Court Changes: Love Follows LeBron to Ohio

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves traded Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The Wolves also traded Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved and the rights to the Miami Heat’s 2015 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for Thaddeus Young.

The Cavs made this trade because: they don’t have the time to let Andrew Wiggins develop.

The moment Sports Illustrated released an article with details pertaining to LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, the Cavaliers instantly became an elite team in the East and a franchise ready to compete for their first Championship. They inserted James into a roster consisting of an All-Star point guard and plenty of young talent at every position. With the Heat no longer possessing a stranglehold on the conference, the Cavs’ front office knew their Championship window had started to open up.

I’ve mentioned multiple times in previous Court Changes, the importance of realizing when there is an opening in a Championship window and seizing the opportunity. They close much faster than they open, so NBA teams sometimes have to make risky, short-term moves while sacrificing some of the future.

An unfortunate and prime example of a team that experienced firsthand how briefly Championship contention can last is the Indiana Pacers. They built a core, created chemistry and found themselves fighting at the top of the East in back-to-back seasons. With the departure of Lance Stephenson and the gruesome, season-ending injury to Paul George, this group of players and coaches may have missed their chance. (Did the Thunder also miss their chance when Harden was still in town?)

Wiggins has the potential to be one of the top players in the League, and with the No. 1 pick, teams usually commit to developing that player and seeing what he can become. Wiggins joins David Thompson and Chris Webber as the only top picks to start their rookie seasons with teams that didn’t draft them.

With LeBron back, though, Cleveland doesn’t have three or four seasons to let Wiggins grow and find his footing. He is still very raw and needs time to develop his dribbling, shooting and other skills as well. It is time to win now. By trading away what Wiggins (and Bennett to a certain extent) might become for what Love is, the Cavs are setting themselves up for multiple title runs in the next few seasons.

The Timberwolves made this trade because: they are consequently in more control of the franchise’s future.

Ever since Love won Most Improved Player and emerged as a franchise cornerstone in Minnesota, the team’s direction seemed hazy. Was Rubio-Love-Pekovic a core that could eventually compete in the West? Or were they destined to muddle in the dreaded no man’s land in sports as mediocrity?

With their last Playoff birth coming in 2004—when Love was just starting high school—the Wolves have looked like a lost franchise that doesn’t know what to do with their big men. Kevin Garnett and Al Jefferson both acted as focal points for two Timberwolves’ eras, only to eventually leave for teams that knew how to make it into the postseason. The Timberwolves were left with teams that couldn’t reach 30 wins and a multitude of draft picks (Johnny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams) that didn’t pan out.

Minnesota’s front office has been unable to establish any sort of foresight and needed to handle the Love situation carefully. With Flip Saunders recently accepting a larger role, it was time for him to break the mold and establish an identity.

By acquiring Wiggins, Bennett and Young, Flip has given himself considerable control over the Wolves’ future potential. Not only do Wiggins and Bennett arrive on cheap rookie contracts that NBA teams crave under the new CBA, but they each will ultimately become restricted free agents (Bennett—2017, Wiggins—2018), giving Minnesota the opportunity to re-sign one or both if their potential becomes production. This is the case for rookie Zach LaVine and budding center Gorgui Dieng as well.

Even though Young could simply exercise his early termination option after this season and find a role with a contender, Saunders has the chance to convince the 26-year-old power forward that he can ultimately be a part of something special and something that finally has some direction.

The 76ers made this trade because: they want to set the standard for tanking.

It doesn’t require much analysis to understand why the Sixers couldn’t pass up the opportunity to trade their leading scorer for a couple bit pieces.

General manager Sam Hinkie wants his team to lose as many games as they possibly can until he has collected enough draft picks for his liking. (They have five picks in next year’s Draft alone, four of them coming from four different teams.)

Other teams in the past may have made a trade or a free-agent signing that gave an inkling that their management might be tanking to some degree. No franchise has ever tanked so definitively and blatantly as these Sixers, and they are doing so in the wake of a possible change to the lottery system Hinkie has built his scheme around. He doesn’t care.

