The Cleveland Cavaliers' decision to trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, as was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, proves the organization is all about the present. But there's a chance the Cavs may question their decision in the future.
Before proceeding any further, it's important to make something clear: Love makes the Cavaliers significantly better in the short term. There's no doubting that. He's a superstar, a stat-stuffer and, perhaps most importantly, somebody LeBron James approves of:
"I don't even really care about the 26 [points] and 12 [rebounds], I care about his basketball IQ," James said, per Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein of ESPN.com. "His basketball IQ is very, very high. I had the opportunity to spend 32 days with him in the 2012 Olympics. He was huge for us ... he's a great piece."
In Love, Cleveland has a 25-year-old superstar who statistically graded out as a top-five talent last season. Though the Minnesota Timberwolves failed to reach the playoffs, Love ranked third in player efficiency rating, third in win shares and fourth in scoring, per Basketball-Reference.
The most effective stretch 4 in the game, Love is a guy you move heaven and earth to acquire the moment he becomes available.
Wojnarowski reported that Love agreed to commit to a long-term extension with the Cavs (illegal pre-trade negotiations notwithstanding), which removes the concern that he might only be a one-year rental.
The case for acquiring Love is strong, nearly air-tight. But decisions that seem like total no-brainers carry some risk—the largest of which is Wiggins' shot at superstardom.
You're probably muttering, "Love is already a superstar, so what's the difference?"
For starters, Wiggins' ceiling remains undetermined, which is what happens when a guy has yet to play a single NBA minute. But there remains a chance, however slim, that he could become the kind of two-way stud Love has never been. Because there's been a general devaluation of non-star wings in the NBA over the past couple of seasons, you might think that Wiggins would be less valuable than the league's best stretch 4, no matter what.
That's almost true. Almost.
See, while wings have generally been lumped into a fungible category in which three-point shooting and defense are all most teams want, there's a special subset of those players that remain more valuable than any other NBA commodity: superstars in the vein of James and Kevin Durant.
Get your hands on one of those guys, and the championship pieces just fall into place.
We're years away from knowing if Wiggins will ever even sniff that level of greatness, but he has all the physical tools and is very, very young. What's more, he's probably already equipped to be an elite defender.
Nobody's saying it's likely that Wiggins blossoms into the league's next franchise-altering talent, but it's possible. He was the top pick in the 2014 draft, after all. And he was viewed as a generational talent before his only collegiate season.
Chances are, this trade will reveal Wiggins' potential sooner than we would have otherwise gotten to see it. His role with the Timberwolves figures to be far greater than the one he was slated for with the Cavs. And you have to love the self-awareness that shone through in a conversation relayed by Wiggins' college coach Bill Self, per Dave Skretta of The Associated Press:
"When all this trade stuff started, I talked to Andrew and Andrew told me, 'I hope I get traded,'" Self said.
"And I'm like, 'No you don't.' And he said, 'Coach, I do. It's better for me, knowing my personality and what I need to do, to go somewhere where I'm forced to be something as opposed to going in there where they're going to be patient with me and I'm going to be a piece.'"
The chip-on-the-shoulder argument is cliche, and it's a little silly to think anger is a sustainable long-term motivator (unless you're Michael Jordan). This is better, though. This is a guy knowing who he is and how he needs to be pushed.
As much as anything, that could come back to bite the Cavs.
Mortgaging the Future
The other issue here is cost.
Wiggins would have been under the Cavs' control on a rookie deal for the next five seasons, counting his qualifying offer in 2018-19. If a player on that kind of contract ascends to stardom while making relatively little cash, something you'd hope a No. 1 overall pick could achieve in a half-decade, it's one of the biggest assets a team can have.
Just think of how Kawhi Leonard helped the San Antonio Spurs, or how Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried and John Wall became major impact players on their rookie deals. When that happens, it allows the team to spend elsewhere, oftentimes enabling them to keep already established veterans paid at market value.
Anthony Davis is the ultimate example of the financial boon high-performing players on rookie contracts bring. The Brow is already a franchise cornerstone heading into the third year of his first contract. The freedom that kind of low-cost, high-return player offers can make all the difference in the world.
It's no coincidence the New Orleans Pelicans are everybody's early breakout favorite, despite overpaying players like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon. Davis' deal allows them to do that.
Here again, we're getting ahead of ourselves with Wiggins. It's probably not reasonable to compare anyone to Davis. The point is, Cleveland gave up a very cheap asset for a very expensive one.
The Cavs will soon have to max out Love who, along with Kyrie Irving and James, will eat up the vast majority of the team's cap space. After extending Love, the Cavaliers will find themselves in the same position the Miami Heat were after last season: Pot stuck on three superstars and left with only scraps to dangle in front of a rotating cast of ring-chasing vets—albeit with a younger core than the one Miami had.
Admittedly, that approach worked nicely for the Heat, and plenty of other teams are trying to do the same thing. But the margin for error with three max players is small, and we now have proof of how difficult it can be to sustain that model over a long period.
Wiggins may never be Love's equal in terms of talent, but the money Cleveland could have saved by keeping its rookie forward might have enabled it to add more pieces around LeBron—besides the predictable onrush of late-career mercenaries.
Yeah, But Still...
Ultimately, giving up the unknown for the known is a safe way to do business. And when the known is already a superstar with skills perfectly complimentary to LeBron's, it's even safer.
Barring an unforeseen injury or an about-face by Love on his commitment to sign an extension, there's no likely scenario in which this trade makes Cleveland worse—now or later. All but the most optimistic outlooks for Wiggins have him peaking at a notch or two below Love, and there's plenty of reason to believe he'll fall far short of stardom.
Only active perimeter player to become a star with Wiggins' college assist rate was Durant, who dominated everywhere else— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) August 8, 2014
For Cleveland to regret the trade, Wiggins would have to really exceed reasonable expectations— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) August 8, 2014
The Cavs got James back this summer which, up until the moment it happened, seemed impossible. That coup triggered a shift in the team's thinking, an increased focus on accumulating talent capable of instant contention.
At the same time, potential and possibility became less significant commodities in Cleveland, replaced by a desire to hoard players who'd provide returns in the present. Calling Love who, again, is still just 25, a symbol of a win-now approach feels odd. But he's better suited to make the Cavs contenders in the short term than Wiggins.
Even if giving up the top overall pick before seeing him play carries an inherent risk of seller's remorse, it's a sale you make every time when the return is a player of Love's quality. And though Wiggins may have given the Cavaliers a great many things if he'd been allowed to stay, the payoff he just netted them would have been hard to top.