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The Cavs, Andrew Wiggins and Love That Must Go Unrequited

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kevin love 1

You know what happens when you go to the grocery store hungry?

You arrive with good intentions. You’re there to pick up a few ingredients to throw in that jambalaya you’ve been dying to make ever since you saw Emeril “bam!” his way through the motions on the Cooking Channel a few weeks ago. You like the way the HD captures the close-up look of his flared nostrils when he gets excited about garlic. You finally set aside an afternoon to clean the shrimp, peel the onions, make homemade chicken stock and just generally kick things up a notch.

But to get to the seafood counter and produce and poultry, you have to walk through the bakery. And man, that German chocolate cake looks good. Oh, is that the rotisserie? Wow, they’re roasting whole pork loins on there now? Hey, look, it’s the deli counter! Are those … are those miniature croque monsieurs they’re handing out to shoppers? You don’t mind if I take two? Or three? Of course, ma’am, I’ll be happy to wash those down with a blueberry passion fruit acai peach smoothie that contains enough antioxidants to fell a rhinoceros and is spiked with a little bit of your premium tequila!

Screw the jambalaya. You can make it tomorrow. Or the next day. What matters is you were hungry, and now you’re not. It’s not important that the brioche and pig and gruyere and that buttery, fattening, highly caloric rich, velvety cake and random alien berries and rogue liquor are all floating around in your stomach.

You rolled the dice on glory and gluttony. And the fact that you spent the next 24 hours unable to emerge from the fetal position with a bucket an arm’s length away proves it might not have been the best idea.

Were those first few bites worth it?

*****

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He's not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He’s not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

Kevin Love is not a decadent ham sandwich (though if he were, he would certainly be the Jamón ibérico). He’s a basketball player who is, without question, one of the five or 10 best players in the NBA – an outstanding scorer, a practically unparalleled rebounder, an underrated passer and a phenomenally skilled shooter for someone who stands 6-foot-10.

After the initial shock of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers died down, the logical next question was “How can this team compete RIGHT FREAKING NOW?” LeBron is 29, at the peak of his prime, but he has some serious miles on those tires that have been running non-stop since he was 18. Sometime in the first quarter of the first game of his second stint in Cleveland, he’ll pass the 40,000 minute mark – playoffs included – for his career. Only two players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, have ever topped 60,000. He’s already played more minutes than Isiah Thomas, Dikembe Mutombo and Elgin Baylor. Sometime before Christmas, he’ll pass Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson. He’ll catch Larry Bird shortly after the new year. The two biggest preps-to-pros stars other than James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, are just north of the 54,000-minute mark. Kobe is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee, will be 36 by the time training camp starts and doesn’t seem to have much left. Garnett was pronounced legally dead sometime in late February.

Those precedents would figure to give LeBron, averaging 3,500 minutes per season including what figures to be fairly deep playoff runs, about five more solid years before he hits a wall. But he’s also a completely unique athletic freak of a specimen who has never missed more than seven games in a season. Think back to the most serious injury he’s suffered in his career. Tough, huh? It probably had something to do with this.

Love will be 26 when the 2014-15 season begins. He’s logged 11,933 regular-season minutes in the NBA and 11,933 total minutes because he’s never made the playoffs. That’s not a knock on the first guy to average 26-12-4 since Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76. The best teammate in his seven NBA seasons has been Al Jefferson, for the first two. The second is either Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Fourth and fifth, in all seriousness, are probably Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. Umm…

The concept of a Big Three worked out pretty well for James in Miami. Two championships, four Finals appearances surrounded with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh surrounded by a revolving door of young, inexpensive role players and past-their-prime veterans chasing rings. It just didn’t look particularly promising once Wade and Bosh’s age began to show a bit, and LeBron got out as soon as possible when it did.

The idea sounds great, in theory. Kyrie Irving just signed a five-year extension worth $90 million. He’s 22 and the reigning All-Star Game MVP. LeBron, for all the overwrought calamity drummed up when he ONLY agreed to two-year deal with Cleveland – and with an OPT OUT! – is around for the long haul, according to sources named LeBron James. Throw in Love and there’s a younger, spryer Big Three for James to mold into a championship club.

