On paper, a three-man core comprised of Kevin Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving looks absolutely incredible. Talk about setting the stage for a dynastic organization, one that can pile up title after title until LeBron eventually leaves his prime.
There's just one problem.
Basketball isn't played on paper.
Love, while a top-10 player in the NBA and one of the game's absolute best power forwards (feel free to rank him, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in just about any order you desire going into the 2014-15 season), would be fool's gold on the Cavaliers, setting the stage for a defensive disaster that can't be overcome by the sure-to-be-stellar offense boasted by Cleveland.
Counterintuitive as it may initially seem, trading for Love would be the wrong move for LeBron's new team.
Would Have to Part Ways with Wiggins
In order to get their hands on a certain member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Cavs will inevitably have to part ways with Andrew Wiggins. Despite the 'Wolves having little leverage in their dealings with Love—seeing as he's going to become a free agent at the end of the season and seems sure to leave behind the Land of 10,000 Lakes—they've been holding firm in every trade discussion, refusing to budge from their stance.
And with the Cavaliers, that stance involves taking Wiggins.
It has to, seeing as no other package is appealing enough for them to give Love up at the expense of the other suitors. Even with Anthony Bennett looking far more impressive during summer league action than he did during his massively disappointing rookie season, he's not enough. Not even with Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, draft picks and any other non-core member of the Cavaliers thrown into the offer.
ESPN.com news services provides a bit more detail on what's actually transpired:
The Cavaliers opened trade talks by offering guard Dion Waiters, forward Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick to the Timberwolves in exchange for Love, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. But the deal won't happen, sources said.
The Timberwolves want No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins in any deal for Love, but the Cavaliers have told the former Kansas star he will not be dealt, sources told Broussard. The Cavaliers might need to find a third team to get a Love deal done without losing Wiggins.
Cleveland cannot offer anything more appealing than Waiters, Bennett and a first-round pick, unless more selections are included or Wiggins enters the picture.
Period. End of story.
"There's no reason or cause for worry on his part because Andrew's not going anywhere, as far as I know and as far as the club has expressed," head coach David Blatt told reporters after a Cavaliers practice, via ESPN.com. And he can't go anywhere, as that would set Cleveland back rather significantly.
Again, paper isn't very useful here.
On paper, Love is a huge upgrade over Wiggins. He's already an established star, a player with plenty of All-Star appearances who can put up numbers that few in NBA history have been able to match. As mentioned earlier, the power forward is a top player at his position and one of the 10 best that the Association has to offer, regardless of the spot in the lineup.
The hope is that Wiggins can one day reach the level Love is at, ideally surpassing it. But it's only a hope, not a guarantee.
So, why avoid trading unrealized potential for a player who's already in the NBA's upper echelon with the ability to get even better? Remember, Love is only 25 years old.
It's all about how the pieces fit together, not just how strong those pieces are in a vacuum.
Wiggins is going to be a solid defender as a rookie, potentially developing into one of the league's best sooner rather than later. For the Cavaliers, that makes him invaluable, as defense is going to be a huge struggle even without Love ineffectively protecting the paint.
Cleveland simply can't afford to give up one of its few plus defenders, not when it's getting back one of the league's worst in return. And, as Jonathan Wasserman breaks down for Bleacher Report, adding Love is more prohibitive to gaining future pieces, ones that could surely help on the less-glamorous end of the court:
And he's going to be providing that defense, along with a scoring repertoire that's growing by the month, on a cheap rookie contract.
"Star potential on rookie scale deal for four years," one general manager told ESPN's Jeff Goodman (subscription required).
"I feel like Wiggins may only be a year or so away from being a legit contributor," said another front office executive. "And Wiggins is cheap, so you are able to add more. Love is gonna cost a ton."
With Love, James and Irving, the Cavaliers would be financially limited in terms of their ability to build around them. And though that's a pretty darn good trio, it eliminates some major margin for error. The Cavs would probably be relying on the same three guys night after night, year after year. Regardless of how talented your Big Three is, that team-building strategy isn't quite foolproof.
All this is operating under the assumption that Wiggins is the price the Cavaliers must pay for Love, though. Up to this point, it's a valid assumption, not one of those educated guesses that tends to make a you-know-what out of you and me.
Minnesota and Cleveland have reached an impasse. They're playing a game of chicken, one in which neither team seems to be willing to move from its current course.
However, if the 'Wolves are the ones who give in and allow Cleveland to gain access to Love's services without parting ways with Wiggins, the Cavs should pull that trigger in a heartbeat. Don't even hesitate. Just bring him aboard as quickly as humanly possible and make sure the paperwork is signed before Minnesota has a chance to renege on the deal.
