The Cleveland Cavaliers, as presently constructed and until Indiana and Chicago define themselves, are the best team in the Eastern conference. It’s true that there are holes in this roster, it’s true that the team that won just 33 games last season has a long way to go, but the addition of the Best Player in the World and what should prove to be a forceful coach in David Blatt has to make these Cavs the clear favorites to come out of their conference.
That doesn’t mean the team can’t pine for better things, though.
As a basketball nut, I’d give a year off of my life to see LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett all working in tandem at the same age, ideally through ages 26 to 30. Those four, when paired with role players like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, would act as multiple title-winners were they to be working together in their respective primes. In a perfect world, all four of them would have been born in 1988.
The problem, here, is that LeBron turns 30 this December. Irving and Bennett turned 22 and 21 last March, and Wiggins is 19 months removed from being legally able to buy a bottle of white wine to finish off the nice lemon butter sauce he just made. This shouldn’t preclude LeBron from winning a title in Cleveland, nobody should ever say that, but it would be nice if the differences were minimized somewhat.
This is why LeBron has reached out to Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, gauging his interest in forcing a trade to the Cavs and extending his contract in Cleveland. This is why Andrew Wiggins, less than a month from being trumped up as Cleveland’s newest savior as the No. 1 pick in the draft, is reportedly available. This is why the LeBron’s Cavaliers are attempting to win now.
As they should. Because it’s possible to deal a stellar young player like Andrew Wiggins while acknowledging the fact that, yeah, this guy is going to be a beast someday.
Love isn’t exactly nearing the end of his particular rope. At age 25, he still (frighteningly) has a few years to improve upon the remarkable production he’s already given the Timberwolves, production that can’t be accurately detailed (are you listening, SportsCenter?) by per-game stats, as Love needlessly came off the bench for the majority of his first two seasons under coaches Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis.
He’ll earn over $15 million next season and he has a player option to decline for 2015-16, making him a free agent next summer. He’s never played in the postseason and the best teammate he’s ever played with was either Al Jefferson or Nikola Pekovic. He does not want to be with the Timberwolves, and we don’t blame him.
The problem, as has been long assumed in NBA circles since last spring, is that Timberwolves part-owner/president/coach/(eventual point guard?) Flip Saunders seems hell-bent on proving to Love that he can win him over with his coaching in 2014-15, and convince Love to stay with Saunders’ plan for Minnesota’s future.
That’s debatable, but it’s also understandable given Saunders’ paucity of options. Reportedly, the best offer that’s been floated for Love would at best give the Wolves Klay Thompson, David Lee, and a future first rounder while Minnesota shipped back Kevin Martin’s somewhat-onerous contract. Even that deal has been repeatedly shot down by all manner of Golden State chirpers who swear that Klay is unavailable – it would also saddle the Wolves with Lee’s hefty contract, and an immediate and possibly maximum contract extension for Thompson. Who is a shooting guard, and does not matter.
The Cavaliers can offer a better package. Sources in Cleveland revealed on Thursday that they’d be willing to offer Wiggins in a deal, and a transaction featuring Wiggins and Anthony Bennett alongside some other brand of cap fodder (a third team, with Cleveland capped out, will likely have to join in the fun) that the Cavs would have to throw in to nearly match Love’s $15.7 million contract for next season would seem to be the best that Flip Saunders can do.
Assuming he wants to “do,” because we still don’t know if he wants to “do.”
Bennett’s play was worth defending during his embarrassing rookie season, and we attempted to repeatedly. He was playing while injured, while out of position, while out of shape, and while out of the interests of the team’s former coaching staff. It should come as no surprise to those that saw his promise in college that he is currently enjoying a solid Summer League in 2014. Wiggins, meanwhile, may turn out to be the better player than Love in the long run (that’s saying something, for a guy in Love that averaged 26 and 12 last season), and there’s absolutely nothing better than a young stud (or two) on a rookie contract.
LeBron James’ situation is so unique, though, that you have to wonder if it’s worth pushing for a deal like this even before training camp, even before Minnesota gets desperate and flakey when things aren’t turning out well for them prior to next season’s trade deadline.