Love is heading into the third year of a four-year contract that can pay him up to $62 million, but he can opt out after this season and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s made no secret of his desire to get out of Minnesota, and while prevailing wisdom is that the West Coast native had a strong interest in playing somewhere in California, he’s reportedly intrigued by the idea of teaming up with James and Irving on a team that would instantly be the favorite in the Eastern Conference.

The Timberwolves would be fools to let Love walk at the end of next season, so sometime between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline, he’s going somewhere.

As long as the cost is Andrew Wiggins, though, it shouldn’t be Cleveland. Let’s run down the reasons why trading the No. 1 overall pick from an absolutely loaded draft that happened 27 days ago shouldn’t happen.

That smiles fades quickly if Wiggins goes from playing with LeBron and Kyrie to Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

That smile? Probably gone if LeBron and Kyrie become Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

1. ) The Timberwolves don’t have much leverage – and it’s dwindling by the day

Golden State is the other known, serious suitor for Love, and, like Minnesota’s apparent requirement that Wiggins be included in a deal with the Cavs, the Timberwolves want Klay Thompson as part of a Warriors package or else that’s seemingly a no-go. Golden State hasn’t budged, but it has much more reason to do so than Cleveland. Thompson, currently in the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract, is eligible for an extension after next season and wants a max deal that would start at $15.7 million – not far behind what Love would get paid in his new deal. While Thompson is one of the league’s better shooting guards in a league severely lacking at the position, the looming prospect of that hefty extension makes him much more palatable to give up.

The Cavs control Wiggins for the next four years at a total of approximately $22 million. No team has a more valuable asset that it would realistically be willing to offer for Love, and that won’t change in the next seven months. Cleveland can pull out that trump card if it wants, but there’s really no need to. The closer this gets to February, the better a package of Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and one or two first-round picks will look to Minnesota. Is it fair value for Love? No. Is 65 cents on the dollar the best the Timberwolves can hope for the longer this goes? Almost certainly.

2.) Defense

The last eight NBA champions ranked in the top seven in defensive efficiency, and you have to go back to the 2000-01 Lakers to find a team that finished outside the top 10. “Defense wins championships” is a cliché in the NFL, but it’s absolutely true in the NBA. Scoring has spiked in the NFL playoffs by an average of 4.5 points in the last five years compared to the 16-game season. You have to go back 12 years in the NBA to find the last time an average playoff game featured more points than one in the regular season.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Love is a below-average defensive player. There were 108 players who faced at least four shots per game at the rim in 2013-14, and Love’s opponents had the fourth-highest field-goal percentage (57.5) of that bunch. Defensive metrics are still very incomplete, but you don’t need numbers to tell you that Love doesn’t rotate well, provides nothing in the way of rim protection and often seems solely concerned with being in position to rebound.

Wiggins was a defensive stud in his one season at Kansas and was impressive in his four summer league (I know, I know, SUMMER LEAGUE) games with the Cavs, who badly need a defensive presence on the perimeter. Sure, LeBron will help in that regard, but remember that whole “miles on the tires” thing? Forcing him to stay in front of the John Walls and Derrick Roses of the world in crunch time and spending 35 minutes a night on the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is not a way to prolong a career. The trickle-down effect with Wiggins will be palpable. His presence not only gives James a breather on an opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but he can rescue the defensively challenged Irving from having to stay in front of some of the league’s best ball-handlers as well. Cleveland’s defensive efficiency rankings since James left in 2010: 29, 26, 26, 18. His return alone won’t make the Cavaliers a top-10 defensive club immediately, but with Wiggins providing some help, they might get there.

3.) Flexibility

Give up Wiggins for Love and your Big Three is set in stone, assuming Love signs a long-term extension starting at around $20M per year next offseason. That would put the Cavs on the books for nearly $60M committed to just Irving, Love and James in 2015-16, a year in which the salary cap is expected to be around $67M. That number is expected to rise above $80M once money from a new TV deal starts coming in a year later, but Love and James’ salaries could be significantly higher than $20Mish apiece if they continue to choose short-term deals.

