Grades: Cavaliers come up aces in building their Big 3
LeBron James' latest "Big Three" finally formed on Saturday, when the Timberwolves traded All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cavaliers in exchange for 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett in a three-team trade that also involved the Sixers.
As part of the deal, Philadelphia will send Thaddeus Young to Minnesota in exchange for Miami's 2015 first-round pick from Cleveland, plus guard Alexey Shved and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute from Minnesota. Young ($9.4 million), Shved ($3.3 million) and Mbah a Moute ($4.4 million) are all in the final years of their current contracts, while Wiggins ($5.5 million in 2014-15) and Bennett ($5.6 million in 2014-15) are on rookie contracts.
The trade proposal, which began percolating shortly after James announced his decision to leave the Heat and return to the Cavaliers in July, was put on hold this summer, because NBA rules mandate that recently signed draft picks cannot be traded for 30 days. Cleveland announced the signing of Wiggins, one of the most hyped draft prospects in recent years, on July 24, paving the way for Saturday's official announcement.
Here's a breakdown of the agreement, which realigns the balance of power in the Eastern Conference while also ending a forgettable era in Minnesota, from all sides.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
Welcome to your wildest dreams, Cavaliers fans.
Cleveland's "Big Three" in 2013 included Andrew Bynum getting suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, Mike Brown getting fired after one season in which he was completely ignored by his players and Dion Waiters mysteriously disappearing briefly amid talk of a locker room fist fight. Now, that rock-bottom dysfunction and a disappointing 33-win season have been replaced by the league's premier trio in James (four-time MVP, 10-time All-Star), Love (three-time All-Star) and Irving (two-time All-Star).
Even though he endured six seasons without a single postseason appearance in Minnesota, the 25-year-old Love may very well be the best teammate James has ever had (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh included). Last season, Love averaged 26.1 points (No. 4 in the NBA) and 12.5 rebounds (No. 3), and he ranked third overall in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Wins Above Replacement Players, trailing only Kevin Durant and James in all three metrics. A gifted power forward who is equally comfortable pounding the glass and spotting up to shoot three-pointers, Love's intelligence and passing ability will get a chance to shine now that James will be on the other end of his handiwork. "Outlet City" doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "Lob City," but Love's bullet passes, James' freight train skills in the open court and Irving's end-to-end speed together represent a terrifying proposition, particularly in the weaker Eastern Conference.
Conventional wisdom in June dictated that returning to Miami represented James' best shot at making a fifth straight trip to the Finals in 2015. As was the case in 2010, when James surprised most of the basketball intelligentsia by heading to South Beach, the game's premier player was thinking one full step ahead of the pundits. His decision to tap Love as his new running mate required sacrificing a tantalizing future with Wiggins, but it puts the Cavaliers in position to win the East, particularly with the Pacers losing Paul George (leg injury) and Lance Stephenson (signed with the Hornets).
On paper, Cleveland's roster faces the same depth questions that caught up with Miami in 2014, and it's hard to imagine the Cavaliers as currently constructed defeating the Spurs, Thunder or even the Clippers. That's OK, at least for now. With Irving recently inked to a five-year rookie extension and Love eyeing a long-term max extension next summer, Cleveland's major task this summer was to lay the star foundation, and they did so with remarkable swiftness. The Cavaliers will surely spend the next few summers in full-time recruitment mode, hoping to add low-cost vets to their bench and pitching mid-level players on taking a discount to play with James and to compete for a title. That can be a tough task, as Miami learned on the fly, but there are clearly worse problems to have.
Parting with Bennett, a surprise No. 1 overall pick who moved past a nightmare rookie season by putting together a solid Summer League, is of little consequence to the Cavaliers. There was no room for him to develop with James, Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao expected to get the bulk of the frontcourt minutes. The burden of proof is still on the 21-year-old Canadian forward to find an NBA position and produce at a consistent level. Similarly, passing along Miami's first-round pick -- which will likely be in the mid-to-late portions of the draft order -- is a sustainable price. By comparison, the Nets coughed up Derrick Favors and two first-round picks for Deron Williams, while the Magic landed three first-round picks when they traded Dwight Howard to the Lakers.
The major cost is losing Wiggins, 19, a freak athlete who has the potential to be an All-Star and and an All-Defensive selection. Visions of James grooming Wiggins into Scottie Pippen 2.0 will never come to fruition. Set to turn 30 in December and looking to get the most postseason traction out of his remaining prime years, James understandably wanted to cash in a future superstar in Wiggins for a current superstar in Love. Any second-guessing of this move will need to come well down the road, given Wiggins' youth and need to develop his body and his overall offensive game, unless the injury bug nips Love again.
Love's arrival brings with it championship expectations and a giant bullseye from the rest of the league. James knows better than anyone else in the league how to handle extra scrutiny, and the highs and lows of his Miami tenure should serve him and the Cavaliers well over the next few seasons.