Whether or not Hinkie’s plan inevitably makes him look like an asset-attaining genius or an idealistic fool, giving away Young for some spare change added to the foundation of his tanking blueprint.

This is good for the Cavs because: they gave LeBron what he wants.

LeBron’s greatness and influence have been well established, and his effect is often overwhelming to those around him. How many professional athletes can cause a city to camp out in the streets around their houses in such a desperate manner? There are plenty of statistics and accomplishments to back up the attention and glorification he receives on a regular basis.

So, when a player of that stature with the power to completely change the value and successfulness of your business comes to town on a short-term deal, it is time for management to leave their pride at home and abide by all of the King’s requests. Some may feel LeBron—a player under contract to play basketball—doesn’t have the right to control administrative parts of the franchise, but those in the front office needed to do everything in their power to appease him.

By giving away key pieces of their future for an instant impact All-Star power forward with only a year left on his contract, the Cavs gave LeBron the one teammate he wanted from the moment he signed with Cleveland. During his introductory press conference, Love said LeBron called him the day he committed to returning to the Cavs and said he wanted him to come to Ohio as well.

If LeBron knew this early that he wanted to play with Love, there is no doubt the Cavs were aware as well. Now the Cavs, Love and most importantly LeBron had their summer basketball wishes come true. (Also—can we go ahead and name LeBron James the NBA Executive of the Year?)

This is good for Kyrie Irving’s development because: he is paired up with two All-Stars who know how to adjust to their roster.

For LeBron’s first seven seasons with the Cavs, he mainly used his freak athleticism to dive-bomb into the paint and rack up assists and rebounds along the way. While in my Miami, with the realization he would be playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron polished his spot-up shooting and developed an offense with his back to the basket. In terms of points-per-possession, only five players were more effective in the post last season. He is one of the smartest and most aware players in the NBA and will certainly work to fit in with his new teammates.

Kevin Love’s adjustments may not have helped much in his team’s success, but they can’t go unnoticed. During his rookie year with the Wolves, Love sparingly stretched out beyond the three-point line and mainly banged down low. But with the insertion of Nikola Pekovic, an old-school low-post center, and a lack of perimeter shooting from his teammates, Love gradually started to take more shots from outside and stretch the floor.

By last season, he hoisted a league-leading 229 shots from the left wing three-point area. How many did he shoot in his first season? Four. While in Cleveland, Love may be needed more down low as a rebounder rather than a primary scoring threat, but he has proven that he has the basketball IQ and ability to find his role.

Even though Irving has been an All-Star and went on to win last year’s All-Star Game MVP, he still has a long way to go in developing his game. Unlike LeBron and Love, who have honed their skills to the point where they can adjust their play when necessary, Kyrie simply needs to focus on improving and becoming a more efficient point guard—rather than modifying his skills based on his teammates’ strengths. Fortunately, he has two teammates ready to help make the game easier for him.

(One major adjustment they all must make is in their shooting symmetry. All three players prefer the left side, especially Love and LeBron on the left block. Head coach David Blatt and his staff will undoubtedly construct some creative sets to balance the offense.)

This could be bad for Love because: he might become the “third banana” and scapegoat if his new team struggles—especially on defense.

As a professional athlete, forcing a team to trade you often results in bad blood and plenty of scrutiny. Love had seen enough mediocre years in Minnesota and couldn’t bear another season of it. By taking matters into his own hands and declaring he would only play for certain teams, Love placed a target on his back.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor already decided to take a shot at that target with his “third banana” comment, and even though it might have been unnecessary and unprofessional, Taylor might have a valid point.

Irving and James are both creators and need the ball in their hands to do the most damage. They will have trouble between themselves trying to find the right balance. Love did average a career-high 4.4 apg last season (more proof of his adjustability), but he will no longer have the offense run through him on a play-to-play basis. He has a good chance of being forced to settle into a Chris Bosh, No. 3 option-type role.

