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Expect to see a lot of dunks from the new Timberwolves. And a lot of bricks

Jasen Vinlove — USA TODAY Sports
In exchange for Kevin Love, the Timberwolves are picking up
Andrew Wiggins, among others.

Kevin Love is being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It won’t officially happen until August 23, when top overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins will have been signed to his rookie contract for 30 days and the Cavs then have the freedom to send him to Minnesota, part of a package that also involves last year’s top overall draft choice, Anthony Bennett, and a first-round pick in 2015. 

Because of the rookie contract complication, the deal is not final, and either team can change its mind. But, barring injury or dysfunctional weirdness (always a threat when the Wolves are involved), the stakes are too high and too much has been leaked for either franchise to back out without taking a major public relations hit. 

A backlash would ensue because both sides are getting, under the circumstances, what they need to move forward. For Cleveland, that is a chance to immediately win a championship with a new “Big 3” that includes returning hometown superstar Lebron James, dynamic young point guard Kyrie Irving, and Love, a matchup nightmare and the NBA’s best power forward.

For Minnesota, the trade is a chance to get more dimes on the dollar for a player of Love’s caliber than owner Glen Taylor and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders rightfully could have expected even a month ago.

All along, Saunders has maintained that he wouldn’t trade Love unless it improved the team, but anyone familiar with his situation knew he was bluffing, or, worse, delusional. Two years ago, Love wanted to sign a five-year contract in Minnesota. Taylor and then-POBO David Kahn balked, offering four years, and after some negotiation, stupidly gave Love an option to become an unrestricted free agent after three years.

After not making the playoffs his first six years in the NBA (while extending the Wolves’ postseason drought to a decade), Love understandably intended to exercise that option clause at the end of the coming 2014-15 season. The closer that deadline came, the less the Wolves could be expected to recoup in a swap and the more leverage over the situation Love retained. 

By late March, when the Wolves’ playoff chances again went pffft, until early July, Saunders was hoping for a trade involving Golden State or Chicago that would have brought back some interesting pieces, but would not have improved the franchise either in the short-term or long-term.

Then, last month, Lebron decided to return to Cleveland, a franchise that just a few weeks earlier had selected the ballyhooed college forward Wiggins with that top overall pick. The Wolves, whose luck in the draft lottery has been legendarily awful (and compounded by front office incompetence), finally caught a break. Lebron, on the cusp of 30 with a lot of miles on his body, shrewdly informed Cavs management that he needed a ready-made star sidekick like Love in Cleveland. And in Wiggins, the Wolves can peddle the semi-legitimate hope that they can landed a burgeoning superstar—indeed, Wiggins has been hyped that way since he left high school for the University of Kansas a year ago.

Cheap talent. What a concept.

A catechism for team-building in the modern NBA — made even stronger by the recent collective bargaining agreement — is that it is absolutely essential to have quality young talent still under the cheap terms of their rookie contracts. The execrable lottery picks made by Kahn — Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson, Derrick Williams — wreaked havoc on Minnesota’s ability to compete and thus directly led to Love’s departure. (It’s ironic that, having created the circumstances under which Love would want to flee, Kahn then provided a way for his star to accelerate the process.)

The Love situation allows Taylor a chance to get it right this time. If the trade goes through, the Wolves have the rights to the services of Wiggins through 2018, at an slightly rising cost from $5.5 million to $7.5 million per year—a bargain if Wiggins lives up to even half the hype. They also retain Bennett — a big disappointment his rookie season, to the point where he is probably underrated now — at roughly the same cost as Wiggins through 2017.

Their own top draft pick this summer, Zach LaVine, is owed only $2 million up to $3.2 million through 2018. Second year center Gorgui Dieng goes from $1.4 million up to $2.4 million in 2017 and second year swingman Shabazz Muhammad moves from $2 million to $3 million in 2017.

And don’t forget, the Wolves also have an extra first-rounder from Cleveland, and don’t have to sacrifice the first-rounder they may owe Phoenix if they finish among the bottom twelve teams this coming season.

