Andrew Wiggins, Young Timberwolves Core Needs Patience from Flip Saunders

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

FILE - In this June 27, 2014, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers draft pick Andrew Wiggins smiles during an NBA basketball conference in Independence, Ohio. Two people with knowledge of the deal tell The Associated Press that Minnesota and Cleveland have agreed to a trade that will send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cavaliers for Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future first-round draft pick. The two people spoke Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, on condition of anonymity because no official agreement can be reached until Aug. 23, when Wiggins, this year's No. 1 draft pick, becomes eligible to be traded. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

There are enough quotes with the phrase "power in the wrong hands" to create a coffee table book. Usually such phrases are thrown around to describe corrupt politicians, greedy Fortune 500 CEOs or any number of the easily vilified caricatures that exist in today's culture.

But the phrase most recently came to mind when assessing the Minnesota Timberwolves' trade of Kevin Love. Mind you, not that specific trade itself. I'm fine with Love heading to Cleveland for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, a first-round pick and flotsam. It's an unprecedented haul for a player who was planning to bolt town in a year.

No, the concerns came from the offshoot of that trade which will see Bennett shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Thaddeus Young, per Mark Perner of the Philadelphia Daily News. The deal on the surface is self-explanatory. Young is a 26-year-old veteran who averaged a career-high 17.9 points and six rebounds per game last season in Philly. Bennett is a year removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft but an unproven commodity coming off a mess of a rookie season.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  Anthony Bennett #15 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs at the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 13, 2014 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Flip Saunders wants a veteran player who can help the Timberwolves win right away. As the head coach, president of basketball operations and co-owner, Flip Saunders damn well gets what Flip Saunders wants in Minnesota.

Which is where we come back to our cliche about power.

Saunders trading Bennett in and of itself is not the issue. While he looked slimmed down and played well in Las Vegas Summer League, we're only a few months removed from this Photoshop. That Young can opt out of his contract next summer is curious, but it's not as if he's due a massive raise on the open market. (Plus, maybe Saunders can coax the Sixers into eating Kevin Martin's contract as part of the deal.)

It's the impatient mindset and apparent selfishness the Young-Bennett trade represents that stands out as concerning.

Without the side deal, the Timberwolves' Love haul gives them one of the most promising young cores in basketball. Wiggins, Bennett, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio are all 23 years old or younger. Among the former three, only one (Bennett) can legally drink alcohol. First, first, 13th and fifth are their respective order of draft selection. It sounds like the type of team you build on a lark in NBA 2K14. (And we're not even mentioning second-year center Gorgui Dieng here.)

It also sounds like a terrible basketball team in 2014-15.

Rubio, a generational passer and solid defender, would lose a shooting contest to a one-handed Stephen Curry after 15 shots of tequila. Bennett played so little and was so wretched when he did suit up last season that he might as well be a redshirt rookie next season. Wiggins and LaVine are athletic marvels, the type who ooze potential out of their pores—typically right about as they make a basketball play that makes you scratch your head so hard it bleeds.

Patience, practiced but so rarely preached at the NBA level, seems like a reasonable refrain. The Timberwolves are removing one of the league's half-dozen best players from a 40-win team. Their regression is as inevitable as it is necessary. So why is Flip Saunders trading one of those potential core pieces for a limited forward who will be approaching 30 when the new-look Wolves will have a reasonable expectation to compete again?

From an outsider's perspective, it looks nothing short of a greedy move by a man who is wielding entirely too much power. Saunders gave himself head coaching duties this summer. At age 59 and with 16 NBA seasons on his resume, it was not a decision he made lightly. He interviewed multiple candidates and nearly nabbed Memphis' Dave Joerger before the two parties fell out over compensation.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

But Saunders also did not come down from his front-office perch to win 25 games. He currently boasts the same NBA winning percentage (.548) as Larry Brown and tops the likes of Lenny Wilkens, Jack Ramsay and Mike D'Antoni. His last stop in Washington was a bitter and miserable rebuilding effort in which Saunders failed to properly develop his young talent and was a sheriff without a gun policing a locker room full of, shall we say, offbeat personalities.

You can forgive Saunders for not wanting to relive his Washington experience. You cannot forgive him for making a trade entirely to pad his coaching record over the long-term outlook of the franchise.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The appearances open up a crater-sized rabbit hole of concerns. With Martin still on the roster and coming off a season where he averaged 19.1 points per game, how much playing time will LaVine receive? And when he is on the floor, how much of a leash will Saunders be willing to give him? The former UCLA star is a ball of talent, but he's a project of the highest order. Growing pains come with the territory.

Wiggins' path to playing time is more straightforward, but the minutes come with caveats. The Timberwolves already have three players at their small forward spot, all of whom were acquired by Saunders within the last 14 months. Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer both have player options above their market price next season; they're not going anywhere unless dumped. Oh, and Shabazz Muhammad still exists as a person in real life.

Will Wiggins, himself prone to bouts of spaciness and offensive struggles, get thrown in the water to sink or swim? Or will COACH Saunders override GM Saunders and fluctuate Wiggins' minutes based on how he's doing in the moment, jeopardizing what has to be an already fragile psyche? 

Having a coach run basketball operations is rare for a reason. Saunders, Stan Van Gundy, Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich are the only coaches leaguewide with sway over basketball decisions. Popovich has an incredible infrastructure in place with the league's best general manager, R.C. Buford. Rivers is in the second year running things for the Los Angeles Clippers, and his talent-picking record is already shaky at best. The jury is still out on Van Gundy and Saunders, but both are facing basketball's dangerous internal conflict of interest.

There is a natural-born desire to win when you spend your whole life coaching. Start to lose while also holding the power to acquire different players, sometimes temptation comes calling. Rick Pitino had a revolving door in Boston. Isiah Thomas threw money at every-damn-body. Anyone remember the last time a Timberwolves executive traded his superstar player and then appointed himself head coach?

These failures and the limited successes are instructive. Popovich stands out as the only recent hybrid to help build his core and coach it up. But he also had the good fortune of winning the Tim Duncan lottery, having David Robinson return to the lineup and possessing one of the two or three smartest basketball minds in history.

With the Young-for-Bennett deal, Saunders already seems to be making the types of mistake that has befallen decision-makers of years past. The now is more important than the future. The coach's desire to win now overrides a young core's ability to make mistakes, learn from them and grow together into a cohesive whole.

We're months away from knowing whether these fears are actually founded. Maybe Saunders will hand Wiggins the keys to the offense, allow LaVine to make the occasional baffling basketball play and even make another sizable win-later trade—like sending Nikola Pekovic to a contender for young pieces. Maybe he learned enough about player development in Washington to express more patience now and Wiggins and Co. will benefit from playing for a pretty good coach early in their career.

Trading Bennett for a player with little chance of helping that core makes me fear that's not the case. I hope—for Wiggins' sake, for LaVine's sake, for the Timberwolves' sake—this gut feeling is wrong.


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