Not only might he be forced to take on a smaller role than he wants, if the Cavs can’t live up to their “Championship or bust” expectations in the next few years, many fingers will start pointing to the player who couldn’t win in Minnesota either. Beyond simply wins and losses, if the defense struggles to the extent many people expect it to, the interior big man who doesn’t like to foul inside or provide much resistance would likely shoulder most of the blame.

Blatt should be able to use his accredited creativity to cover up his team’s weaknesses and exploit their strengths while LeBron glues the pieces together. This star-studded team might generate strong chemistry faster than most people think. But don’t be surprised if Love faces a new set of problems early on.

This gives Wiggins a better environment for the start of his career because: he has no one’s shadow to play under.

Before LeBron made his re-decision, the Warriors looked to be the frontrunners to obtain Love. Even afterward, the Bulls made a push to replace Boozer with Minnesota’s power forward. If by chance Love had been dealt elsewhere, Wiggins would have most likely stayed in Cleveland and played alongside (or behind) LeBron James.

It seems like this would have given James the chance to take Wiggins under his wing and act as his veteran teacher. When it comes to developing young players into NBA superstars, though, the best experience of late seems to be purely experience.

What mentor did LeBron have? How about Melo, Rose or Durant? All these players went through some rough patches as their respective teams endured plenty of losing and first-round Playoff exits. But looking at these players now, they all used that time to learn on their own and find their place in the League—without the presence of a star mentor.

Instead of joining a team that would have needed him to play at an elite, defensive level right off the bat, Wiggins can go through plenty of growing pains in Minnesota alongside his similarly maturing teammates. They can grow together with Wiggins learning to lead the way in the process, and in the long run, this might be one of the best initial scenarios for the No. 1 pick.

This is risky for the Sixers because: constantly giving away quality players for assets and potential will eventually start to hurt the future they are building toward.

As already discussed, Hinkie clearly has a clear method to his madness and envisions plenty of dividends down the line.

But how long can he continue to trade something for nothing until it does more damage than build hope?

When each of Hinkie’s moves is looked at exclusively, it’s easy to see his reasoning with an understanding of his end game. But when all of these little transactions are looked at collectively, it starts to become debatable if this bizarre plan is worth it.

In the past two years, Hinkie traded Young, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen for a 2015 first-round and second-round pick, two 2014 second-rounders, Alexey Shved (a salary dump) and Luc Mbah a Moute (a friend for Joel Embiid). Ouch.

Furthermore, Hinkie is assuming his young core consisting of Michael-Carter Williams, Dario Saric, Nerlens Noel and Embiid will turn into a mirror image of the OKC Thunder and blossom into a young, elite core ready to sign hefty contracts and fill up all the cap space the GM is leaving bare. The problem is this is in no way a fail-safe plan and rarely pans out the way the front office envisions. Thunder GM Sam Presti was fortunate in drafting four stars with no duds along the way. They are the exception to the rule—not the standard.

So until all these future draft picks, injured centers and international athletes turn into serviceable basketball players, Sixers fans must continue to hope for the best. And plenty of luck.

The Cavs won this trade because: they have the best and earliest chance to accomplish what all these teams hope to eventually do.

The obvious and sought-after goal for any professional sports team at any level is to win a Championship. Managers and owners take different approaches, and they all take a certain amount of time to develop. Some never come to fruition while others diverge from the main path.

The Wolves and Sixers have laid out a path to eventually compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy; however, the Cavs’ road looks to be less winding with a much more direct course. By trading for Love, the Cavs launched their 2014-15 team from the upper echelon of their conference to the very top.

They now have four starters that can knock down the deep ball, four starters with quality court vision and four starters that can create their own shots. They are the first team in NBA history to acquire two players who ranked in the top five in total points in the previous season. They have a legitimate shot to bring the city of Cleveland the Championship they have been craving for nearly 50 years.

Previously in 2013-14 offseason:
Court Changes: Lance Chooses Charlotte
Court Changes: Thomas Joins the Young Suns
Court Changes: Dallas Adds Another Chandler
Court Changes: Pau Gasol Heads to Chi-Town
Court Changes: Return of the King
Court Changes: Tyson Returns to Big D