As the Philadelphia 76ers have floundered for the past two seasons — first accidentally (thanks, Andrew!) and then on purpose (thanks, Sam!) — a certain segment of NBA obsessives have wished for a better fate for Thaddeus Young. The long-tenured Philly forward — a perpetually underrated two-way player whose ability to handle multiple frontcourt assignments, contribute offensively without needing the ball in his hands and generally fill gaps — seemed tailor-made for a squad contending for something meaningful, as opposed to toiling on a team that forced us to reconsider the very definition of "meaningful" in the NBA.
Well, he's not going to get that just yet, but at least he won't experience the literal inability to remember the last time his team won. (At least, we don't think he will.)
After weeks of rumors and educated guessing, the firm reports came down Thursday, first from Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and then from Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski: Thad's heading to the Twin Cities. Young will join the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, guard Alexey Shved and a 2015 first-round draft pick.
That pick originally belonged to the Miami Heat, who sent it to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 sign-and-trade that brought LeBron James' talents to South Florida. The Cavs will send it to Minnesota as part of the larger, more-ballyhooed and much-discussed Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins deal expected to be finalized on Saturday; Minny will redirect it to the City of Brotherly Love once that goes down. The pick Philly's getting is protected through the top 10 in the 2015 and '16 drafts before becoming unprotected in 2017. (The Wolves will also receive a "trade exception believed to be worth at least $4 million," according to Zgoda.)
We all understand the attraction for Philly at this point — they'll gladly take a draft pick Tuesday for an actual player today. (Photoshop idea: Sam Wimpy? Nah, forget it.) As you've probably heard, the Sixers are in the business of being bad, young and inexpensive now while stockpiling as many future assets as possible, in the interest of making a grand worst-to-first-style turnaround in a few years' time. This wasn't always Philly's plan, though; in fact, the Sixers still owe a first-round pick thanks to the pre-Hinkie regime's 2012 draft-night trade with the Heat for Arnett Moultrie. (That hasn't worked out so hot.) Miami shipped that Philly pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the three-team deal that sent Jordan Crawford to the Golden State Warriors back in January, meaning Danny Ainge and company get the 76ers' selection if Philly makes the playoffs. (I know, I know, but bear with me.)
Trading away the guy who led last year's "successful" 19-63 Sixers in minutes, points, rebounds and steals in exchange for a pair of players who couldn't stick in Rick Adelman's rotation ought to help lock down a lottery finish, no matter how good Nerlens Noel looks alongside reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. In the process, Philly snags a pick that could land higher than some expect if the retooled Heat stumble in acclimating to life after LeBron.
The trade also brings two role players on expiring contracts to the Sixers: the defensive-minded Mbah a Moute, who turns 28 next month and who's expected to have a bigger impact as a mentor for rookie and fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid than as an actual on-court contributor; and Shved, the 6-foot-6 combo guard who showed significant promise running point for new Cavs coach David Blatt with the Russian national team that won bronze at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but who has struggled mightily to both consistently produce and play defense at the NBA level.
Handed more opportunity to make plays and jack shots — and perhaps even a starting role, because Philly's off-guard rotation at the moment appears to consist of the ghost of Jason Richardson, the oft-injured Elliot Williams, and second-rounders K.J. McDaniels and Jordan McRae — Shved could find his footing, as Andrew Unterberger writes at The 700 Level:
If there's anything left for Shved to show as an NBA player — any of the promise we've seen from him in international play, or at moments in the preseason or during his rookie year — he should show it on these Sixers, where he is disturbingly likely to begin the season in the starting five, and should almost certainly get career-high minutes regardless. It's something of a prayer, but he's an upside play [...] And if he's just not an NBA player, eh, he'll help us lose some games for draft positioning, and his contract expires at the end of the season.
(Philadelphia 76ers fever! Catch it!)
Despite weeks of rumors to the contrary, Minnesota will not be parting ways with Anthony Bennett, the top overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, who will become a Timberwolf come the finalization of the Love trade. (Somebody get those Taiwanese animators on the horn; we need a correction to this video.) In sum, by Sunday, Timberwolves president of basketball operations and returning head coach Flip Saunders will have turned a one-and-a-half-steps-out-the-door Love, two players who produced at well-below-league-average levels last year, and a draft pick that wasn't theirs into the last two No. 1 draft picks and a 26-year-old starting power forward who's better than people think. Standard caveats that you can't judge a trade until a few years down the line apply, but this looks like a pretty sound haul for a superstar who seemed to want to skip town anyway.
It's a pretty startling turn of events, given Saunders' initial reluctance to part ways with Love and the Wolves' early dalliances with a Golden State Warriors-floated package that (with all due respect to Klay Thompson) wouldn't have netted nearly as much value. Instead, they import a potential star to replace their departing one, a talented write-off who stands to benefit from both reduced expectations and increased oxygen levels, and a starting four on a not-super-onerous contract — $9.4 million this year and a shade under $10 million next, though Young has an early termination option after this season that he can, and likely will, choose to exercise next summer.
