Wolves waited out a prime return in Wiggins, Bennett with Love trade
After months of weighing trade offers and a month more of pretending that a deal had not yet been finalized as to abide league rules, the Timberwolves have finally traded away Kevin Love. The return package features the promise of youth in relative clarity. Rather than net a lottery pick subject to the odds, Minnesota gets Andrew Wiggins -- the top pick of the 2014 draft -- at the absolute beginning of his NBA career. Instead of landing an ambiguous draft selection to be named, the Wolves were able to appraise and aim for Anthony Bennett, himself the first overall pick in 2013. Completing the package (via Philadelphia's inclusion) is Thaddeus Young, who at 26 is a known quantity and a still-maturing product.
In all, this was a triumph against circumstance. Rarely does the trading of a superstar end so well for a team pressured to deal him, as was shown in past trades involving Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. The single best player to come out of any of those deals to this point is likely Utah's Derrick Favors -- a good-not-great big man set to enter his fifth NBA season. Wiggins alone has the potential to be a cut above that standard not to mention the value that could be wrung from a Bennett resurgence or a successful stint by Young. The liquidation of any superstar for assets requires a sacrifice in security, and in that the Wolves are no exception. The quality of these particular wagers, though, suggests this could be the finest return yet in the modern age of star-engineered exits.
That potential exists in part due to the relative lack of mobility afforded to rookie-scale players. Upon coming into the NBA, first-round picks like Wiggins negotiate within a small window of contract terms. There is some slight wiggle room in salary and the like, though the structure of the deal for any first round pick is non-negotiable: Its two guaranteed seasons are followed by two years of team options. After those four years, the team then has the ability to channel the player into restricted free agency, in which any offer sheet can be matched. What the Wolves have acquired then is not just talent but the means to control it. Whereas Love facilitated his own exit with the threat of his unrestricted free agency, Wiggins (and Bennett) won't be able to wield such power for years. Minnesota may not have the luxury of following up a 10-year playoff dry spell with an extended rebuild, but the particular players added do, in their own way, buy the Wolves time.
To its credit, Minnesota came to this particular package by waiting out less compelling offers. Reports of Love's disenchantment with the Wolves have been bubbling for years, but only came to a boil earlier this summer with indication that the All-NBA forward had requested a trade. There was then opportunity for Minnesota to build a deal around the draft itself, giving the franchise the flexibility to pursue the players it coveted among this year's rookie class. Instead, the Wolves waited. Talks then sparked with Golden State, only to fizzle when the Warriors refused to include Klay Thompson -- whom Minnesota president Flip Saunders reportedly demanded in exchange for Love. Again, the Wolves waited. They reportedly entertained offers from the likes of the Bulls and the Celtics among others, none of which stuck.
LeBron James' decision to return to the Cavaliers then brought a new team to market. Wiggins and Bennett were valuable pieces to Cleveland, but with LeBron's arrival came a shift in urgency and focus. Both former No. 1 picks were made expendable if they could bring the right kind of return -- one eventually found in the disgruntled Love. With that, this trade is less an exchange of equivalent talent and more a balancing of both teams' respective timelines. A Minnesota team without Love has every reason to play the long game, just as a Cleveland team with James needs to prioritize his remaining years as the best basketball player alive.
Both teams come away from such a deal with those objectives tended. Minnesota, though, did so against competing motivations and at something of a disadvantage. Having so many teams interested in Love did allow the Wolves to play to patience in the marketplace, yet the fact that Love could become a free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season both urged his departure and complicated its terms. Minnesota rolled through it all, and came out the other side of the summer with reason to be hopeful in this saga's resolution.