In other words, the Wolves will pay Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng and Muhammad less combined money this season than they will pay just Kevin Martin ($6.8 million) and J.J. Barea ($4.5 million).

Another bonus of the looming Love trade is that it enables the Wolves to assess how this young talent gibes with holdover veterans before deciding whether they want to escalate their bid for a playoff spot in 2015-16 or partially dismantle in order to stockpile more assets.

The big contracts on the roster belong to Nikola Pekovic (four years left at $12 million per year) and Martin (three years left at approximately $7 million per year). The Wolves are also looking at Ricky Rubio becoming a restricted free agent after this coming season, but the nice thing about that situation is that other teams will set the market for Rubio’s services. If he dramatically improves his shot and otherwise elevates his game, he can expect a big offer from another team, which the Wolves then have a right to match.

If Dieng continues to improve and essentially replicates Pekovic, then Pekovic becomes more expendable. By contrast, if Pek and Dieng become a dynamic duo that either forms a fearsome frontcourt tandem or collectively holds down the center position in style, Minnesota can stand pat. If some combination of Wiggins, LaVine and Muhammad provides the sort of dynamic wing play that wins games as well as wows the crowd, decisions on floor-spacers such as Martin or Chase Budinger (owed $5 million per year the next two seasons) become more apparent. 

The shooting problem

It all sounds pretty wonderful, eh? Except that Kevin Love won’t be around, and the points and rebounds he was able to muster as well as anyone in the NBA will be sorely missed. Barring another trade, the roster will have a huge hole at power forward. According to Strib beat writer Jerry Zgoda, the Wolves are still trying to pry Philadelphia forward Thad Young away from the Sixers for guard Alexie Shved, forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and that first-round pick they will get from Cleveland. But Young is still undersized and if the deal doesn’t happen, the “best” options include trying to turn Dieng into a power forward (something that would dramatically increase his penchant for fouling) or using the offensively challenged Mbah a Moute in the frontcourt beside Pek.

Then there is the small matter of putting the ball in the hoop from three-point territory. The Wolves finished 26th among 30 teams in three-point accuracy last season, and that was with Love hoisting up nearly a third of the team’s attempts at an above-average 37.6 percent rate. Martin shot 38.7 percent, but his defense is so terrible that he gives that production back at the other end, while exhibiting a poor attitude and wretched shot selection.

Assuming they are both with the team at the start of the season, it is imperative that Martin and Budinger become consistent threats to score from outside, otherwise the Wolves should cut bait on both sooner rather than later. Mo Williams, a career 38.5 percent shooter from long range, was a nice acquisition. And Rubio, terrible shooting from everywhere else on the floor, was a near-average three-point marksman last season and hopefully is honing that part of his game.

Of course Martin, Budinger and Williams are not where the hope of this franchise lies, especially after the Love trade. Saunders is banking on a showtime extravaganza involving uber-athletes Wiggins and LaVine, choreographed by Rubio, and if Young comes over from Philly to further accelerate that transition offense, so much the better. Pek and Dieng will clean up in the paint.

Post-Love, the Wolves are banking on athletic youth. Under the circumstances it is a worthy gamble. For every flashy dunk, there is likely to be two or three cringe-worthy bricks — wayward outside shots — to be endured by the Target Center faithful (and if they are still in the building they are indeed among the faithful).

Last year’s team dreadfully underachieved with 40 wins, finishing nine games out of the playoffs. This year’s team is likely to amass a dozen fewer victories. But all that young, cheap talent will increase in value over the next two or three years. 

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Comments (18)

Love's Contract

Kevin Love's infamous "Kahntract," with the player option, appears to be validated on the Timberwolves end.

The team, as presently constructed, is capped out financially without any basis to expect much improvement from within. They were going nowhere, and Love's expressed desire to leave aligns perfectly with the timeline set by his contract; right at the time when a historically-enticing trade package became available.

