How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Survive If They Trade Andrew Wiggins

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How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Survive If They Trade Andrew Wiggins
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Is Andrew Wiggins really on the table in the Kevin Love trade discussions between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers

According to Jeff Zillgitt of the USA Today, it's the Cavs who have caved first: 

The two sides were at a virtual impasse, with Minnesota refusing to accept anything less than an offer that included Wiggins, while Cleveland was holding firm and failing to include this year's No. 1 pick in any packages.

So much for that. Well, maybe. 

Fox Sports' Sam Amico reports that the Cavaliers still aren't willing to part ways with Wiggins: 

I've argued in detail about why Cleveland shouldn't be the ones making concessions, and that opinion hasn't changed. However, even if the Cavs do the unthinkable and part ways with Wiggins before he has a chance to play a single game that actually counts for their organization, disaster is not going to ensue. 

Sure, the ceiling is higher with Wiggins on the roster. The defense is going to be horrific with Love and Kyrie Irving suiting up in the same uniform. But there are a number of steps that general manager David Griffin and the rest of the Cleveland front office can take to ensure this gamble is one that pays off. 

Failing to follow a Love-for-Wiggins swap with more moves and philosophical changes would be what results in disaster, not having the power forward on the roster at the expense of the Canadian standout. 

 

Kyrie Irving Must Step Up on Defense

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It's not exactly a secret that Love and Irving are both one of the worst defenders at their positions. 

While they were playing for different teams, that was acceptable. A good coach can hide one player on the less-glamorous end. But if they end up playing alongside one another, can David Blatt—in his first year on an NBA sideline, no less—really make up for both deficiencies? 

Absolutely not. 

The problem is that they're complementary weaknesses. Love is one of the worst rim protectors in basketball, and Irving is horrific when it comes to preventing penetration and staying glued to his man off the ball. The point guard was one of many reasons the Cavaliers finished with a lackluster 107.7 defensive rating last year, per Basketball-Reference.com.

David Sherman/Getty Images

If you're going to struggle keeping opponents from scoring at the basket, you need to keep them away from the rim. If you're going to allow penetration, you need a second line that can pick up the pieces. 

Or, if you're the Cavaliers, there's a different conditional statement going on: If you're going to roster Irving, who hasn't been able to avoid acting like an NBA matador, trade for Love's invisibility around the basket to support him.

Wait...that's not how it's supposed to work!

Even though Love is only 25 years old and can still develop rather significantly, it's already abundantly clear that he's not going to be a plus defender at any stage of his impressive career. He simply doesn't have either the physical tools or the quick instincts necessary to hold his own in the frontcourt, especially while playing alongside Anderson Varejao, an overrated rim-protecting center in his own right. 

According to NBA.com's SportVU data, the Minnesota power forward faced 9.1 shots per game right at the basket in 2013-14 and allowed opponents to shoot 57.4 percent on those attempts. Of the 77 players who faced five shots or more per contest, only Tristan Thompson, Thaddeus Young and Zaza Pachulia fared worse. 

Varejao wasn't much better. He checked in at No. 64 on that leaderboard, allowing 54.2 percent shooting on just over five shots per outing. 

That's a dangerous combination, but don't forget about one of the conditionals. If you're going to struggle keeping opponents from scoring at the basket, you need to keep them away from the rim.

Cleveland was already quite adept at doing so in 2013-14, allowing the fewest shots at the rim per game. But it has to be even better this next season, as the rim protection will be growing weaker. 

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Fortunately, Irving has the ability to improve. 

The dynamic point guard has the athletic gifts necessary to stay in front of his man at all times; it's more a matter of maturity and desire that has prevented him from becoming a two-way player. So much of defense is mental, and that's something that can be remedied, especially with LeBron James on the squad. 

Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group spoke with a handful of former NBA coaches, and they all felt as though the four-time MVP could make a big difference:

James announced his decision to return to Cleveland on Friday and the former coaches think he will bring a defensive mentality to a team that's struggled in that area since his 2010 departure.

"I think James will have a real impact on Kyrie Irving and Love – if he goes there," said [Jeff] Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst. "You need a real commitment to defense if you're going to win (a title). I think James knew that from his time in Cleveland and he certainly knew it from his time in Miami. He will bring that experience and defensive mindset back to Cleveland."

More so with Irving than Love, things can change.

Perhaps they would have all along, as the Duke product's intensity on defense could've been directly correlated with the success the team was experiencing. However, that's dangerous to rely on, as James Harden has proven with the Houston Rockets

If Irving can indeed step up on defense, though, the ceiling of this Love-boasting squad would be significantly higher. 

 

Find/Trade for a Rim Protector 

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Irving's defensive improvement won't come overnight, and that's assuming it comes at all. 