Unfortunately, though, that doesn't seem likely. And that's why, for the rest of this article, I'm continuing to operate under the assumption that Wiggins is gone and replaced by Love.
Newsflash: The 2013-14 Cavaliers were not a particularly impressive team on the defensive end of the court.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, they allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions, leaving them tied with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets for the No. 20 mark in the Association. Will James' presence help them out on that end of the court? Sure, but not as significantly as you might think.
The four-time MVP is one of the best defensive players in the Association, but he regressed last year. He was a step slow when closing out on jump-shooters, looked more prone to getting beat off the dribble and seemed to be reacting to developments more slowly than he has in the past. Not only was that reflected in his steal and block numbers, but also in his on-court impact.
Basketball-Reference.com shows that the Miami Heat actually allowed 2.1 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, which is a rather strange figure for a man who typically finds himself mentioned in almost any conversation about the league's best defenders. That's a context-dependent stat, but it still shows how hard it'll be for James to single-handedly turn the Cleveland defense into an elite unit.
Even with Irving, who's one of the worst defenders at his position, that was going to be hard enough. Now you want to throw Love into the mix as well?
If a team is going to have weak frontcourt defenders—which Love certainly qualifies as—the perimeter defense has to be able to avoid allowing penetration, thereby mitigating the negative impact of the second line. If a team is going to have porous perimeter defenders—which Irving certainly qualifies as—the rim protection had better be fantastic.
See the problem?
Last year, Irving allowed opposing floor generals to post a 17.8 player-efficiency rating against him, per 82games.com. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Cavaliers allowed 5.9 additional points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
Let's take a gander at the rim-protection skills of Anderson Varejao and Love:
|Love and Varejao's Struggles at the Rim|
|FGA Faced||FG% Allowed||NBA Rank (among players facing > 5 FGA)|
|Love||9.1||57.4||No. 74 (of 77)|
|NBA.com's SportVU Data|
There are only three players in the league who faced at least five rim attempts per game and were less effective at deterring shots than Love last year. Thaddeus Young and Zaza Pachulia were two of them, and the other is just priceless.
Yes, another big man on the Cavaliers roster. I kid you not.
Calling the rim protection of a Love-led frontline a disaster waiting to happen is indeed an exaggeration. But not because that's being too harsh; it's hyperbolic because "disaster" isn't a strong enough word.
Basically, you're looking at this happening:
And then being greeted by this:
Not exactly a good combination.
Unless the Cavaliers find a way to land a stellar rim-protecting center (good luck with diminished assets and three max contracts on the books), the defense is going to be a disaster. And let's take a quick look at where the last 10 NBA champions have ranked on the defensive rating leaderboard:
|Defense Wins Championships|
|2013-14||San Antonio Spurs||102.4||No. 3|
|2012-13||Miami Heat||103.7||No. 9|
|2011-12||Miami Heat||100.2||No. 4|
|2010-11||Dallas Mavericks||105.0||No. 8|
|2009-10||Los Angeles Lakers||103.7||No. 4|
|2008-09||Los Angeles Lakers||104.7||No. 6|
|2007-08||Boston Celtics||98.9||No. 1|
|2006-07||San Antonio Spurs||99.9||No. 2|
|2005-06||Miami Heat||104.5||No. 10|
|2004-05||San Antonio Spurs||98.8||No. 1|
The last time a team won a championship without boasting a top-10 defense came in 2000-01, when the Los Angeles Lakers used their dynamic offense, led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, to overcome a defense that finished at No. 21.
Except there's one major caveat.
During the postseason, things clicked. The Lakers held opponents to 97.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Not only did that pace all 16 playoff teams by a huge margin of three points over the same span, but it was well below the 104.8 defensive rating posted in the regular season.
Can anyone realistically see the Cavaliers looking that good during the most crucial portion of the season?
Certainly not with Irving and Love both on the floor.
This, above all else, is the primary reason that trading for Love would be a bad idea. There simply isn't a way for Blatt to hide both the point guard and the power forward, especially seeing as Wiggins would be gone, leaving LeBron as the only defensive standout on the roster. Even if there were a stellar rim-protector and another perimeter stalwart, it would be tough enough to have a top-10 defense, and the Cavs would have neither at their disposal in this hypothetical situation.
Sure, Irving could become a solid defender in time, as his woes seem to be caused more by mental lapses than physical shortcomings. But that's not going to happen overnight, if ever.
No matter how good a Big Three of LeBron, Love and Irving might look on paper, it's not going to work. Not without money to make improvements, not without Wiggins on the roster and certainly not without significant defensive improvements.
Failing to convince the 'Wolves that they should give up their star power forward would end up being a huge blessing in disguise for Cleveland.
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