When the Cleveland Cavaliers tipped off their final game of the 2013-14 NBA season, their starting forwards were Tristan Thompson and Alonzo Gee. This might not be a popular opinion, but I think they've upgraded a bit.
The last remaining major domino of the NBA offseason is poised to fall, as Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that the Cavs and Minnesota Timberwolves have agreed to terms on a deal that will send All-NBA Second Team power forward Kevin Love to Cleveland in exchange for 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and a protected 2015 first-round pick. (The deal can't be formally finalized until Aug. 23 because league rules prohibit the trading of draft picks until 30 days after they sign their deals, so the standard caveat applies — things aren't done until they're done.)
The nature of the protection remains unclear, but let's go out on a limb and say that it's pretty unlikely Cleveland's pick will fall at No. 1 again next summer. For bookkeeping purposes: the Cavs had already traded pick-swap rights on their '15 first-rounder to the Chicago Bulls in the January deal that sent Luol Deng to Cleveland, but
Chicago only had the right to switch if the Cavs' pick falls in the lottery; this, again, seems unlikely. (NOTE: I misread this and had it backward. The pick's protected from No. 1 through No. 14, meaning Chicago can swap only if it falls outside the lottery. Thanks to reader Scott Schoen for the corrective.)
Love will pair with fellow offseason acquisition LeBron James and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to give the Cavaliers arguably the most talented troika in the NBA, a three-man power trip capable of unleashing offensive onslaughts against even the most tenacious defenses. He will also join shooting guard Dion Waiters, who is already wondering why these bums won't just get out of the way and let him cook. (For what it's worth, Dion seems ready to supplement, while also wanting to make sure that we knew he knew LeBron might be coming before even Dwyane Wade did.)
A Cavaliers offense that ranked 23rd among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession already figured to dramatically improve based solely on the addition of James, a force of nature who has finished no lower than fourth in individual scoring in any of the last 10 seasons and who created more points per game via assist than any other non-point guard in the NBA last season, according to NBA.com's SportVU optical tracking data. Adding Love — a high-volume long-distance missile launcher (only James Harden, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson took more 3-pointers per 36 minutes of floor time than Love's 6.6 last season) who connects at an elite rate for a big man (among rotation players standing 6-foot-10 or taller, only Matt Bonner, Jonas Jerebko, Spencer Hawes and Dirk Nowitzki hit 3s at a higher clip than Love's 37.6 percent) and has developed into a fine secondary facilitator in his own right (the only bigs to assist on a higher share of their opponents' baskets than Love last year were Joakim Noah and Josh McRoberts) — will only enhance the amount of space that James and Irving have to work with on the ball, and will give opposing defenses migraines as they try to prevent getting carved up in the half-court. (To say nothing of how lethal they could be in transition, with Love clearing the glass and lobbing outlets to LeBron.)
Love is an A+ option as a pick-and-pop partner for either James or Irving who should also serve as a compelling gravitational spot-up force that keeps weak-side defenders from sagging too deep toward play-side action. He can work out of the post, from the elbows or beyond the arc, and with the exception of his injury-riddled 2012-13 season, he has been a steadily improving, advancing offensive force ever since he came out of UCLA, and has developed into a no-kidding near-MVP-caliber player on that end of the floor.
Despite a decided lack of supplemental long-range shooting on Minnesota's roster last season, the Wolves scored like the NBA's fifth-best offense with Love on the floor last season and like the league's second-worst when he hit the bench, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Now he'll be working with James (who's become a 38.5 percent 3-point shooter over the past three seasons), Irving (37.8 percent from deep for his career), Waiters (41.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last year) and the recently acquired duo of Mike Miller and James Jones, a pair of reliable marksmen with whom James flourished in Miami. (And maybe, just for fun, the greatest 3-point shooter of all time.) With Princeton-produced read-and-react disciple David Blatt adding a level of Xs-and-Os inspiration that the likes of Mike Brown and Byron Scott never mustered in James' and Irving's previous days in wine and gold, Cleveland should — provided the big pieces stay healthy — spend most of next season at or near the top of the NBA's offensive efficiency charts.
The issue, of course, comes on the other end of the floor, where Cleveland ranked 17th in points allowed per possession under Brown last season, and where James' new running buddies have an awful lot to prove.