It's a trade that lands Minnesota a pair of young, very-high-ceiling prospects on rookie contracts and a good-soldier, solid-citizen veteran whom Saunders clearly thinks will help the Wolves remain somewhat respectable next season. The problem, though, is that "respectable" is only worth so much, and that Saunders seems to think his roster's worth more than it is.
Consider that none of last season's Western playoff teams look to have taken a massive hit in their level of quality. (You could argue that the Houston Rockets will fall off after a strikeout summer, but they still figure to be in the postseason hunt.) Consider that the Phoenix Suns came within one win of a playoff berth last season, are still in position to bring back their biggest free-agent, and added a dynamite third guard to their go-go backcourt. Consider that the New Orleans Pelicans have Anthony Davis looking poised to make The Leap, have three important injury-addled pieces from last year's team (Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon) back healthy and working out, and added Omer Asik to fill their glaring hole in the middle.
Further, consider that the Wolves went 40-42 last season with Love playing 2,800 minutes of All-NBA Second Team ball, and won't have that this season. (For all the lovely things about Young, the degree to which he's better than Love defensively pales in comparison to the amount by which Love tops him on the other end.) Consider, too, that the post-Love-trade Wolves will run out Young and Nikola Pekovic up front, incumbents Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin in the backcourt, and Wiggins on the wing, with a second-unit featuring some combination of Bennett, big man Gorgui Dieng, point guard Mo Williams, returning wings Chase Budinger and Shabazz Muhammad, and high-flying 2014 first-rounder Zach LaVine. (Swap Brewer, last year's starter at the three, in for Wiggins if you'd like.)
All things considered, then: Is it more likely that those Wolves compete for a playoff berth this season, or that they once again land in the lottery? And if you think it's the latter — which, spoiler alert, I do — then why give up a first-round pick for what could wind up being a one-year rental that doesn't meaningfully move the needle?
Flip's apparent counter-arguments seem to be:
• We're going to be better than you think with me coaching;
• We're going to be better than you think with this lineup;
• We're going to be able to convince Young to re-up with us beyond next season;
• Being more competitive and winning more games next season does meaningfully move the needle, because we want all these young dudes to learn good things, and to learn how to do things well.
I don't buy the first two, and I'm skeptical of the third. You can kind of see the case for the fourth, though, as recently laid out by Steve McPherson at A Wolf Among Wolves:
There’s a natural tendency to look at a player’s skillset and potential and believe it will blossom one way or another, but it’s more complicated than that. Simply put, if the Wolves are already going to be giving heavy minutes to Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, it’s going to be very difficult to also give heavy minutes to Bennett. Three years down the line, a starting lineup with LaVine, Wiggins and Bennett could be great, but I just don’t think they get there if they’re all having to start this season, or even just play heavy minutes.
First and second year players simply need to be surrounded by veterans to reach their full potential. [...] You need balance on a team, not just to be successful, but to grow. Young versus Bennett probably won’t change the win total of next year’s Wolves very much — and I don’t expect them to be good in the sense of making the playoffs either way — but a team on which Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett are all getting heavy minutes would not only be not very good next year, but it would stunt all of their development. It’s better for LaVine and Wiggins to be finding their feet next to a veteran like Young, even if he leaves after next season by not picking up his player option.
And if the price of fostering that development is Minnesota winning enough games this year to finish outside the top 12 draft slots, thus conceding its 2015 pick to the Phoenix Suns as part of a three-team 2012 deal, well, so be it, writes "Eric in Madison" at Wolves blog Canis Hoopus:
Although it's difficult, I applaud the attempt to rebuild with youth while trying to stay as competitive as possible. It's a good thing to try to do as well as you reasonably can even in years when expectations are down. I have no interest in living through more 15 and 17 win seasons; if by some miraculous turn of events the Wolves wind up without a pick next summer because they trade the Heat pick and lose theirs to Phoenix (top 12 protected) I will rejoice. That, to me, will represent a major success.
You can understand Wolves fans taking that tack, but it seems fair to wonder whether being easier to root for next year is worth sacrificing a future first-rounder that could be used to augment that young core, whether by taking the pick or using it in a package for a player who might not be headed out of Dodge in 10 months. Whether the gamble's worth it likely depends upon whether Saunders is as good as he thinks he'll be at both coaching this roster and persuading Young to plant roots in Minneapolis, and whether Young, a committed professional with four trips to the playoffs under his belt, is as positive a locker-room force as he hopes.
As it stands, the Timberwolves seem to have dismounted from the Kevin Love era in comparatively graceful fashion. (Or, at least, "not hopelessly graceless fashion.") If Young bolts town, the Suns take Minny's pick and that $10 million in cap space goes nowhere, though, Wolves fans might find themselves wishing that Flip had gambled a bit less confidently on himself and just swallowed the bitter pill of a wasted year.
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