NBA coaches and front office executives know exactly the pressure Flip Saunders was under when it became public that Kevin Love wanted out of town.
“The entire league gets put on notice that a true star talent is available,” said Tom Penn, longtime NBA front office executive and current ESPN analyst. “And replacing that star talent is nearly impossible to do with a trade.”
It’s expected to be made official Saturday that Love will be the fifth NBA star player since 2011 to force a trade before being allowed to hit the free-agent market. The three-team trade will net the Wolves the No. 1 overall picks from the past two drafts — Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — plus Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young, while Love ends up in Cleveland alongside recent free-agent signee LeBron James. The deal couldn’t be made until 30 days after Wiggins signed his rookie contract.
In recent trades involving NBA superstars, there are two basic trade tacks: You can trade for potential or try for known commodities and hope to avoid the dip that comes with rebuilding. Saunders clearly tilted toward rebuilding.
Saunders initially talked with Golden State, trying for a deal that would have brought Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes to Minnesota. That deal was torpedoed by the Warriors’ reluctance to part with Thompson, a budding star.
Reviews of the Love deal are mixed, as are almost all NBA trades that involve unhappy All-Stars. In the end, Saunders had to make a deal that likely will signify another stab at rebuilding by a franchise that has been in rebuilding mode since Kevin Garnett left town in 2007.
“I think Flip did a very good job here, getting identifiable hope in Wiggins,” said Penn, who interviewed for the Wolves GM job in 2009. “He is a true star-potential player. There is no doubt about that. He is not a sure thing. But his ceiling is so high, there is good reason for hope in Minnesota, at the end of the day.”
It is a move that makes the Timberwolves’ roster younger and one that replaces a known talent with potential. It also makes the team more athletic, giving the franchise cost certainty and salary cap flexibility going forward. Still, the deal will only be as good as Wiggins becomes.
“I think if Wiggins turns out to be a good player, it will set Minnesota back a lot,” said Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst. “If he turns out to be a very good player, it’s a good trade. If he turns into a perennial All-Star, the Wolves hit a grand slam.”
Proven talent or potential?
George Karl was head coach in Denver when Carmelo Anthony forced his way out. In Karl’s words, the Nuggets tried to regroup rather than rebuild. They got a number of proven NBA players — though none was a star — in the deal. Orlando got a mix of quality players and draft picks when it traded Dwight Howard to the Lakers in a four-team deal in 2012.
Karl has been on record questioning the deal mainly because of the lack of proven production coming to Minnesota.
“It’s a trend to take that step back and go with young guys and try to build a culture of success through losing,” Karl said. “I don’t think it works. When you lose 60 games you’re building a culture of losing, not success.”
But both Van Gundy and Penn said they feel that, given the circumstances, Saunders did about as well as he could. Especially given the potential Wiggins brings.
“Wiggins is a top-five talent in any draft,” Penn said. “He gives you the tingles when you see the stuff he can do. You just don’t see other human beings with that skill set. Yes, he is undeveloped. He has things he has to work on. But he is a two-way player who can affect the game both ways. If he is willing to work and learn he could be a top-notch talent.”
Said Van Gundy: “Flip did as well as you could do. He did better than I expected him to be able to do. Wiggins, in Minnesota, is going to get opportunities in Minnesota. He will be in a great [offensive] system, he’ll be able to grow and develop.”
And, should he develop the way the Wolves hope, Saunders will have some flexibility to add to the roster as the team improves.
“Roster flexibility is very important,” Penn said. “When you don’t have those huge financial commitments you have the ability to get better in a hurry, going forward, in a different way. If Wiggins talent comes to fruition, the team will have salary cap flexibility to put a solid team around him.”
The only certainty at this point is that the Wolves roster is going to look a lot different. Saunders and his staff will be challenged to turn Bennett from a first-year flop into a serviceable NBA player. Young will provide much-needed scoring.
The prospect of athletic rookies Zach LaVine and Wiggins running the floor with Ricky Rubio is a captivating one. But don’t expect too much too soon.
“I love the idea of LaVine and Wiggins being complementary to each other, flying up and down the court with Rubio driving the train,” Penn said. “It could be exciting. But the reality is, they won’t quite know where to fly or what to do for a while. That’s why it won’t translate into wins right away.”
Penn points to Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook, who came into the league as an exceptional athlete whose game needed polishing. “There were some painful stages as he grew into what he’s become,” Penn said. “He and [Kevin] Durant, as spectacular as they are, didn’t win many games together their first year together.”
Both Van Gundy and Penn said the fact that Saunders both brokered the deal and will coach the resulting roster is a good thing, a sign the entire organization is on the same page.
It’s just a matter of finding out where Wiggins goes.
“Hopefully Wiggins is the next Garnett,” Van Gundy said. “A guy who is all in, loves Minnesota and the Timberwolves, doesn’t want to go anywhere else to win, plants his roots and becomes an all-time great.”
Van Gundy said he remembered how hard it was to win at Target Center during the height of the Garnett years. “That place was hopping,” he said. “It’s a great basketball town. That’s why I hope Wiggins turns into a Garnett-type presence.”