Irving has been a turnstile since coming out of Duke, and for all his wizardry with the ball in his hands, he's a clear downgrade from the likes of Ricky Rubio, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole as a defender at the point of attack. I don't think Love's as bad defensively as his reputation indicates — Minnesota tied for 14th in defensive efficiency last season, roughly middle-of-the-pack, with Love playing nearly 2,800 minutes and rarely playing alongside a lockdown wing or rim protector (save for the late-season surge of rookie Gorgui Dieng) — but he's indisputably much more likely to seek defensive rebounding position than to get into actual help-defensive position, and he's also nowhere near the stratosphere of Chris Bosh, one of the game's most versatile interior defenders and the fulcrum around which Miami's defense revolved for the past four years.
A rededicated (and evidently slimmed down) James should help on the wing and nudge the Cavs up to middle-of-the-pack defensively, but Cleveland still looks to be without the sort of pieces that can transform a subpar defense into an elite one. Getting a full healthy season from veteran center Anderson Varejao would help, but so would a rule change allowing Dan Gilbert to have a 700-foot ice wall installed at free-throw line extended every time the opposition gets the ball; I don't expect either to happen.
The Cavs might feel that backup Brendan Haywood "may have a little something left in the tank," but his fuel gauge appeared to be approaching E for the Charlotte Bobcats two years ago, and as he nears age 35 after missing the entire 2013-14 season with a stress fracture in his left foot, it's much more likely that the former North Carolina product finds utility as an expiring contract/trade chip than as a regular on-court performer.
The only other in-house big, the aforementioned Thompson — who's likely to stick around, albeit in a reduced role, thanks to sharing an agent with LeBron — is far from a rim protector. He blocked just 1.1 percent of opponents' field goal attempts during his time on the floor (half the share from the year before, and one-third of the amount from his rookie season) and opponents shot a strong 59.1 percent on attempts at the rim with him in the neighborhood last season. Cleveland's defense has also been worse with Thompson playing than with him sitting in each of his three pro seasons, with a glaring difference — top-five defensive efficiency when he sat, bottom-five when he played — last season. And when you look at the other wings presently available on the Cavs' roster — the aged Miller and Jones, better-than-you-realize Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova, 2014 second-rounder Joe Harris — it's clear that Cleveland needs more defensive help.
It could be on the way, of course. Free-agent forward Shawn Marion is reportedly leaning toward joining up for the veteran's minimum, and general manager David Griffin could look to land a short-money shot-blocker off the scrap heap — Ekpe Udoh, perhaps, or Bernard James, or Jermaine O'Neal. Emeka Okafor would be ideal if healthy, but how healthy he is remains unclear. Greg Oden didn't set the world on fire alongside James in Miami last season, and he's got other problems to deal with at the moment. Andrew Bynum ... I'm going to guess that's a no.
(More bookkeeping, via Larry Coon's indispensable Salary Cap FAQ: No extra players or salary-matching fodder need to be included in a Love-for-Wiggins and Bennett deal because neither team will wind up in the luxury tax upon the completion of the trade and because neither team is accepting more than $5 million in salary above what they're sending out; Bennett and Wiggins will make a combined $11,074,560 in 2014-15, while Love's deal pays $15,719,063.)
What Griffin does to bolster the defense will go a long way toward determining just how serious a contender the Cavaliers are next spring, but adding Love ensures Cleveland entering the season as, at worst, joint favorites to come out of the East alongside the Central Division rival Chicago Bulls. (Joakim Noah was already excited about trying to kick Cleveland's ass; I'm betting this will make his bun even tighter.) This isn't James, Bosh and Wade coming together in Miami in 2010 — those were three top-10-caliber players who could impact games on both ends of the floor — but it is LeBron taking up with two All-Stars under the age of 26 who seem capable of setting the world on fire on offense. It's something. Damn, is it something.
From Minnesota's perspective, while it's never a good thing to lose one of the 10 or so best players in the NBA, the Wolves did pick up what appears to be a pretty strong overall haul for a one-foot-out-the-door superstar, at least relative to what similar situations have produced in the recent past. (With the caveat, of course, that we have no idea what this return will actually look like until a few years down the line.)
It sure didn't seem like this was the way it was going to play out when Flip Saunders entered the summer seemingly intent on slow-playing things. But by reportedly playing hardball with the Golden State Warriors over the inclusion of Klay Thompson in a Love deal, he found a bigger, better deal — one that returns at least two future pieces on rookie deals and a first-round pick, rather than one future piece to whom he'd have to give a max contract next summer, lest he come away with nothing but cap space. Short of convincing Love to come back and re-up in Minnesota, this seems to have turned out about as well for Saunders as it could have. As for the Klay-clutching Warriors ... well, here's hoping Thompson turns into a bona fide superstar this season after his turn with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. (The Warriors brass says, from their perspective, nothing has changed. Yeah. No kidding.)
