A Done Deal: Kevin Love Set to Join LeBron James in Cleveland

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Last Thursday Yahoo! Sports confirmed what many have suspected since the moment LeBron James agreed to return to Northeast Ohio: The Cavaliers will be trading Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett for the services of three-time All-Star Kevin Love. No deal can be finalized until August 23, as draft picks cannot be traded for 30 days after they sign their rookie deals (Wiggins signed his contract on July 24), but the deal has been done in principle.

The Cavaliers will become the league’s newest three-star super team, with Love joining James and point guard Kyrie Irving, while the Timberwolves will hope to rebuild around Wiggins—the team hasn’t made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett led them to the Conference Finals in 2004. Anthony Bennett, 2013’s first overall pick—a player who’s coming off an extremely disappointing rookie campaign—will likely be traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, the third team involved in the transaction, who will send Thaddeus Young to Minnesota in return. 

Bennett has a crucial year coming up. If he’s able to play like he did in Summer League (Summer League is what it is, but he still looked good), he should be able to get his NBA career off the ground. But if he has a sophomore season that resembles his rookie year, he could quickly become a forgotten man.

 

Photo: Adidas/NBA.com; Keith Allison/Flickr/Creative Commons


Winning now vs. waiting on potential
It’s not often that players selected first overall are traded, and it’s even more jarring when they’re traded before they’ve even suited up for their rookie season. The Love-Wiggins deal, therefore, has understandably generated plenty of heated debate in NBA circles. Many have argued that Wiggins is the perfect player to play alongside LeBron and that his development would be greatly accelerated learning from the best in the business. 

It’s a glorified crapshoot to project how rookies are going to fare at the professional level, but Wiggins (in theory) has the tools to be a lock-down perimeter defender who, on offence, can use his athleticism to run the floor and cut to the basket. In an alternate universe where Wiggins remains a Cavalier, developing into a player like Andre Iguodala (a high ceiling, I realize), he certainly would take the pressure off LeBron defensively.

But again, at this point in time we simply don’t know how good Andrew Wiggins is going to be. Players have come into the league with the all the physical tools necessary to excel—the physique, the shooting stroke, a great handle—but, for a multitude of reasons, just don’t pan out. 

But when discussing Wiggins in Cleveland, not panning out wouldn’t be the same as being a bust. It’s just that Cleveland would need Wiggins to be very good right away, and very few rookies can hit the heights of stardom in their first few seasons.

LeBron James is 29, in the prime of his NBA career. He already has two championships to his name, but would want nothing more than to bring a title back to his hometown Cavaliers and writing the ultimate redemption story. But James doesn’t have time to wait for Wiggins to develop into a star. Even if the Toronto native follows a normal trajectory to stardom, he won’t be able to give LeBron the required amount of help for three or four seasons. It’s likely that by the time Wiggins is star, at the cusp of his prime, James will be descending from his.

Enter Kevin Love.

James and Love played together two summers ago for Team USA at the London Olympics. It’s unclear whether the two became good friends at that point, but according to sources around the league, James made it known weeks ago that he wanted to team up with the former UCLA Bruin. It’s important to remember that, at this point in time, not only is James the on-court leader of the Cavaliers, he also functions as a quasi-front office executive. When he speaks, the organization listens. 

It’s very telling, as Bill Simmons has pointed out more than once, that the essay James penned in Sports Illustrated announcing his return to the Cavaliers made no mention of Wiggins or Bennett. The Love deal was probably as good as done at that point.

Unlike Wiggins, Kevin Love is just at the start of his prime—25 years old with at least four or five great years left in him. The All-Star power forward averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game last season, to go along with a PER of 26.9—simply incredible numbers. 

Love is a top-10 player in the NBA and one of the most versatile big men in the game. As well as being an elite rebounder and a great passer (seriously, check out those outlet passes!), Love can score with his back to the basket from mid-range. Most crucially, he can hit threes with frightening consistency. Love averaged 37 per cent from beyond the arc last season and his floor-stretching abilities are an offensive game-changer. Any pick-n-roll he’s involved in next season will be unguardable. 

Love’s detractors, and he has a surprising amount of those, insist that the numbers he put up in Minnesota were mostly meaningless—that he chased stats and was never able to lead his team into the playoffs. It’s hard to argue against the fact that Love’s Timberwolves were very disappointing—he hasn’t made the playoffs once in his six seasons in the NBA—but there have been many contributing factors outside of his control. 

