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Cleveland or Minnesota: Wiggins in Limbo

As rumors continue to swirl regarding a potential trade that could send Andrew Wiggins to Cleveland, we examine the situation from all sides.

On June 26 Andrew Wiggins was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is uncertain if that will be his final rookie destination.
On June 26 Andrew Wiggins was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is uncertain if that will be his final rookie destination.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest sports news this summer is undoubtedly LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. This has led to the biggest watch for Kansas fans, and that is whether former Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins will be part of a package of players and picks sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a trade to acquire Kevin Love. This story and debate is so multifaceted, so divisive. Analyzing the scenarios doesn’t really provide a consensus on whether this is a good deal, for Cleveland or for Wiggins. But let’s give it a look.

Setting the stage

First, let’s examine where the two teams are. On the one hand you have the Cavs. This is a team with a lot of young, promising pieces surrounding LeBron, who just returned to Cleveland after a four year stint in Miami. LeBron will turn 30 during this next NBA season. The Cavs play in a weak Eastern conference in which just adding him has transformed them into one of the favorites to advance to the Finals next year. While LeBron had cautioned fans to not expect a championship next year - that the team is not ready, that it will be a process - there also seems to be a sense of urgency to maximize the years of his prime that he has left. There’s also a worry that perhaps his short two year deal (with a player option for the second year) could be more than just a brilliant economic play by James (most feel the deal is short to provide him the opportunity to sign another contract in two years when the cap and max contract figures go up), and that despite the urging of patience from LeBron himself, he may decide to leave if management is not putting him in a position to win sooner rather than later. Enter Kevin Love.

On the other hand you have the T-Wolves, a team lacking sufficient talent to even make the playoffs in a stacked Western conference. They have one of probably the top 10 players in the league in Kevin Love. No one really doubts how good Love has been, and he is coming off a career year in which he averaged 26.1 ppg, 12.5 rpg, and 4.4 apg. Those stats are eye-popping! But Love has told the team that he will become a free agent after this season, and he will by all accounts sign elsewhere once the opportunity is available. Thus the team can’t build around him, and so they are faced with trading him this season or getting nothing for him should he leave via free agency. Prior to LeBron returning to the Cleveland, the frontrunners to land Love in a trade was Golden State. However, Golden State was previously unwilling to part with Klay Thompson, so talks stalled. Enter the Cavaliers.

Understanding the sides

Cleveland would understandably prefer to keep Wiggins and acquire Love. Initial talks did not include the Cavs offering Wiggins, but rather names such as Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. However, only 4 days after taking the stance that they weren’t trading Wiggins, it was reported that they were now willing to include him if that was what was required to obtain Love. Adding Love would automatically create another "Big 3" grouping in Cleveland, along with James and all-star point guard Kyrie Irving. That much star power in the East is tough to beat. Just ask the 2010-2014 Miami Heat.

Minnesota, and in particular team President, coach, and part owner Flip Saunders, can’t come away from a deal with Cleveland without Wiggins. Waiters, Bennett, Tristan Thompson, etc. are nice additions to a deal involving Love, but the centerpiece has to be Wiggins. While more times than not the team trading away the established star is not going to get fair value in return, they also can’t afford to just give him away. Should they not be able to pry Wiggins from Cleveland, they’d be better off approaching Golden State again about Thompson, who is a better player than anyone else Cleveland would be willing to offer (and who, according to some reports, Minnesota actually prefers). In short, offering Wiggins is the only way the Cavs can trump the Warriors in bidding for Love’s services. Now so far the Warriors have been fairly firm in their stance that they will not trade Thompson, but that was before the Cavs entered the mix. It is unclear if they would reconsider now that they are not the frontrunners without Thompson in the deal, but there have been reports of a fractured front office and that some executives are now pushing to include him in any offers.

The case, from Cleveland’s perspective, to trade Wiggins for Love

It’s difficult to understand the Cleveland sports culture without living there; without breathing it in everyday. But here’s what you need to know – Cleveland is a proud sports town that is currently experiencing a 50 year championship drought from their professional sports teams. The 1964 Cleveland Browns, led by running back Jim Brown, were the last Cleveland franchise to reach the mountain top. To be the guy to end that streak - be it a player, a GM, an owner, etc – is all that matters.…championship. And to do that, you pull out all the stops, especially if you’re close. And again, the Cavs are close.

What you can’t afford to do is miss out on a second window of opportunity with LeBron James. Whether that window shuts because he ages out of his prime or because he leaves again, it just can’t happen. Speaking to the former scenario, James has a lot of games and minutes on him. A decline doesn’t appear likely anytime soon, but we did just witness Dwyane Wade seem to age at an accelerated rate the past two seasons in Miami. LeBron witnessed it first hand.

So really what it boils down to in this win and win now climate that hovers over the Cavaliers franchise is whether they feel Andrew Wiggins is going to improve enough, and if he’ll do so quickly enough, to give them a better chance of winning a championship during this window than Kevin Love does. Potential is nice. Building for the future is nice. But it takes a back seat to winning that elusive ring. Wiggins has an incredibly high ceiling due to his physical gifts. His athleticism, quickness, vertical leap, wingspan, etc. all add up to someone with maybe a higher ceiling than anybody in the league short of LeBron. But right now the space from reality to that ceiling is filled with potential. What if Wiggins never improves his ball handling, or his jump shot remains inconsistent, or if he settles into a pattern of disappearing from games? If the Cleveland front office fails to make this trade and Wiggins doesn’t become a superstar (and fast), they may all be run out of town. Kevin Love is a proven commodity. And when that proven commodity is as good as Love has been, it trumps potential every time.