Some of it was luck. A lot of it, actually. But since that decision has been (continues to be) ripped to shreds by just about everybody who has weighed in on it, it's at least worth pointing out that it actually turned out to be a good one, in the end.

(Well, unless Wiggins is a bust.)

A provocative thought

A provocative thought Andy, typical of the original insights you regularly offer over at punchdrunkwolves.com (highly recommended).

But I'd rather have three more years of trying to build something around Kevin Love. If Love was looking at three more years here at a max salary, he'd be working hard to recruit talent and Saunders would be more likely trying to unload Pek for a dynamic wing player.

Barring injury, I think Love is going to have a fabulous season in Cleveland. And I think Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson are going to continue to be desultory rotation players who weren't worth the lottery.

Kurt Rambis deserves to be coaching wherever Jonny Flynn is playing.

No arguments from me on

No arguments from me on Love's future in Cleveland, or the continued struggles of Jonny, Wes and Derrick.

But if Love had signed the full 5-year max, he'd be every bit or more anxious to get the heck out of Minnesota and I don't think it's as simple as assuming Flip could, well, "flip," Pekovic for a dynamic wing player.

I did not enjoy last year's team at all. They had a well-crafted recipe for lopsided success against mediocre teams that absolutely did not work well against the better ones. That isn't entirely or even mostly on Love, but his playing style certainly fed into it, on both ends of the floor. I think his best NBA role is the one he is about to begin playing, as a second offensive option who focuses more on his historically-unique combination of rebounding and perimeter shooting abilities. The Cavs will be great -- probably champions at least once in the next few years -- with Love playing a vital role.

I'm totally ready to move on from this era of Love's individual stats and teammates used as excuses. Even if that was often times, or even always, a legitimate excuse for his team's failures, that is no way for a team to function for such a long period of time. It breeds two-way resentment, and I think that manifested itself more and more over the past two seasons.

(thanks, as always for the blog shout-out)

I agree Andy...

While I love what Kevin Love brings to the team....we were once again saddled with a situation where we had a 1B player trying to lead a team. Similar to what happened with KG, Love just isn't the kind of offensive player who can "take over" a game at the end of a game. He's an incredible complimentary player however for a typical 1A scoring player. Cleveland is getting an incredible piece for their puzzle.

I also feel like we never would have been able to get that 1A player that we need to put next to Love...unless we happened to hit a home run in the lottery. Which..even if Love had been given a max deal we still would have run out of time for a player to be drafted and molded ("seasoned") in the NBA to make a difference on a team with Love.

So much of this goes back to drafting and the Wolves inability to spend money where they need it: talent acquisition and scouting. Britts right: In the modern NBA you win with players who outperform their contracts. That only happens by being lucky or really good at talent evaluating and getting players before everyone knows they are good. We continually spend money in the wrong places on this team.

Freak Athletes

Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins are two off the charts athletes. The next Slam Dunk winner could well be from Minnesota next Winter.

No one is going to match KLove in offensive production. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in tenaciousness.

Irrespective of the Kahn Era debacle, it is a struggle for the Wolves to keep their top tier players from leaving when they have a choice. And, free agents with a choice, largely prefer to move to a winning franchise. A double whammy for the Wolves.

All that is left is to perpetually play for the future and rebuild.

Disagree

With a competent front office, this team could have kept Kevin Garnett his entire career. Given that Kevin Love is apparently going to spend the next six winters in Cleveland, I suspect that same is true for him as well.

Wolves fans who pull the "woe is us" junk are letting the organization -- and specifically Glen Taylor -- off the hook for two decades of dreadful management.

So, we disagree

Let the record show that few FA's who have a choice want to come to Minne throughout the entirety of the franchise.

Let the record show...

that we've also pretty much sucked over the entirety of the franchise.