Minnesota’s front office made terrible decisions throughout Love’s tenure, including poor draft pick (Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry is particularly egregious), team building and coaching selections. While there were times last season when Love’s body language was suspect, there was little else that Love could do production-wise. His teammates—a point guard who can’t shoot, a centre who can’t defend the rim—simply weren’t good enough. One man cannot be expected to do everything—see LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland for details. 

The other criticism of Love is that he’s a lazy defender who often pulls out of challenging shots so that he can put himself in a position to snag a rebound and pad his stats. Love isn’t exactly Joakim Noah on defence, that much is true, but he’s not a defensive sieve like David Lee, either. His defensive instincts are generally sound.

A lot of discourse surrounding Love’s defence has irrationally evolved from Love being a mediocre or average defender, to him being a defender that statistically hurts his team. This is simply not true. The Cavaliers will certainly need a rim protector behind Love—it’s unclear if that man is Anderson Varejao—but the Cavaliers aren’t going to lose a championship because of Love’s defence.

Ultimately, the Cavs made a decision—a tough decision—that every team that is trying to win right now should make. They traded away a young player with a ton of potential for a young player (again, Love is just 25) who is an established superstar in the NBA. Love gives the Cavaliers the chance to win now. Andrew Wiggins does not. You make that kind trade every day of the week.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr/Creative Commons


How good are the Cavaliers?
That the Cavs now have the potential to win an NBA title certainly isn’t the same as saying that they will win one, or even that they are the favourites. Love’s arrival in Cleveland certainly makes the Cavs favourites to win the Eastern Conference, however.

The East, although stronger than last year’s crap-fest, is lacking in top-end, elite teams. The middle of the playoff pack—comprised of teams such as the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat—is solid, but other than the Chicago Bulls, there is no team in the East that the Cavaliers should fear. The Bulls, if things go to plan, stand to be very good, but there are plenty of justifiable question marks surrounding Derrick Rose’s health, and the age old question of whether Thibodeau’s team can generate enough offence to win the required 12 playoff games in the East.

In contrast to Chicago, Cleveland’s offence should be electrifying—there’s little doubt about that. LeBron James is a force of nature at that end of the floor—a player who cannot be stopped driving to the rim, and a guy who, since his departure from Cleveland in 2010, has developed quite possibly the deadliest post-up game in the NBA. 

And if teams decide that they have to double James—the best passer out of a double-team in the league—they’ll have to deal with Kevin Love, a player who, as mentioned above, can create his own shot in the paint, and someone who can pull his defender out to the perimeter and take the shot from 25 feet. 

Oh, and don’t sleep on Kyrie Irving either. 

Irving was heavily criticized for his performance last season, and while much of the vitriol was justified—his defence got worse and he feuded with teammates—it’s likely that the former Blue Devil was projecting his frustrations with a highly dysfunctional locker room lacking in leadership. Irving, the team’s best player for the past three seasons, is expected to provide some of that leadership, of course, but in his defence he’s just 22 years old. The Cavs are LeBron James’ team again, and Irving should thrive with the lessened load, on and off the court.

Throughout his career James has never played with a point guard as talented as Irving—a player who can shoot, create his own shot, and pass at a reasonably high level. Many question whether Irving will be able to play off the ball, to cede some of the offensive load to James and Love, but one of the many reasons James decided to return to Cleveland was that in Miami he was required to do too much. James was the primary ball handler, the main creator and the team’s biggest post-up threat.

With the ball in Irving’s hands, James will have the opportunity to play off the ball—to run the floor and to receive the ball in positions that are more advantageous to his team (deep in the post, for example) and his durability. Irving will enable James to save himself for the biggest moments, rather than burn himself out midway through games.

The challenge for the Cavaliers will be building a defence that is championship-calibre. LeBron and Shawn Marion (soon to be a Cav) will shore up the wing, but there are still plenty of holes. The biggest issue defensively is not Kevin Love, but Irving—for the last few seasons his defence has bordered on James Harden-levels of putrid. He’ll need to step up considerably at that end, otherwise coach David Blatt is going to have to put James on the opposition’s point guard for long stretches during the post-season, and that’s far from ideal.