In the meantime, it's of paramount importance that the Cavaliers—should they trade Wiggins for Love—figure out how to shore up the defense right away. The easiest way to do so would be by finding a rim-protecting big man who can finally add a solid piece to the second line. 

Maybe the Cavaliers, making a concession by dealing the No. 1 pick, convince Minnesota to do the same by including Gorgui Dieng in the deal. Maybe they sign a cheap free agent who can play a handful of minutes per game as a stopgap. Maybe they trade one of the young assets for an established player with a defensive focus. 

After all, we can't overlook just how bad the Cavs were on defense last year—bad enough that LeBron by himself can't vault them up into the realm of the elites, especially if he's being joined by Love. 

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Cavs gave up 107.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that had them tied with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, ahead of only 10 teams throughout the entire Association. Digging deeper, there are four factors that serve as good indicators of overall defensive prowess—effective field-goal percentage allowed, turnover percentage forced, defensive rebound percentage and free throws allowed per field-goal attempt. 

The Cavaliers were in the middle of the pack for the first two, and they were above average in the latter two. Their respective finishes among the NBA's 30 teams were 17th, 21st, sixth and 11th. 

Therein lies the beauty of adding an interior presence, especially with Love helping transform the quality of the Cavaliers' defensive rebounding from great to elite. 

If the perimeter and wing defenders aren't as worried about preventing penetration, they can close out on shots more aggressively and gamble more with their help defense while jumping passing lanes with increasing frequency. The shooting percentages go down, the turnovers forced go up. 

As a whole, the defense gets better.

 

Convince a Star to Take Less than the Max

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One of the most underrated benefits of having Wiggins on the roster is the fact that he comes on a rookie-scale contract, much like a few other key members of the Cavaliers. Love, as you can probably surmise, doesn't. 

Jonathan Wasserman expertly explained this for Bleacher Report while arguing that the most recent No. 1 pick should remain on the roster, even with Love on the table: 

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. 

The Miami Heat basically proved the last point during the 2013-14 season, as the heavy minutes endured by LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh wore everyone down. Playoff run after playoff run can add up, no matter the type of shape the stars are in. 

Let's get a bit more detailed, though. 

Assuming the best-case scenario for the Cavaliers with the Irving extension, one that pays him $90 million over five years and kicks in for the 2015-16 season, he'll be on the books for "only" $14,746,000 during the 2015 offseason. Because the attempted free-agent signings are going to occur on the front end of his deal, an escalating contract limits his cap impact during the early portion of his max extension. 

LeBron, according to ShamSports.com (our source for all salary info unless otherwise indicated), has a $21,573,398 player option for the 2015-16 season, as he signed a two-year deal with an opt-out clause for the second go-round. 

Then there's Love. 

The power forward also has a player option, and his is for $16,744,219. But does anyone actually think he's opting into that deal? The obvious assumption is that he hits the open market and attempts to sign a max deal as quickly as possible. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Just for fun, let's assume everyone opts in.

That's already $53,063,617 committed with only three players on the roster. If Cleveland picks up the team options for both Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, they'd already be over this year's salary cap, leaving them little flexibility even when it inevitably rises. 

To put things in perspective, even if Wiggins signs for the full 120 percent of the rookie scale (as broken down by Basketball Insiders), he'd be on the books for $5,755,080. Add his salary to LeBron and Irving's, and you're at $42,074,478, giving the team space to sign another key player even while retaining the aforementioned young guns. 

Of course, I'm intentionally making a faulty assumption. Both Love and LeBron aren't going to opt in. 

Even if LeBron plays out his contract and only Love decides to cool down during the summer of 2015 by joining the free-agency pool, he's going to be making a lot more money. In fact, there's potential for them to be capped out even with only the Big Three of Irving, Love and LeBron on the books. If LeBron does the same and gets another raise, that potential becomes a guarantee.

See why it's necessary for someone to agree to a deal that's less than the max?

Whether it's Love or LeBron—ideally both, if you're in the Cleveland front office—giving the team more financial flexibility to play with, adding another piece as soon as possible isn't just a desire, it's a need. 

After all, waiting for the cap to rise is dangerous. It might not jump as much as expected, and it'll be accompanied by rising max contracts.

On top of that, the Cavaliers will inevitably have to extend their other core pieces with bigger deals. While they can use Bird rights to do so while going over the cap, they can't extend them then add other pieces.

The order is important. 

No matter what happens, the Cavaliers will still be competitive. 

Should the Cavaliers include Wiggins in a deal for Love?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Even though I'm a strong advocate of refusing to include Wiggins in any deal for Love, I don't have any trouble seeing the benefits of having one of the league's best power forwards on the roster. That's especially true because the weaknesses can be shored up, turning the squad from a contender into a favorite. 

That said, please note that they "can" be fixed. There are no guarantees with Love on the roster. 

 

Still think the Cavs should be making a play for Love? Convince me on Twitter and Facebook. 

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