Keep Wiggins and the Cavs might even be able to carve out enough space to add a big free agent next offseason in a class that includes Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and, likely, Love himself. If I can trot out Irving, Wiggins, James and one of those three big guys, I’m willing to fill in most of the rest of my roster with guys on veteran minimums chasing rings.

4.) Patience

Two months ago, the Cavs were coming off their fourth straight season finishing well below .500, had legitimate questions about Irving’s long-term future with the franchise, had just watched their other No. 1 overall pick loaf through a disastrous rookie season, had no indication James was serious about returning and were looking at getting the No. 9 pick in the draft. Now Irving is locked up long term, Bennett is in shape and looked like a legitimate NBA rotation player in Summer League (I know, I know), James is back and Cleveland lucked into another No. 1 overall pick and a guy who was one of the most hyped players to enter the draft since James 11 years earlier.

Don’t the Cavs owe it to themselves to watch the pieces they have, even if just for 40 or 50 games? To see what kind of effect James has on Wiggins, Bennett, Thompson and Irving. To see if Wiggins is ready to contribute to a contender now or if he’s really two or three years away from making a big impact. Aside from suffering a serious injury, Wiggins’ stock isn’t going to plummet by the trade deadline. If he plays well, it goes up. If he struggles somewhat, he’s 19.

5.) Bidding against themselves

If Minnesota decides to move Love elsewhere between now and then, it’s not getting a piece that’s more attractive than Wiggins. And if it does deal him, the Cavs should be thankful they didn’t overpay for a player whom the Timberwolves were going to see walk at the end of next season.

The absolute latest rumors surrounding Love have the Bulls entering the mix with a package that includes Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler – fine players, but yawn – and the Nuggets being a possible suitor as well. Denver has nothing on its roster that should be even remotely compelling to Minnesota save for rookie Gary Harris, who would only be one of a few pieces needed to get anything going.

On Monday, the stance was held that the Cavs had not offered Wiggins. On Tuesday, according to some of the most connected national reporters around the league, they all of a sudden were. Sounds to me like the Timberwolves trying to drum up that fleeting leverage that we covered earlier.

Again, look at the suitors. Golden State’s best offer involves David Lee’s albatross contract and Harrison Barnes. Gibson is a solid role player, but he’s 29 and finished 30th in PER last season – among power forwards(!). Butler is a fine defender on the perimeter, but he’s also a shooting guard who can’t shoot. Below is a list of players who shot less than 40 percent over a full season and averaged at least 13 points in the past five years. Butler may need to change his name to JaBrandon Crawfings with a few more of these.

jimmy butler

The Nuggets have nothing but spare parts, most of which are highly paid. The Celtics have a boatload of draft picks, but so do the Cavs. Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders is said to want to acquire pieces to help the team win now should it trade Love, which, in the Western Conference, sounds about as improbable as losing your hair, gaining 50 pounds and then beating a bunch of 27-year-old hedge fund managers who moonlight as romance novel cover boys on The Bachelor.

You don’t offer Channing Tatum when everyone else is coming to the table with David Koechner.

*****

kevin love 2

James isn’t going anywhere. The Cavs fell ass backwards into the services of the best player on Earth and one of the most promising players to enter in the league in the last decade. James figures to age better than Bryant and Garnett, but that’s even more likely to be true if he’s surrounded by a young, talented core that can pick him up and limit his regular-season minutes when he’s 32, 33, 34.

This team can contend for a championship as it’s currently constructed, and although it probably won’t win one in Year One, that’s OK. The Cavs will have a season to see what they need, and then the resources to go out and plug those holes.

Does trading Wiggins, Bennett and draft picks for Love make them a team with a considerably better chance of winning the 2015 NBA title? Probably not. Cleveland is arguably the favorite to win the East as is, and adding Love at the expense of those two isn’t likely to tilt the scales in its favor against whichever team emerges from the West.

Let this play out. Let those flavors meld together. That immediate hunger will subside once you get a look at what’s simmering.

It’s easy to go for the quick fix in a city that hasn’t experienced a championship since the same year the Beatles came to America. It’s just not necessary.

Sometimes, you just have to wise up and listen to Meatloaf.

 

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