You’ve probably heard the news: the Wolves reportedly have a deal in place that will send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for this year’s number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins, LAST YEAR’S number one overall pick Anthony Bennett, and a future first-round pick.
As usual, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski broke the story ahead of time. Woj has become a mythical figure for his ability to break *every* NBA story before anyone else. I mean, literally, every story. The “Woj Bomb” is now a trope on NBA Twitter, inspiring clever plays on words and witty tweets that are often structured along the lines of “If a Woj Bomb confirms X rumor, I will perform Y outrageous act!”
The difference this time is that Woj, in the way only Woj could, confirmed the biggest trade since the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets more than TWO WEEKS before it can legally happen. In a league in which trades involving superstars in their prime and trades involving number one overall picks are both rare, the rarity of such deals gave pause both to hordes of Cavaliers and Wolves fans.
The consensus in the national media was that from the Cavs’ perspective, trading Wiggins for Love was a no-brainer. LeBron James’ did not return to Cleveland for a homecoming tour in which he would get rich and play out the remainder of his prime and enter the twilight years of his NBA career. He came to win. With James in tow, the Cavs needed Love.
Trading Love to Cleveland was also a no-brainer from the Wolves’ perspective. With Love doing everything but renting billboard space to let the world know that he would be opting out of his contract after this year and likely leaving in free agency, the Wolves had little choice but to trade him, or else risk a very likely doomsday scenario in which they would lose Love and get nothing in return.
Until LeBron James’ signing in Cleveland made the Love deal a fait accompli, the Wolves had no good offers for Love. They were reportedly engaged in serious trade talks with Golden State and Chicago. Other teams also reportedly inquired about Love, but either could not or would not even dangle an offer attractive enough to merit serious consideration. It’s astounding that prior to the LeBron signing, Wolves fans spent most of their energy on debating whether a Golden State package of Klay Thompson, David Lee, and Harrison Barnes was preferable to a Chicago package of Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson, and another piece. Now, the Wolves are on the cusp of trading Love for Andrew Wiggins, a supreme talent around whom question marks remain, Anthony Bennett, the high-talent former #1 pick overall who could become Love’s long-term replacement at power forward, and a future first-round pick. Although the rumored Golden State and Chicago deals both would have sent Good NBA Players to the Wolves, none of those Good NBA Players has any chance of becoming a legitimate tier one NBA player. (Eds. Note: Patrick J is, for the record, a big Mirotic fan and expects him the shine for the Bulls once he gets fully acclimated to NBA life, Tom Thibodeau-style. But at best, he projects as a sort of Andrei Kirilenko-type disruptive defender with a better jumper but less toughness and leadership. This ceiling is still well below Andrew Wiggins’.)
The Love-Wiggins deal just made too much sense not to happen. If ever a trade were to fail, it would be this one. One one end of the phone line sat Dan Gilbert and The Comic Sans Kids (my shorthand for his collective front office). On the other, you had Flip “Word Salad” Saunders, king of the poorly-written tweet and frequent recipient of criticism from Wolves fans for not prioritizing data-driven analytics and his selections of Shabazz Muhammad and Zach Lavine in first round of the last two drafts. Let your imagination run wild and think about the myriad ways they coud’ve flubbed the deal. Really, virtually anything the mind can possibly conjure could’ve derailed talks, and instead of riggin’ for Wiggins (or whatever it is we’re doing now), our minds would be preoccupied with whether Flip *might* be able to bargain hard and get the Bulls to sweeten a Gibson/Mirotic offer with Doug McDermott, or whether Golden State would *ever* come off its bluff and include Klay Thompson in a Love deal along with David Lee and change. It would go down in the Annals of NBA Trade Fails. It would have the trade equivalent of Lance Stephenson’s decision to turn down the Pacers’ offer and take less money to sign with Eastern Conference also-rans Charlotte Bobcats (before the catastrophic Paul George knee injury, when the Pacers were still legitimate Eastern Conference contenders!).