Not hopeless

Mike--

I realize I am bucking long history--as the dean of Wolves beat writers I know all too well--when I say perpetual rebuild isn't the way it has to be. I mean, it's not like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis and Charlotte are paradises either. Shrewd management is way easier said than done. We are still waiting for it to happen here. But maybe it already is--one can hope, especially in August.

Interesting thoughts

Oklahoma City with the two prime stars, KD and Westbrook, were both Lottery picks. KD, as we can easily recognize is the notable exception when it comes to stars and free agency.

San Antonio has arguably the best coach and most winning franchise in the NBA over the past two decades. Charlotte, with the notable exception of Big Al, is built on draft picks. They have had numerous coaching and ownership changes.

Not saying Glen Taylor and the myriad of FO heads are top notch by any means. More the case that small markets and cold climates don't draw top tier FAs who have a choice of destinations. I'm pretty disillusioned that the NBA would have an owner like Donald Sterling in the league for decades. My take on ownership is not good in general.

I do note your combining the legacy of horrid first round draft choices the Wolves have had combined with the ill-advised contract with Kevin.

Power forward

-----"Barring another trade, the roster will have a huge hole at power forward"------

I know he stunk last year, but isn't Bennett a power forward?

too short

Tom--

He was listed last season at 6-8, 240. I have heard reports that part of his problem was conditioning and that he's dropped 20-30 pounds. If so, that's pretty weak sauce--Robbie Hummel territory--in terms of body type. Not an ideal power forward.

Thaddeus Young

Thaddeus may well be an improvement to Love on defense and athleticism. Thad is not very good at the three-point-line (30%) but he is explosive and quick.

The points will need to be made up by the team overall, which obviously presents a gap.

Same Size As Young

Bennett is the same size, if not stronger than Young.

Bennett: 6'-8", 240 (bleacher report had him at closer to 260 last year, 20 above listed college weight) w/ 7'-1" wingspan

Young: 6'-8", 230 w/ 7'-1" wingspan

He may never be a rim protector but he should be big enough to play the 4 in today's game. Neither are that different from the guy they will be replacing...

Love: 6'-10", 243 w/ 6'-11" wingspan

Philly Cheese Steaks

Bennett will find plenty to eat.

Wish it didn't have to end

It's extremely hard to replace a top-15 player in the league (I'm being conservative). I wish I knew what happened with the knuckle pushups and the locker-room atmosphere last season.

This trade, though, works. I don't have much interest in Bennett; if he was making what Shabazz is, then sure, but it's bad opportunity cost to have him on the team/payroll. Wiggins, obviously, was overhyped coming out of college, but he's not as bad as the analytics crowd thinks.

I don't see the value in shopping Pek or Martin. They provide the most value to the team by being on the team, and I'm not a big fan of overwhelming youngsters for the sake of ping pong balls. Pek and Turiaf were injured so often last season, and they will likely have no 4s who could play the 5.

Otherwise, there's stuff to look forward to if they play to their strengths. I'm also still holding out hope for moves beyond this trade and the possible inclusion of Philly. Against all but the best defenses, they may have a decent amount of success by getting to the rim and scoring in transition. They have players who are interesting to watch and root for (Rubio, Turiaf, Pek, Brewer). The big question is whether they will have more talent than the 12-13 team did without Love; that team was 22-42 without Love, which becomes 28-54 when averaged out to a full season.

Great work as always Britt...

I'm wondering if what Flip is doing is setting up this franchise with some talent and "hope" in terms of being able to bring in another coach in a year/two. It makes sense that Flip had a hard time convincing coaches that this was a place to come this last summer with the Love situation hanging over the teams head. Now, there may be some pieces with which to build around if they perform as promised. I think that some of the coaches that maybe wouldn't make a commitment to the wolves giving their uncertain future may look at us differently next year (or the following summer). I'd actually love to have Hoiberg coach this team next year. I have a feeling that Flip would still rather have Izzo. (A mistake IMHO).

Do you believe that Flip will be willing to give up the reins if the team looks promising?

bricks

I am glad to see that you have embraced my comments from you last article.