After months and months of what felt like never-ending speculation the Minnesota Timberwolves finally made the seemingly correct choice of agreeing to trade three-time All-Star Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future first-round pick. In a vacuum, getting the last two No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft along with a future first-round pick for a player that you could lose for nothing next summer is a major win for your organization. (Especially when you look at the hauls the Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder got in return after dealing a star player.)
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not some brilliantly orchestrated plan that Flip Saunders — who has more power in the state of Minnesota than the Governor, I think — pulled off getting Wiggins, Bennett and another first-round pick. It was mostly luck (a certain Akron native coming back home kind of changed the trade landscape for Love), but history tells us you really need that to be successful in the NBA. Luck isn’t the end-all-be-all factor in creating a championship culture; you need a long-term plan, and you have to stick to it.
It’s really remarkable how quickly everything can change in the NBA; nobody thought LeBron was leaving Miami a couple of months ago, but the King returned home. (As well done as The Decision 2.0 was, I still don’t think LeBron leaves if Miami beats San Antonio or gets Kyle Lowry.) But that decision by King James drastically changed the landscape of not only the Eastern Conference but the NBA as a whole; the Cavs went from one of the league’s biggest question marks for next season with all of their young, top-draft picks to a favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals next year.
The Cavs had one of those great problems that every NBA franchise would kill to have; play it safe and be a guaranteed top-4 seed in the East for the next five to 10 years or say screw it and mortgage your future for a real shot at a championship now. New Cavs GM LeBron James saw the writing on the wall — all 33,276 of them — and decided the best course of action is to trade for current top-12 player, Love, and part with a potential top-12 player in Wiggins. Either way, the Cavs couldn’t lose because making either decision made sense; most NBA GMs don’t have that luxury of literally not being able to come out on the wrong end of a potential deal. (Maybe one day, Billy King.) That was the case with the proposed Love-for-Wiggins swap.
Do we want to seriously contend now or seriously contend later? Hmmm.
I can’t stress enough how rare of a situation this was for the Cavs, but for the Wolves, too. Emperor of Minnesota, Flip, has potentially gotten a better haul for Love than Masai Ujiri (Denver), Rob Hennigan (Orlando) and Sam Presti (Oklahoma City) got for their stars. (You could also make the case Flip had less leverage in negotiations for Love than Ujiri, Hennigan and Presti had for Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and James Harden, respectively.) How does this happen? How does a guy who named himself head coach after a long, drawn out coaching search pull of such a great trade? The answer is simple — and not satisfying in the slightest — he got really lucky.
Flip has come out of this Love-for-Wiggins deal looking like a million bucks, because he should, he just nabbed one of the best trade coups for a player who was leaving the following summer anyway. But less than two months ago the trade market for Love looked like this via CBS Sports:
I continue to get strong signals that the Celtics are trying hard to use pick No. 6 and 17 along with future No. 1s and young players such as Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk to persuade the Minnesota Timberwolves to trade them Kevin Love. One source close to the Wolves said that while Flip Saunders does not want to trade Love, he realizes the team likely will lose him this summer and the package the Celtics are offering is probably the best he’s going to get. Given the strength of the draft, picks 6, 13 and 17 could land them three young starters to help them rebuild their roster quickly.
Flip went from begrudgingly accepting a lackluster Boston Celtics offer — I think I’ve seen this movie before — to acquiring the No. 1 pick in the last two NBA drafts along with a future first-round pick. Flip didn’t foresee the trade market drastically shifting like it did, nor could he have, because nobody saw LeBron going back to Cleveland coming.
In an alternate universe where LeBron re-ups with Miami, even after getting eviscerated by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, that leaves the Golden State Warriors and the Celtics as the only remaining, realistic trading partners for the Wolves; either take the Celtics’ pupu platter or text back and forth with the Warriors’ front office for the next six months trying to get them finally include Klay Thompson in a deal for Love. Neither of these options were that appealing for Flip, but more importantly, how would you sell either of those deals to a fanbase that already has no faith in the direction of your team? Simple answer: You couldn’t. (LeBron may have inadvertently saved Minnesota basketball for the next decade plus. This guy may be more powerful than we imagined!)
Still, you have to give Flip credit for not agreeing to a lackluster deal for his star forward. However, if LeBron doesn’t write that letter a month ago, do you think Flip continues to hold out for a better deal to come along or does he just stop accepting ESPN Trade Machine links from Bob Myers of the Warriors that don’t include Thompson and accept the Celtics draft-pick package? I tend to lean the latter — especially when you revisit the Love trade landscape prior to LeBron’s homecoming — but it doesn’t matter because things played out in Minnesota’s favor for the first time since Sam Cassell was a relevant NBA player. That has to count for something, right?
Typically, when a team trades their star player they elect to go through a full-on rebuild. But the Wolves’ don’t operate that way; if you look back at the last sentence in the article I linked to earlier in this column you’ll see the words “quickly” and “rebuild” — an approach that leads to more GM firings than the “win-now” approach. You simply can’t expedite the rebuilding process or winning a championship right away either. Not much is guaranteed in the NBA, but teams who skip steps in the rebuilding process seem to fall right back into the same vicious cycle; not bad enough to get the right young players and not good enough to be a contender.
Enter Thaddeus Young.
It’s hard to feel bad for a guy making millions of dollars playing the game he loves, but Young has been dealt such a raw deal these past couple of years that you can’t help but feel for the man. What the Philadelphia 76ers are doing is smart, but for above-average role players like Young it just doesn’t seem humane to make them go through that long-term rebuild when they could be playing crucial minutes for a contender elsewhere. Young’s game would be a nice addition for a lot of contenders — Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors all come to mind — but notice the Timberwolves didn’t come to mind.
That’s because the other proposed deal involving Bennett-for-Young is counterintuitive for the Wolves’ long-term plan. When you trade away a top-12 player in his prime for a 19-year-old potential phenom you’re essentially punting the next three-to-five seasons to build something special and long-lasting. Flipping Bennett for more picks is one thing (and understandable), flipping Bennett for an above-average role player in his prime who will sign elsewhere next summer is another (not understandable).
Swallowing the tough pill of being terrible for a half a decade is a really tough pill to swallow, one I don’t think Flip really wants to swallow. No veteran coach wants to coach a young, inexperienced team in the Western Conference for that kind of time, so it’s easy to see why Flip is operating the way he has been all summer. He’s playing two roles — head coach and president of basketball ops — POBO Flip sees the value in trading for Wiggins and going through an actual rebuild, but HC Flip doesn’t want to go through that so adding Young is quite appetizing.
This dilemma is just the first installment of the inevitable POBO Flip versus HC Flip that’s sure to take place through at least the entire 2014-15 NBA season. POBO Flip lucked into Wiggins and hope, but he can lose the latter quite abruptly if Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor allows Flip to continue to wear all of those metaphorical hats.