As to Love specifically, many project that his game is the perfect complement to LeBron. He is a jump shooter who will space the floor, allowing James room to drive the lane. He is an excellent rebounder, providing a welcome boost for a mediocre rebounding team. And many are giddy envisioning the Wes Unseld-esque outlet passes that Love is famous for.

Something else to consider in all of this is that Wiggins was not the Cavaliers’ first choice. He was never "their guy." They appeared set to draft Joel Embiid before his foot injury was discovered. Even after the Embiid injury, there was no consensus. They were torn between Jabari Parker and Wiggins. Now Wiggins is one heck of a consolation prize, but given this perhaps it is easier to see where Cleveland wouldn’t have a terribly difficult time parting with him.

The case, from Cleveland’s perspective, to keep Wiggins

In the aftermath of watching LeBron take his talents to South Beach in 2010, the Cavaliers spent the better part of the last 4 seasons tanking. They landed the #1 overall pick in the draft 3 of the past 4 years (thank you draft lottery), and have stockpiled a lot of talented young players as well as an abundance of future first round draft picks. And now the best player in the league has returned. So why not look to reap the benefits of all that youth? In the letter to SI LeBron talked about wanting to be a mentor to the young players. Who better than Wiggins to mentor? LeBron could be Jordan to Wiggins as Scottie Pippen.

We also haven’t seen this team on the court. We haven’t seen how LeBron will coexist with Irving, Bennett, Waiters, and Wiggins. So why the rush? It could be that Wiggins is perhaps a more perfect fit with LeBron than Love is. By all accounts, Wiggins will step on the court day one and be a plus defender on the perimeter. Throughout his career LeBron has almost always been tasked with guarding the other team’s best player. Wiggins could provide some relief in this respect. Want to stave off aging decline? Allowing James to take a breather on one end of the court could be just what the doctor ordered to prolong the years of his prime. All of this is in stark contrast to Love, who while not on a perimeter defender, is regarded by most to be a sub-standard defender. So the Cavs’ defense immediately takes a hit in a Wiggins for Love exchange.

A final reason to keep Wiggins is financial flexibility. Because of the abundance of youth and some creative contracts, the Cavs have the ability to add multiple reasonably priced pieces over the next few years. If they’re looking for big man help maybe someone like Kenneth Faried or Marc Gasol. If they acquire Love, however, most of that financial flexibility likely goes out the window (assuming Love agrees to an extension prior to the trade, something Cleveland would almost certainly demand lest they outrageously overpay for a one year rental). In conjunction with this, how much of the current Cavs’ roster would be gutted by trading for Love? The Timberwolves are already demanding more than Wiggins, Bennett, and a first round pick. So say the Cavs have to add Waiters or Thompson. In this scenario, they are left to fill out their roster with a bunch of low-end players at the minimum contracts. We just saw a "Big 3" and no bench Miami Heat team dismantled by the Spurs in the NBA finals, and one of the reasons was that Greg Popovich was getting production up & down his bench. Erik Spoelestra, on the other hand, was experimenting with starting line-up combinations throughout the series because his roster was that thin. Maybe adding Love in his prime is worth it, but if they wait a year they retain Wiggins and have options – which would potentially be the best of both worlds.

The best scenario for Wiggins is…

Impossible to determine. In Cleveland, he would be able to focus on the parts of his game he does well – defending and getting out in transition – while working on the parts of his game that need improving. He could let his offensive game come to him naturally, as opposed to forcing it. He could learn from one of the all-time greats. I could envision a Kwahi Leonard type of career arc, where he is surrounded by other great players yet is being groomed to be the face of the franchise. And he’d be in a position to win right away, something that is seldom the case for #1 overall picks.

However, it could be that playing for a team like Minnesota is exactly what he needs to push him to stardom. Perhaps playing the third cog behind Irving & James in Cleveland would stymie his development. If he is in fact the next great generational talent as he was dubbed coming out of high school, it might be impossible to reach his full potential while deferring to other players. Going to Minnesota and having it be his team - learning how to win, how to lead - could be the perfect recipe for success.

Personally, I’m a little more fearful of him going to Minnesota. To be drafted by an up-and-coming Cleveland team, to being on that same team plus the best player in the league, to being shipped off to the talent-bereft wasteland in Minnesota is probably a little disheartening. And while I don’t know much about Cleveland head coach David Blatt, I’m even more skeptical of Flip Saunders’ ability to maximize Wiggins’ talents. Regardless of situation, one thing not to be discounted is that at the end of the day Wiggins has the most control over whether he is successful or not. It can be done whether he’s in Minnesota or Cleveland. Consider Michael Jordan having to carry the Bulls for several years before finally breaking through in ’91. Or consider Kobe, coming off the bench his first two years with the Lakers and playing along side other established stars. Tim Duncan had the torch passed to him by David Robinson. Durant struggled his first year in Seattle. There is no one lone path to greatness. Here’s to hoping Andrew Wiggins finds his.