I get it, the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers will not be a top-flight basketball team. After four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, Northeast Ohio fans will have to adjust back to basketball mediocrity and relative irrelevance yet again.
Amid all that, there is a swell of online activity surrounding what the Cavs should do next in this post-post-LeBron James era. Some of the ideas are not half bad. Others, well, they kind of lack any sort of logic, reason or math. The most notable: A Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins re-trade between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cavs.
The trade idea has been percolated by Greg Swartz at Bleacher Report and Pro Basketball Talk’s Dan Feldman on Twitter, at the least. It takes root in the fact that Love, now by far Cleveland’s best player, doesn’t necessarily fit on a rebuilding roster. After four years of back-and-forth drama, a clean break for Love and the Cavs has been oft-discussed around the league. On the other hand, Wiggins hasn’t quite blossomed into the star many hoped he could be yet, and thus is on the edge of fading out in Minnesota, where playoff aspirations remain sky high (or, as high as they can be in the Western Conference looking up at Golden State, Houston, and the Los Angeles Lakers).
But this trade idea should die upon initial contemplation. It doesn’t make much sense for Cleveland, for Minnesota, or for anyone really at all besides just some folks with lazy takes on social media.1
Point No. 1: Kevin Love is worth more
It may be hard for some to comprehend after years of playing third fiddle to Kyrie Irving and LeBron … but yes, Love is a very valuable basketball player. And it was absolutely, undoubtedly worth the trade for Cleveland four years ago to bring Love to town.
I loved what Fear The Sword’s Carter Rodriguez shared on Twitter: It’s often patronizing when people say “Don’t laugh!” or “You might have forgotten!” about Love’s credentials. He’s good. He’s been good. He’s a ginormous reason why the Cavaliers were as successful as they were for the last four years. He’s a deserving All-Star and remains so.
At the time of the trade in 2014, I wrote a 2,000-plus word article about all the stats of Love’s career thus far. He looked like a top-12 NBA player. He carried some weak Wolves rosters as far as they could go. He was one of the league’s most versatile offensive weapons and a dominant rebounder.
The book on Love now … is a bit more convoluted, sure. The game of basketball has evolved tremendously in the era of Golden State’s dominance. He is not so fleet of foot to be able to be as effective as possible against switch-heavy rosters like the Warriors. But he still found ways to make a difference in the NBA Finals year after year.
Playing alongside LeBron, he became far more of a three-point shooter: 44 percent of his field goal attempts came from three in Cleveland; that number was only 23.6 percent in Minnesota. Yet not that many players can shoot 37.7 percent from three on 5.7 attempts per game all while grabbing 10 boards per game. The versatility remains impressive. He’s a proven five-time All-Star with 63 career playoff games in the biggest moments possible.
Love, who turns 30 in September, is still in his prime. He had his most effective offensive season in Cleveland in 2017-18, with the absence of Irving. Love’s remaining contract is also quite reasonable compared to the current marketplace. He’s owed $24.1 million in 2018-19, followed by a player option for $25.6 million in 2019-20. Depending on his production next season, he could potentially opt out for one last big payday in his career.
Point No. 2: Andrew Wiggins is worth less
Through four years in Minnesota, Wiggins has faced his own kind of trials and tribulations. Now 23.5 years old, he’s scored quite a lot (19.7 career points per game), he’s been extremely durable (has missed just one game, which came during his sophomore season) and he’s now getting the experience of playing alongside a legitimate star in Jimmy Butler.
But in the NBA, value is all about dollars and sense and expectations there within. Prior to the 2017-18 season, Wiggins and the Wolves signed the five-year rookie maximum contract extension (which may ring a bell for Cavs fans and Kyrie in summer 2014). Given the NBA’s salary cap number this season, Wiggins’ extension is now estimated to be worth $147.7 million over the duration of the deal.
Pretty much ever since that contract was signed (and in the weeks leading up to it that summer), there have been murmurs out of Minnesota about Wiggins’ “commitment” and his future in town. Butler, who like Love has a player option for 2019-20, is the team’s clear-cut best player. Karl-Anthony Towns, an All-Star this past season, is the better young buck and former No. 1 pick in terms of future roster planning. If Minnesota is ever going to have long-term flexibility, it may need to cut ties with Wiggins.
That has elevated the criticism of his offensive efficiency and overall skillset. Wiggins’ career true shooting percentage is 52.6 percent (for comparison’s sake, LeBron’s is 58.6, Butler’s is 57.1, and the 2017-18 league average was 55.6.) He’s never particularly filled up the box score with miscellaneous stats (2.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds per 36 minutes in the NBA) and his perimeter defense is not as cutthroat as his new teammate Butler. Thus, what exactly is his value? And how does it add up to nearly $150 million?
All of this reminds me of my analytics primer to the 2014 NBA Draft, where Wiggins was selected above No. 2 Jabari Parker and No. 3 Joel Embiid. His athleticism and defense were highly rated in college, but those are things that can look more impressive against lower quality of play. It was always expected that Wiggins would make an impact in the NBA as a rotation player in some fashion, but his star potential is somewhat fading away.
Point No. 3: It just doesn’t really make sense
For Minnesota, re-acquiring Love would be a big-time PR move and would put all their chips on the table for a big 2018-19 season. If they underwhelm (which, reasonable expectations are difficult in the West, again), then Butler and Love could both leave for nothing in return in free agency. But is a Butler-Love-KAT trio really a great fit for today’s league? Would Love and defensive-focused coach Tom Thibodeau jive? Isn’t there a better fit somewhere else, given the fact that KAT is the future and Butler is the star? It just feels lazy to presume that Love is the best piece here.
The big reason why some scribes are forecasting the Cavs to part ways with Love soon is due to the 2019 NBA Draft. The Cavaliers traded away their top-10 protected first-round selection to the Atlanta Hawks in the January 2017 Kyle Korver trade (for all draft transactions, visit prosportstransactions.com). Thus, it behooves the rebuilding Cavaliers to ensure they’re one of the 10 worst teams in the league this season so as to expedite the necessary rebuilding process.
Looking at the summer of 2019 in more detail, the Cavaliers could have tremendous financial flexibility. Love has his $25.6 million player option. The Cavs could part ways with Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith by only paying $7.3 million of their combined $41.2 million remaining. That leaves just four fully-guaranteed players (Thompson, Clarkson, Sexton, Osman) at just $40 million.
Certainly, the Cavs shouldn’t make a big free agent splash and risk long-term potential for slight short-term gains (cough, cough, look at Jarrett Jack’s playoff comments in 2013, cough, cough). But, Cleveland could truly have a clean salary cap slate for the first time in quite awhile and could take advantage of a bloated league-wide financial picture. Just like the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets have done for years, the Cavs could take on young players and draft picks in exchange for short-term salary. This is how modern rebuilding works in the NBA.
That is the exact opposite of what Wiggins would bring. The Cavs would be committed to all $147.7 million and five years of Wiggins’ remaining deal. While they should be on the lookout for young players with star potential to fit alongside Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic, the strong preference should be on affordable young players. Because of Wiggins’ contract, he practically carries a negative trade value in the NBA marketplace. Why would a team risk long-term flexibility on a mostly known player?
Wiggins could certainly continue to improve. It’s possible that the pressure of the situation in Minnesota – replacing Love, trying to make the playoffs with just KAT, now fitting in with Butler – has restricted his potential growth. It’s just not that likely that a 23-year-old with four years of league experience suddenly becomes something that he’s not. And Wiggins is not an above-average offensive player in the modern NBA. Love is worth more than him. If Cleveland moves on from Love, they can find a better deal than just Wiggins alone.