There is something creepy about the sanitized verbiage basketball culture has adopted when discussing the human beings who play the sport.
The word "players" has been replaced with "assets," a clean way to describe anything from a protected lottery pick to a veteran on an expiring contract or a burgeoning young star with face-of-the-franchise talent.
Faces and names are scrubbed from the equation. Identifying characteristics are contract numbers, complicated models and if/then scenarios discussed in which assets are flipped for newer, better ones.
It's an evolving and at times brilliant way to run a franchise; I'm as guilty of adopting the mindset as anyone. The thinkers of NBA future will someday study the Daryl Morey-fication and come up with a fascinating character study.
Andrew Wiggins is the NBA's biggest asset at the moment.
The former Kansas star, who just officially inked his rookie deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, could be 30 days away from already changing addresses. Wiggins and Anthony Bennett—and possibly a future first-round pick—are on the table as the Cavaliers have ramped up their effort to land Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, per ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.
The trade comes at the behest of returned prodigal son LeBron James, who has privately spoken to Love about coming back to Cleveland. The Cavs have already begun loading up on non-guaranteed contracts that can be sent to Minnesota for salary-cap relief.
Clouds of a perfect storm are forming overhead, and Wiggins is Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
By signing his contract Thursday, Wiggins guarantees himself one thing: 30 days of hell. Under the league's collective bargaining agreement, teams may not trade a player on a rookie contract for at least 30 days after his paperwork is sent to the league office. Terms can be agreed upon in principle, but from a practical standpoint the entire process is inert for the next month.
Which, of course, seems well and good until you start viewing Andrew Wiggins as a person instead of an asset.
For the 30 days—a period in which most players his age are grinding out the rough edges of their game in preparation for their first season—all Wiggins can do is wait. Neither the Cavaliers nor the Bulls, who have rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic in a similar state, can finalize a deal until late August. Only the Warriors can lay down the Klay Thompson trump card for Flip Saunders and make this all go away.
And I'm wondering if, in our rush to answer the question of "what it all means/could mean," we're glossing over the the developmental effect of these tabloid rumors. In particular, I'm curious about Wiggins, whose ordeal makes one long for the emotional stability of Carrie Mathison.
We found out about Joel Embiid's foot injury on June 20. Since then, Wiggins has gone from a virtual lock to Philadelphia at No. 3 to battling Jabari Parker for the top spot. He's gone from the euphoria of besting Parker to his spotlight instantly being usurped by James' return. He's gone from thinking he's about to play with the best player in the world to being put through a trade-rumor ringer as the Cavs scramble to land LeBron a superstar teammate.
The most awkward facet of this entire gambit is that the Cavaliers needed Wiggins to sign his deal, precisely so they can land said teammate. Even though there was an artificial hold placed on Cleveland's cap at 100 percent of Wiggins' rookie salary, his literal value in any trade was zero. Without Wiggins signing his rookie deal, the only way Cleveland could match salaries was to add LeBron favorite Anderson Varejao.
This is a month-long span unlike anything we've seen for a No. 1 pick in NBA history.
Chris Webber in 1993 was the last top pick who was traded before playing a game for the team that selected him. (Other top overall selections have been traded prior to draft night. For these purposes, we're only considering players who were taken by one team and then traded to another.)
While there have been five such players in league history, Webber is the only player who fits a remotely similar criteria. David Thompson chose to play in the ABA for personal and financial reasons. Gene Melchiorre, Chuck Share and Clifton McNeely were all taken during the league's fledgeling years.
Webber. Wiggins. That's the list—and Webber was shipped to Golden State within mere minutes of being selected by the Orlando Magic. There was no months-long limbo in which he was left nervously waiting next to his phone with a level of dread as palpable as his excitement on draft night.
If Wiggins is traded, he will have created a club all of his own.
When looking back on NBA drafts of years past, it's easy to spot names that could have had more success had they found a better situation. The Clippers were a wasteland of talent for years. When was the last time the Knicks actually drafted, developed and kept a player?
In his pre-draft media conference call, ESPN's Jay Bilas used the phrase "right situation" four times and the word "situation" seven. Do a Google search for the NBA draft and "right situation," and sift through the myriad analyses.
This is where the player-as-asset mindset shows its cracks.
Certain types of players are not fits with certain types of coaches, who often wield godlike power in swaying a young guy's career. The Kings drafted Jimmer Fredette in 2011 with Paul Westphal's offensive system in mind, fired Westphal midway through Fredette's first season and replaced him with Keith Smart. Smart, one of the worst coaches hired in the last decade, promptly buried Fredette, and his career is now hanging by a thread in New Orleans.
It's impossible to know whether Fredette could have been a good NBA player. But I'll go to my grave believing the Kings—specifically Smart—ruined any chance he had.
For Wiggins, no matter what happens, his situation is crap.
In Minnesota, he'd join a franchise that's itself mired in uncertainty. The Wolves' roster-construction strategy over the past few seasons has been designed to help Love make his first playoff appearance. Nikola Pekovic, Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin et al have no place in a Wiggins-led full-scale rebuild.
For that matter, neither does Flip Saunders, a 59-year-old who gave himself the head coaching job over the summer and might be the single most powerful man in the NBA. Saunders didn't leave his luxury box for the coaching daily grind to win 25 games. From the moment he sets foot on the bench, there will be a constant competition between what's best for Saunders' legacy and what's best for the long-term health of the franchise.
Wiggins and Zach LaVine, each immensely talented but in need of day-to-day attention to facilitate their growth, might wind up competing for the same development time. Wiggins and LaVine is an NBA2K player's dream, but it's a lot harder from a practical standpoint.
And that's not to mention all of the press conferences and quotes dripping with falsehoods Wiggins will be obligated to provide. "No, this the place I wanted to be all along. Why would anyone EVER want to play with LeBron James? Really guys, I love doubling up on parkas and shoveling sidewalks."
In Cleveland, he's the representation of a missed opportunity. He's gone from franchise cornerstone to participation ribbon in the local pig-kissing contest. He's a human safety school who will be wondering the entire time if LeBron, Kyrie Irving and David Blatt would be happier if he were a 6'10" bearded forward.
Speculation about Wiggins' psyche was littered all over his pre-draft evaluations. His personality "comes off as timid." Even in positive overall assessments, reporters pointed out his lack of "killer instinct." In interviews, Wiggins has attempted to tamp out these narratives with boisterous comments, but it comes off as unnatural—as if he's read the wikiHow of "How To Speak Well and Confidently."
Only Wiggins himself knows whether he's "actually" confident. But if there is even the slightest bit of fragility in this kid, spinning him around on the the emotion wheel like he's donated his life to the eponymous board game will only serve as amplification. The most self-assured among us would even begin poring over our every interaction wondering what went wrong.
It's possible (perhaps likely) Wiggins gets out of this fine.
Maybe the trade rumors unlock the inner "(expletive) you" some evaluators thought he was missing. Maybe someday he'll stand at a Hall of Fame podium and speak of the moment David Griffin called him into his office like Michael Jordan spoke of being cut from his high school basketball team. Maybe going to Minnesota and leaving the pressure of playing with LeBron is the best possible outcome.
If the opposite plays out, Wiggins will become the quintessential "what if" guy. We'll wonder how his career would have played out alongside LeBron and Kyrie Irving, growing at his own pace next to two superstars. We'll nitpick every little thing that could have gone differently in Minnesota and look to assign blame.
And when we think of the turning point, it won't be the trade itself. It'll be these crippling 30 days of uncertainty.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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