There has been a lot of talk around the sports world about the Cleveland Cavaliers trading for Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. While fans, radio hosts and basketball experts all agree that adding Kevin Love to the Cavaliers to form a new “Big Three” alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving would make the team instant title contenders, there is some debate as to what (and who) the Cavaliers should be willing to give up for the sharpshooting big man. Should they deal this year’s No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins? Is Wiggins enough? What about other young players such as Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett? Should future draft picks be included, and if so how many? ESPN’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst reported that a Love-to-Cavs trade seems to be a matter of “when” rather than “if” at this point, and that the Timberwolves will likely acquire a package of at least Wiggins, Bennett and a first round pick. While some may say that this is too much to give up for a player like Kevin Love, who has never been to the playoffs in his six years in the NBA, the truth is that deal would be an absolute steal for the Cavs.
While the previous statement may seem like an exaggeration, the analytics tell otherwise. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Kevin Love rates as top five player in the league when judged by a combination of WARP, Win Shares and EWA, and he also finished third in the league in PER behind James and Kevin Durant. He is a highly efficient and effective scorer despite a high usage rate, and the Timberwolves scored 11 points more per 100 possessions when Love was on the court this season. Kevin Love is the only player in the league capable of operating from the perimeter on offense while still averaging double digit rebounding numbers. Love is also a very good three-point shooter and an elite rebounder who has become one of the league’s best passing forwards while averaging a career high 4.4 assists per game last season. A lineup of Irving, Waiters, James, Love and Anderson Varejao would feature five players who averaged over two assists per game and four players who shot above league average from deep, providing the spacing and passing that is so essential in today’s NBA offenses.
For those who criticize Kevin Love as a player who has never been to the playoffs, his on/off court numbers show the problem with that argument. Last season the Timberwolves outscored opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions when Love was on the floor. They were outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t playing. Basically they went from playing on a similar level to the Oklahoma City Thunder with Love to playing like the Boston Celtics without him.
As Pelton pointed out, Kevin Love’s reputation as a poor defender is somewhat exaggerated. While it’s true that Love offers no rim protection (the Cavaliers are looking for a rim protector to help in this area and spare Varejao heavy minutes) and is a below average help defender, he does have some strengths at this end. Despite his lack of rim protection, Love is a solid one-on-one defender, and opposing power forwards only had a PER of 14.2 when guarded by Love last season (15.0 is considered league average for a player). He has also cut down his foul rate over his career, and averaged only 1.8 personal fouls per 36 minutes last year. While some could say this is due to poor effort on the defensive end, it also means his man is not getting to the free throw line at all. Love also led the league in defensive rebounds per game and was third in defensive rebounding percentage, meaning that he was extremely useful in limiting opponents’ second-chance opportunities. In fact, according to 82games.com, the Timberwolves defense has been slightly better with Love on the court over the past two seasons, despite the presence of Dante Cunningham, allegedly a better defender, as his backup.
“That’s all well and good” you might say, “But what about the potential of Bennett and Wiggins?” Potential is the operative word here. While many will say that Wiggins (and to a much lesser extent Bennett) have terrific potential and that we have no idea how good they could be, that is not entirely true. Bennett is coming off of a disastrous rookie season and did not make the first or second All-Rookie teams despite being the first overall pick in 2013. While there are some legitimate reasons for this (his shoulder surgery, weight gain, asthma and sleep apnea), and he should be commended for getting into much better shape and working on his game, even a significant jump in his level of play only makes him a rotation player, not a star by any means, and that’s okay. Bennett didn’t ask to be the first overall pick, and he was the top guy for one of the worst drafts in recent history. It probably isn’t fair to judge him in that light, but even if he becomes a really nice rotation piece, that’s something you give up for a player of Kevin Love’s caliber without a second thought. The same goes with a future first round pick that will likely be a low one due to the additions of James and Love to go along with Irving.
While most Cavalier fans and media would agree with that position on Bennett, the take on Wiggins is another matter. The highly touted rookie is seen by many as a future superstar who could be a top five player in the NBA someday. With his jaw dropping athleticism and defensive ability, Wiggins has been compared to superstars such as Tracy McGrady and Scottie Pippen. Indeed, it’s been a common thing in Cleveland lately to hear fans and radio hosts declare that Wiggins will be a “better version of Scottie Pippen” for LeBron James (never mind that Pippen is arguably the greatest wing defender ever, had the passing skills of a point guard and could fill any role his team needed). The fact of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that Wiggins ever becomes the offensive player that either Pippen or McGrady were. He simply does not have the handles or passing ability to do so. In fact, these are arguably the two biggest weaknesses in Wiggins’s game. While both areas can and likely will be improved upon, both Pippen and McGrady had court vision that simply cannot be taught. Some have also compared Wiggins to Paul George, and while that is a somewhat realistic best-case scenario, George has made historic leaps during his four years in the league, and a best-case scenario is hardly the most likely one.
So what is a realistic expectation for Wiggins? Pelton has Luol Deng as his top comparable, as Deng’s lone season at Duke was remarkably similar to the season Wiggins just spent at Kansas. While some Cavalier fans are undoubtedly down on Deng after his underwhelming stint in Cleveland, he is a two-time All-Star and former second team All-Defensive player who could be a vital cog on a championship team due to his high level of play at both ends of the floor. But Luol Deng is not a superstar, and teams would trade him for Kevin Love 10 times out of 10.
When looked at it this way, the Cavaliers would be trading a young player who is more likely to be very good rather than a superstar, another young player who should become a solid rotation piece and a likely low first round pick for one of the 10 best players in basketball. This could be the difference between a 50-win team that makes the second round of the playoffs and a 60-win team that plays for the NBA championship. For a Cleveland Cavaliers team looking for its first championship and a fan base that has gone 50 years without one, a trade like this is simply too good to be true.