Assuming both logic and Woj Bombs remain immutable truths, Andrew Wiggins will be a Timberwolf next season and for years to come. Kevin Love has played his last game with the team. The Cavs will win a lot of games next year. Forecaster extraordinaire Nate Silver projects the James-Love-Irving Cavs as a 65-win team next year.
Meanwhile, the Wolves will lose early and often. They will have a young team. They will officially be in rebuild mode. Love will have many 25/12 games in Cleveland wins on national television. Wiggins will cut his teeth, show flashes of brilliance that will be mixed with the maddening bouts of inconsistency common to pretty much all 19-year old NBA rookies.
When it happens, don’t immediately condemn the trade as yet another mistake by Saunders and, well, Saunders. The Wolves are playing the long game. If Wiggins follows the usual trajectory, he’ll show flashes in his first year, improve dramatically in his second year but remain a bit wet behind the ears (Thomas ‘Shep‘ Sheppard voice). In his third year, he’ll blossom into whatever he ends up becoming. That might be an burgeoning All-Star small forward, an Andre Iguodala-type tier two player who’s an elite defender, or worse than that. My take is that the second is the most likely, then the first, then the third. It’s still the right trade. Wiggins, who has the size, athleticism, defensive ability, and visible but still raw offensive skills to potentially be a perennial All-Star, like Love.
Players with characteristics similar to Wiggins’ don’t bust often. But it’s always a possibility. Nonetheless, if you’re rolling the dice on the future–and the Wolves clearly are right now–any risk involved good risk.
I looked at the last 31 years of #1 overall picks and qualitatively grouped them into different tiers, which ranged from Hall-of-Famers to Busts. My back of the envelope calculations were the following:
Hall of Famers – 7 (22.6%)*
All-Stars – 11 (35.5%)
Borderline All-Stars – 3 (9.7%)
Solid Starters – 3 (9.7%)
Busts – 5 (16.1%)
Question Marks – 2 (6.5%)**
First-round picks have done well. They’re good bets. Over 58 percent of them have become All-Star players.
Yes, the Michael Olowokandis and Kwame Brown’s exist. But all of the true busts were centers (if you count Andrea Bargnani and Kwame Brown as centers, which I do here). None of the busts were wings. And all but two of the former first-round picks I categorized as Hall of Famers were bigs. (VARIANCE!) The two exceptions were Allen Iverson and LeBron James.
Most likely, Wiggins will fall somewhere in the middle. “All Star” status would be nice. And it just so happens that this is the most common fate of #1 overall picks: 35.5% of former first round picks meet this criterion.
To be sure, the past says nothing about Wiggins. Each case is different. I get it. But he’s the surest thing in any proposed deal to become an elite NBA player. It’s cliche to say that you never get full value in return when you trade a superstar. That dictum is likely to be true in this case. But in this case, if you’re looking at getting 60-70 cents on the dollar from Golden State or Chicago, you take Wiggins and risk getting only 50 cents on the dollar, given the probability that you’ll end up getting 85 or 90 cents.
Go Wolves and go Wiggins.
* Some of the “All-Stars” will likely become Hall of Famers when their careers end, which makes this an even more impressive list.
** The two question marks are, incidentally, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. Bennett was hurt last year, which caused him to be out of shape when he was healthy enough to play. We don’t know yet what his career will look like. Andrew Wiggins, of course, has never played an NBA game. Also too early to tell.
Update (1:09 P.M.): I was technically off on a few ratings in the table above: (1) Danny Manning was a two-time All-Star and Derrick Coleman was a one-time All-Star. I only got to see Manning during the “bad knees” phase of his career and didn’t realize he’d previously been an All-Star; (2) On DC, I’m as baffled as you probably are about how such a thing could happen; (3) Glenn Robinson made two All-Star appearances. (I’d managed to block them out, I guess.) I’d still be inclined to categorize each player’s career impact as “Borderline All-Star,” but here’s a graph of what the breakdown looks like when these three are included in the “All-Star” category.