Wiggins' post-draft, pre-debut awkward stage has come to an end after weeks of being treated like a consolation prize, but he now faces the even more daunting task of assuming the mantle of savior, the superstar-in-the-making who will replace the superstar-already-made. Handling all that pressure and justifying all that hype will take time and lots and lots (and lots and lots) of work, but the hoped-for outcome here is that this process — this dehumanizing, "welcome to the big leagues, rook" process — puts the Kansas product in the frame of mind where he's looking not to get in where he fits in, but to stand out and prove he's capable of stepping into that number one spot.
When LeBron announced he was coming home, Wiggins' job looked like it was going to be to take tough perimeter defensive assignments every night, run hard and get out of the way offensively. Now, it looks like his job is going to be to take tough perimeter defensive assignments every night, run hard and kill everything. It ought to be fun watching the 19-year-old show up for work. In fact, it ought to be fun watching everybody on the Wolves show up for work — Ricky Rubio running breaks with Wiggins and noted astronaut/fellow rookie Zach LaVine on the wings? Yes, please.
Just what the Wolves have in Bennett remains unclear. After a disastrous rookie season, 2013's top pick turned heads at Las Vegas Summer League with a slimmed-down physique and an appetite for rebounds after undergoing offseason surgery to address his problems with sleep apnea. He's still quite a ways away from fulfilling the inside-out scoring promise he showed at UNLV, but the combination of physical improvements and a change of scenery could do wonders for the still-just-21-year-old. Whether that new scenery winds up being the Twin Cities remains to be seen, too; while Woj reports that there's no third team involved in this Love deal, there have been rumblings that the Philadelphia 76ers have interest in Bennett, perhaps in exchange for veteran Thaddeus Young, although the chances of that seem slim at the moment.
The 2015 first-rounder — which Woj reports is likely to be the top-10-protected pick that the Heat sent the Cavs in the 2010 LeBron sign-and-trade — helps, too. Losing Love also "helps" the Wolves' chances of keeping their own 2015 first-rounder, which they owe the Phoenix Suns as part of a 2012 three-way deal ... so long as it doesn't land in the top 12 of the draft this year or next. (If Minny hasn't sent Phoenix a first by 2016, they'll owe the Suns two second-rounders.) A youth-heavy, star-light Timberwolves squad seems like a safe bet to land in the lottery next season (at least), especially in the crowded West.
That's worth emphasizing. Despite Saunders' previous apparent belief that Minnesota could swap Love and stay in the hunt for their first playoff berth since 2004, the Wolves are likely to be bad next year, and probably for a couple of years, as the likes of Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett learn how to play at the NBA level, as Saunders the coach continues the process of trying to figure out what he has in Dieng and 2013 first-rounder Shabazz Muhammad, and as Saunders the president of basketball operations determines whether to keep around eight-figure bruiser Nikola Pekovic and how much Rubio's worth as his extension looms. The West seems too good, and the Wolves too young, for Minnesota to rebound very quickly. But their chances of rebounding at all improved significantly because Saunders waited to pull the trigger ... and, to be frank, because the best player in the world reached out and made contact.
That, to me, is one of the most fascinating parts of this. While Woj reports that there's a "firm agreement Love will opt out of his contract in 2015 and re-sign with the Cavaliers" on a full-fledged five-year maximum contract, James himself took only a two-year deal with an opt-out after his first season. This may be due mostly to the likelihood of landing a significantly more lucrative max deal after the league's new TV contract gets finalized in a couple of years, which I discussed a bit here. Whatever its intent, though, it's also a hell of a means of control; what stronger motivator could there be for a front office to make win-now moves than the specter of LeBron deciding to leave again?
LeBron writes in Sports Illustrated that he sees himself as a mentor now, but that doesn't mean he wants to be part of a youth movement; he's 11 years into his career, he's got a shade under 40,000 combined regular-season and postseason minutes on his wheels, and he wants to do his mentoring while playing in postseason series between late May and mid-June. LeBron wanted to play offense like the team to which he lost in the NBA Finals; he gets a head coach who has had success all over Europe with an offense that bears some similarities to the San Antonio Spurs' system. LeBron wanted a younger supporting cast capable of having something left in the tank come the end of the season; he gets Love, Irving, Waiters and Thompson. LeBron wants Miller and Jones to be in Cleveland; they're in Cleveland. LeBron wants Love to be in Cleveland; he's in Cleveland.
The story of the NBA summer of 2014 thus far is that LeBron James gets what he wants. Whether what he's gotten during the offseason is enough to once again hoist the O'Brien, though, is another story altogether.
- - - - - - -