As already mentioned, the other big issue is going to be finding a centre who can properly defend the rim. Varejao has never been that kind of big man. Besides, he’s rarely healthy nowadays. Whatever’s left of the player who once was Brendan Haywood won’t be much better either. 

The Cavaliers’ flaws aren’t going to be glaringly evident against the East—a lot of their deficiencies will be masked against the flawed teams in that conference. It’s in the Finals—which they will be expecting to make in the coming season—where they could get seriously exposed against one of the juggernauts coming out of the West. Don’t forget: the 2014 Miami Heat, a flawed team, cruised through the Eastern Conference playoffs, only to be obliterated by the San Antonio Spurs.

That said, the Cavaliers, with three genuine stars on the roster, are lightyears ahead of where they were at this time last year. If they want to win an NBA title, they will certainly have to address some of their issues; however, they’d much rather deal with those problem than agonize over whether the team’s good enough to win 40 games and snag the eighth seed, which is what last season’s Cavaliers had to deal with.

 

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports


Wiggins and the Wolves 
If the Minnesota Timberwolves—a team that will be entering into rebuilding mode after losing their best player—snag the eighth seed in the West this season, the city may celebrate with a parade. 

In a vacuum, the Timberwolves stand to be a very competent and very fun team—they certainly won’t be a conference bottom feeder. However, given the fact that the Western Conference is obscenely tough (the Suns won 47 games last season and it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs), it’s highly unlikely that the Wolves will be making their first playoff appearance in a decade.

This is a trade that both the Cavaliers and Timberwolves emerge from as winners, however. Prior to LeBron rejoining the Cavaliers, the market for Love wasn’t ideal. The teams that Love wanted to be traded to didn’t have a lot of assets to trade, and those with coveted assets were scared off by Love’s unwillingness to sign an extension past 2015. 

The Warriors looked to be favourites initially, but refused to send Klay Thompson to Minnesota in exchange for Love. There’s a chance that the Dubs’ front office would’ve eventually regained their sanity and included Thompson in the package, but having to overpay Thompson, a player who sees himself as of the max variety, is nowhere near as appealing as possessing Wiggins on his rookie contract for four years.

In Wiggins, a 2015 first-round pick and (potentially) Thaddeus Young, the Timberwolves got as good a package as they could’ve hoped for in exchange for a disgruntled superstar who was going to walk for nothing in 2015. In Minnesota, Wiggins has the chance to develop into a star. He’ll be in a small market with no history of recent success and without many of the pressures and expectations that would’ve come with playing alongside LeBron James. If Wiggins can even so much as lead the Wolves to a playoff spot in the next couple years, he’ll be adored by the Minnesota faithful.

Wiggins will also join a team that should be able to complement some of his biggest attributes. The Wolves have a pass-first point guard in Ricky Rubio, as well as young, athletic players—rookie Zach LaVine, Corey Brewer and Gorgui Dieng—who can push the ball and run the floor, ideal for Wiggins. Minnesota has the potential to be one of the more exciting teams in the NBA next season and Wiggins could be at the centre of that.

The Timberwolves could also benefit from Wiggins potentially developing a chip on his shoulder this summer. Wiggins was criticized at Kansas for having too laid back an attitude—for being too passive—but being traded before he was even able to step onto a basketball court, regardless of the circumstances, could create a fire inside of the young Canadian. 

But more than anything—and this often gets lost when we discuss players as though they’re nothing more than pieces on a chessboard—Wiggins will be relieved to put this saga behind him. Earlier this summer, Wiggins told Bram Weinstein on ESPN’s SportsCenter that, “I just want to play for a team that wants me. So whichever team wants me I’ll play for.”

It’s difficult to imagine how disruptive Wiggins’ summer has been. He’s been drafted by the Cavaliers, likely imagined himself playing alongside the greatest player on Earth, before being forced to practice away from the Cavaliers’ training facility as speculation about his future ran rampant—all the while his game (as well as Love’s) has been dissected like a frog in a laboratory. August 23 should come as a relief for Andrew Wiggins.

It should also be a relief for both sets of fans and both organizations. The Cavaliers will move forward with three superstars, looking to win their first NBA title in franchise history, while the Wolves will rebuild with a young, exciting core. The biggest storyline of the summer has come to a close—for now—and both teams should be satisfied with its ending.
 
 
 
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