James is 29, but what kind of “29” is he? There is no plausible comparison for his career arc that would make any sense, as some amalgamation of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Karl Malone still wouldn’t do his prospects justice. Jordan didn’t make the second round of the playoffs until he was 25, and he didn’t play significant playoff basketball as a contender until he was 26. By that age, LeBron had made the Finals, he was on his way to a second Finals trip (the first of four consecutive), he’d made the conference finals three times, and he’d whiffed his way through The Decision. While trading 82 game seasons as a pro from ages 18-to-21 with Jordan’s three years at North Carolina.
This isn’t a comparison between the accomplishments of MJ and LBJ, as this is a team sport. What we are comparing is the mileage on those legs. If you’ll recall, even before the tragic loss of Jordan’s father in the late summer of 1993, Michael was already addressing rumors about a retirement in the spring of 1993, citing the abject exhaustion of making it to the Finals three years in a row, while playing in the Olympics in 1992.
LeBron just finished a fourth consecutive (and fifth overall) Finals trip, with an Olympics (one of three in his career, alongside other summertime international play) tossed in, and he has no Birmingham Barons on his particular horizon. James is in Cleveland to (hopefully) finish off a historic career, and we have no clue how the teen phenom who was asked to play point guard with Karl Malone’s body will hold up as he enters his 30s. Pointing to Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant or Malone himself (who was still a fantastic, sometimes game-changing player in his final season at age 40 despite injuries) as proof of endurance would be missing the point.
This isn’t to say James will break down, not in the slightest. This is only to point out that he’s a unique, special player working through unprecedented circumstances. And though Wiggins and Bennett aren’t being asked to work as James’ clear No. 2 – that’s Kyrie Irving’s job, and he better get ready – their potential All-Star futures (yes, even Bennett’s) will not mean much to a star in James that has already played nearly two full regular seasons’ worth of playoff games so far in his career.
The issue from here is whether or not Love is truly what the Cleveland Cavaliers need.
They’ll have shooting. Bennett has struggled from long range during the Summer League, but he has a good stroke, while Mike Miller is already in the hopper and Ray Allen may not be far behind. The rebounding, between Thompson, Varejao, James and Bennett should be fine. The team does not lack for floor-spacers, screen-setters, or shot-makers.
Those three things, alongside the all-world rebounding and gorgeous passing, are what Love does best. How much of a good thing do you need, though, especially with Anderson Varejao averaging just 37 games a year over his last four seasons?
It’s not as if the Cavs need a center to defend some low post scoring stud, those dudes don’t exist anymore. They do need one (and a reserve, if you wouldn’t mind) to protect the rim when some sprightly point guard or do-it-all forward makes the extra pass in the lane. The problem is that obvious candidates at this position aren’t exactly available right now – there’s a reason the Dallas Mavericks are happily paying Tyson Chandler nearly $15 million and that Joakim Noah is about as untouchable as players get these days – and Cleveland’s potential panacea may not be available even for the 2013 and 2014 top overall NBA draft picks.
Which speaks to the oddness of Cleveland’s situation, with all that lottery luck, James’ immediacy in spite of the likely prognostication that he’ll age effortlessly into his early and mid-30s, and the state of the game as it is. That adding a 26 and 12 guy, who is still yet to enter his prime, might not be the answer. This is wonderfully mad.
For now, though, Wiggins isn’t the answer. He could turn into the Scottie Pippen that LeBron never had (Dwyane Wade, though sterling, boasted a different skill set) and one of this league’s great players. That’ll take years, though. Pippen, you’ll recall, had just one All-Star appearance to his credit when the Bulls won their first title, and that was after four years of college and four seasons of practicing with Michael Jordan every day.
Four months after Jordan turned 30, he retired for the first time. Four months after James turns 30, the 2015 NBA playoffs will start, with LeBron (health permitting) already having played over 300 more combined regular and postseason games than Jordan. LeBron’s situation isn’t as dire as Dirk Nowitzki’s, Kobe Bryant’s, or even Dwyane Wade’s, but he has worked up quite the resume, and a whole lot of minutes.
You can trade the NBA’s next great star and be excused for it. Especially if it means aiding in the championship aspirations for the NBA’s current, and potentially greatest ever, star.
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