Flip Saunders played the Kevin Love situation right, which is a weird thing to say considering the Timberwolves have gone out of their way to screw things up since acquiring the forward back on draft night in 2008. Imagine Love paired with Steph Curry instead of Jonny Flynn, or DeMarcus Cousins instead of Wesley Johnson. Picture Love less than halfway through a five-year max contract instead of the four-year deal with the option looming after this season.
The Wolves won 56 games -- total -- during Love's first three years in the NBA, which still gets held against him when people cite his career record in Minnesota. When he finally did assert himself under Rick Adelman's tutelage, then-GM David Kahn needlessly antagonized his budding star by short-changing him on his first extension. All of which led to the current predicament that could have been easily avoided if only a handful of things had been done correctly.
Trading superstars has historically been fraught with peril and Saunders' process played out fitfully. The Bulls and Rockets turned their attention toward free agency. The Celtics thought they had a chance at one point, but talks cooled leading up to the draft and there wasn't much, if any, momentum the rest of the summer.
The Warriors refused to deal Klay Thompson, a classic shooting guard whose scoring numbers and defensive reputation have transformed him from nice piece of the puzzle to apparently untouchable. So, Love was left in limbo and it was worth wondering if Saunders had drastically overplayed his hand.
Andrew Wiggins changes everything. One of the best athletes in the draft, he has the potential to become a dynamic two-way player. Given his age (19) and contract status (rookie), he's exactly the kind of young talent a team losing a star player should focus their rebuilding effort around.
The much-discussed deal can't be completed until later this August and there may be other stray pieces here and there, but the reported principals include Wiggins, last year's top pick Anthony Bennett and a protected first rounder going to Minnesota. Yahoo! reported that Love will opt out of his deal after next season and sign a five-year max extension with the Cavs.
Bennett suffered through a horrific rookie season but looked like a different player in Las Vegas. It's a tad disingenuous to make a big deal out of the fact that Love brought back the last two No. 1 overall picks when no other team had Bennett at the top of their draft board. Still, he was at the very least a lottery talent whose shooting will be a welcome addition in Minnesota, if he's not dealt elsewhere.
Credit LeBron James with orchestrating things behind the scenes or credit Saunders for waiting for the trade market to finally blink. It may have been part happy accident, part master plan, but Saunders finally found a talent worthy of dealing his superstar.
Wiggins would have been in an ideal situation playing between LeBron and Kyrie Irving where he and James would have been a menace defensively and his offensive game could have had time to develop. It's popular to suggest that Wiggins could become the next Scottie Pippen, which is a hell of a thing to give up, yet it's worth remembering that it took Paul George three years to reach a comparable level and LeBron doesn't have three years.
With George's injury and Lance Stephenson's defection from Indiana, there's opportunity in the East and the trio of Irving/LeBron/Love is frightening offensively. At the very least the Cavs have to be considered co-favorites along with the Bulls.
Even as he goes from budding contender to team in transition, Wiggins will be under pressure in Minnesota where he will have the burden of replacing an All-Star on a team that has underachieved the last two seasons. This is a franchise that has already been decimated by one superstar trade -- Kevin Garnett in 2007 -- and would rather be competitive than blown apart.
There's talent here, but the roster is weighed down by too many ill-fitting veteran players on longish deals. Saunders had hoped to clear up some of that contractual logjam by attaching Kevin Martin or J.J. Barea to trade scenarios, but that seems unlikely now. That's the one drawback to this deal from Minnesota's side.
As for the Cavs, acquiring Love is not without some risk. Once he signs his extension, they will have three max players in LeBron, Love and Irving and the latter two have well-chronicled defensive issues. (Overblown issues to a degree in Love's case.) Yet, somewhere during this whole drawn-out process, we've lost sight of the fact that Love is an immensely talented player.
His reputation took a beating this summer to the point where he's been treated like a faux star, piling up huge numbers for little gain with a sieve-like attention to defense who never made anyone better. That's a drastically unfair characterization. Love is not KG, a Great with a capital-G player who immediately found championship validation after leaving Minnesota, but he's still really good.
The list of players who have averaged better than 26 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists starts with Elgin Baylor, includes Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and ends with Kevin Love. To his detractors those statistics are hollow tokens, no more real or validating than say, Chris Bosh's numbers with the Raptors. Yet, they underscore the rare abilities of a 25-year-old about to enter his prime.
The best option for Saunders would have been figuring out a way to pacify Love, while tweaking the rest of the roster to make a run at the playoffs. That's what the Blazers did with LaMarcus Aldridge and they now have a budding 50-win team and a happy star.
With their habit of blowing fourth quarter leads, the Wolves actually profiled more like a 48-win team than the 40-42 team that staggered through the second half of the season. Even if everything broke exactly right, that still may not have been possible in the hyper-competitive West. So, Saunders did the next best thing by acquiring a potential star to replace the one he's giving up. Well-played, Flip.