Harrellson. Dion Waiters doesn’t seem down with his NBA destiny as a sixth man whose inefficiency will sadly overshadow what he brings to a team (the potential to get a few buckets while the starters breathe—no easy task).
Mark me down as a believer that LeBron can change all of the above. He’ll open up good looks for Irving and shoulder some of the distributing responsibility. Wiggins won’t have to worry about doing too much—just slide him in as a lockdown defender and let him run alongside LeBron on the break. Bennett will be freed up to play his game, just doing productive things on the periphery while LeBron and Irving run the show. The team won’t be about the Waiters-Irving rivalry in the backcourt, and if Waiters embraces his role he could be a huge piece to the puzzle. Thompson and Varejao can hold the fort down as rebounding specialists, though the team will have a tough time running the 6-9 Thompson at center when LeBron plays power forward.
The last is a solvable problem—Miami found a scrapheap gem in Chris Andersen as a rim-protector next to James. There are other guys out there who can come close to replicating Birdman’s success (Ekpe Udoh is still without a team; Larry Sanders and Roy Hibbert may be on the block).
Until I see a team in the East beat LeBron four times in seven games, I’m going to assume that it can’t be done. Not by the Pacers (George Hill & CJ Miles backcourt?) and certainly not by the Raptors/Knicks/Wizards/Nets/Hawks/Hornets glut in the middle of the conference. A healthy Bulls team would be scary, but I’ll have to see it in action to believe that it exists.
So ignoring the entire concept of a Love trade, I fully believe in this Cavs team. I believe that just having LeBron in the East is an automatic ticket to at least the Conference Finals. He got there with shaky play from his supporting cast in each of the last two postseasons, and he can do it again.
But even if I wasn’t so sure about the squad, I still don’t think I’d like the idea of a swap with Minnesota. Is Love definitely the best fit next to LeBron, or does he just happen to be the best player available? Is he even on the market right now? How would he do at center with LeBron at the 4? How concerned should we be that Love’s never started for a full season or made the Playoffs? Would he consider leaving Cleveland for LA next summer? Most importantly, does Cleveland even have to trade Wiggins to get him?
Kevin Love isn’t going to re-sign in Minnesota. The Warriors don’t want to trade Klay Thompson for Love or they would have done it already. The T-Wolves aren’t interested in the Celtics’ offer for Love or they would have accepted it before the Draft. Chicago won’t trade for Love with Pau Gasol under contract. No other team has stepped up as a legitimate suitor with both the resources to acquire Love and a reason to believe that he’d stay long-term. The Cavs have two bonus first-rounders coming their way in the next handful of years, so they can deal away five picks in a potential trade; most teams are limited to moving just three. They also have the League’s most intriguing trade chip in Wiggins. They have some other interesting pieces, too (including Brendan Haywood’s non-guaranteed $10.5 million salary next summer, which could be instrumental in matching salaries to bring another star to Cleveland via trade. Seriously, do not forget about Hawyood and his funky deal.)
Bennett, Waiters, Thompson and Varejao are decent options for a rebuilding team. They won’t move the Long-Term Hope needle much, but few players truly do. The Timberwolves know they’ll likely lose any trade that doesn’t net them Wiggins—the team trading away the best player in a given deal almost always does. That doesn’t mean they can’t make the most of a sad situation.
All of this to ask the following: Which team is besting an offer of Bennett/Waiters/Thompson/Varejao (pick two, maybe three), plus as many as five first-round picks (one from Memphis, one from Miami, three from Cleveland) for Love? It’s possible that no team will really even come close.
It’s easy to look at the Wiggins-Love possibility in a vacuum, ignoring what’s going on in the rest of the League. But this ain’t a vacuum. Minnesota will threaten to enter the season with Love on the roster, and may very well do so. That doesn’t mean they have the leverage here. Eventually they’ll need to move him, and will obviously pull the trigger on the best deal available. Cleveland’s package, sans Wiggins, might just stand as the top one out there.
Meanwhile, Wiggins will fill needs for the Cavs immediately. He’ll allow them to trap and quickly recover, hopefully similar to what Miami did with LeBron and an active Dwyane Wade. Forcing LeBron to cover for Irving and Waiters defensively would add unneeded stress to his job. Miami was exposed for its poor rim protection and lack of depth against San Antonio, and plenty of times before then, too. Coughing up multiple pieces for Love would leave the Cavs with those same problems, even if it did win them a few more games this season.
This ultimately is about choosing a franchise philosophy, a dangerous notion when dealing with the organizations associated with Ted Stepien and David Kahn, respectively. Neither San Antonio nor Miami’s rise ever made us pick a side, but Cleveland is forcing our hand, so here are the options: Young guys, some spending money, an extended window and, yes, perhaps uncertainty, versus cashing in, rostering three max contracts and seeing what happens. The table is set with the most extreme utensils out there:
LeBron, the NBA’s top player and, in many ways, creator of the League’s Super Team mentality. Wiggins, the purest form of potential and promise through one lens and slow development and peak-wasting through the other. Love, the next in a line of Trade Me Or I’ll Bolt stars that have changed the L’s landscape perhaps permanently over the last few years. Minnesota, perpetually unable to sign marquee free agents, frightened to lose the face of its franchise without introducing a new one. Cleveland, a team desperate to please its superstar and avoid past mistakes.
Many of the most deep-rooted discussions in the League are being brought to this wild buffet at once and in spectacular fashion. Where are you gonna sit?