Minnesota Timberwolves: B-
Any and all feelings of excitement and elation over the acquisition of Wiggins are totally warranted for Timberwolves fans. The NBA's weakest teams have engaged in all sorts of crazy tanking in recent years in an effort to acquire a No. 1 overall pick caliber player like Wiggins, and Minnesota's long-suffering fan base can enjoy what could be at least nine seasons of a potential superstar with immense physical gifts and off-the-charts likability.
Landing Wiggins how Timberwolves general manager Flip Saunders did amounts to an excellent salvage job as opposed to a clear cut grand slam. Minnesota didn't luck out in the lottery, cashing in free ping pong balls for the rights to Wiggins. Instead, the franchise is losing a top-10 talent in Love, a player entering his prime who had been the centerpiece of years worth of moves in the past. This trade requires a total change of expectations and yet another multi-year rebuilding process. The short-term costs of losing Love will outweigh the benefits received by adding Wiggins for multiple seasons.
That's not all Saunders' fault, of course, and his hands were tied by past moves. Former Timberwolves president David Kahn not only botched multiple lottery picks, he failed to lock Love into a five-year rookie extension that would have given the organization significantly more leverage in its ongoing relationship with Love, who was clearly fed up with years worth of lottery trips. Saunders deserves real credit for snagging Wiggins, who not only has more upside than the centerpieces of other reported trade offers (Klay Thompson, Taj Gibson, etc.) but also has a higher ceiling than the best players included in return packages for superstars in recent years (Favors, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Kevin Martin, etc.). Adding Wiggins gives Minnesota an immediate direction, and that was the single most crucial element of any trade involving Love. Floundering without a foundational piece would have been a cataclysm.
For the Timberwolves, this deal winds up being the equivalent of selling its cherished family heirlooms for a good price at a garage sale. Heirlooms -- Love in this analogy -- should be treated as priceless objects that are held on to for as long as possible. The cash cushions the blow in the short-term, but the realities of parting with Love, like your grandfather's favorite watch or military ribbons, might take weeks, months or even years to fully sink in. This trade not only needs to be the beginning of a new era for the Timberwolves, but a reminder to learn from its past mistakes. The franchise must focus its efforts on helping Wiggins reach his full potential, surrounding him with complementary talent and maintaining a healthy, positive relationship between player and team. That process should begin with a real coaching search, rather than the team president striking out, only to look in the mirror and settle for himself.
The jury remains out on the rest of Minnesota's haul, and Saunders notably failed to unload any long-term salary or accumulate multiple future draft picks (two major goals in any deal involving a superstar). Bennett showed real promise in Las Vegas, but that was in comparison to a rookie year that saw him perform as poorly as virtually any No. 1 overall pick in league history. Multiple advanced stats ranked Bennett among the very worst NBA players, and turning him into the player he is capable of becoming -- a reliable starter -- will require patience, hands-on support, positive reinforcement and meaningful playing time starting immediately.
Young's acquisition is a bit curious. The 26-year-old power forward is a proven veteran capable of filling the minutes void left by Love, even if he can only provide a fraction of the production. Adding Young might help prop up Minnesota in 2014-15, but should that even be a goal? Shouldn't the Timberwolves be in full sell-off mode rather than swimming upstream toward a sub-mediocrity? Saunders had no compelling reason to hang on to either Mbah a Moute or Shved, but wouldn't Minnesota have been better served by simply keeping the first-round pick from Cleveland? Shouldn't Saunders have been able to squeeze in another outgoing contract or incoming draft asset from a three-team deal when he was parting with by far the most valuable individual piece?
It goes without saying that Young's impending free agency makes this even more complicated, as he just suffered through a trainwreck season in Philadelphia and is surely hoping for greener pastures. Minnesota doesn't really offer that any time soon, and it's certainly possible he turns into either a one-year rental or an overpay by Saunders next summer. Either scenario would muddle an ideal long-term plan.
Philadelphia 76ers: A-
Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie has made it abundantly clear he prefers draft picks to non-star veterans, and moving Young for two expiring contracts and a first-round pick neatly fits his worldview. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points and six rebounds, and he somehow managed not to lose his mind as Philadelphia pursued one of the greatest tank jobs of all time. Moving him out this offseason is a favor to Young for his willingness to waste a year of his career and a convenient method for ensuring that Philadelphia is one of the league's worst teams again next season.
As everyone -- including Hinkie -- learned at the trade deadline, acquiring a first-round pick for a player on an expiring contract is extremely difficult, and there was no sense in waiting to pull the trigger on shipping out Young given Philadelphia's grim 2014-15 outlook. Just cash in for the pick and get on with the losing.
At some point, Hinkie will be able to pull together a roster that includes Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and two 2015 first-round picks, which sounds like an excellent core, even if the goal line seems to continually move further and further into the horizon.