On the morning of May 20, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a team with a murky future, at best. Sitting on long-shot lottery odds after mustering only 33 wins in a weak Eastern Conference, the Cavs had just fired coach Mike Brown — for the second time in half a decade. Their young centerpiece, Kyrie Irving, had regressed on the court in some areas and reports of his disillusionment were becoming increasingly frequent. Anthony Bennett, their first overall draft pick a year earlier, was utterly dismal as a rookie, drawing all the wrong comparisons, and seemingly eradicating Cleveland’s last, best chance to pair a big-time talent with Irving before the point guard upped and left.
Far to the south, the franchise’s erstwhile savior seemed primed to carry the Miami Heat to their third title in four Finals appearances, which would have equaled exactly three more championships than the Cavs have won in their 45-year history.
So, yeah. About that...
Dan Gilbert’s Cavaliers have since hit the lottery (literally), snagged themselves one of the brightest coaching minds in Europe, locked Irving up to a long-term deal, and (you may have heard) brought prodigal son LeBron James back home.
In two short months, the narrative has flipped from “Shouldn’t they just contract the Cavs already, and put those poor fans out of their misery?” to “Hey, do you think Cleveland oughta keep one of the most hyped prospects in a decade and let him develop into LeBron’s version of Scottie Pippen, or should they instead deal that kid for a 25-year-old, three-time All-Star whose game theoretically fits LeBron’s like a glove?”
I, for my part, would unwaveringly trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love in a heartbeat if I thought it was the only way I could get him.*
*Disclaimer: if the Cavs are confident that they can hold out and get Love without moving Wiggins, then OF COURSE they should hold out. It just seems very unlikely that they’d be able to get such a deal done given Minny’s other suitors and the devalued nature of Cleveland’s future first-rounders now that LeBron is back in the fold.
To be clear, Wiggins may very well develop into precisely the type of player — the highly sought-after athletic wing with a great basketball IQ, a plus defender who can be a team’s first or second offensive option — that all teams covet. And sure, it would be virtually* unprecedented to jettison a top overall pick before ever seeing him suit up for an NBA game.
*The only modern-era comparison is the 1993 Draft Day swap of top overall pick Chris Webber for No. 3 pick Penny Hardaway and three future first-rounders, but that deal is easily differentiated from a potential Love/Wiggins trade because Hardaway himself would have been a worthy No. 1 overall selection in his own right. And the bounty of firsts that came with him can’t be overlooked — one of them was even used to select Vince Carter. And yes, Shawn Bradley was taken No. 2 overall. Sorry Sixers fans!
The truth is that players who have accomplished what Kevin Love has by age 25, simply do not come along all that often. Players like Kevin Love becoming available at the onset of their career primes is even rarer, still.
Though an imperfect and sometimes controversial statistic, win shares provides a useful singular approximation of the total value — offensive value, especially — generated by players over the course of a season or career.
Since the ABA-NBA merger, Love ranks 25th on the list of win shares compiled through players’ age 25 season:
The names on this list are impressive and, with very few exceptions, are the ones you would expect. This, despite Love’s injuries and a lockout that limited his minutes (last) and games played (second to last) in comparison to any other player on the list. (The one player who played in fewer games, incidentally, was Michael Jordan, who I understand went on to complete a career of some distinction in the Association.)
For those who prefer their stats a bit more traditional, Love’s 29.6 points-per-100 possessions through age 25 elevates him to the top half of the above list, and his 18.9 rebounds-per-100 possessions ties him with Moses Malone for the top spot in the group. What he’s been able to accomplish during his career to this point has — by any measure — been kind of a big deal.
Simply put, he’s a rarity.
Consider this: if just 24 total players (since 1976) have compiled more win shares by their 26th birthdays than Love has, that means that an average NBA draft can be expected to produce less than one such player of that caliber. Make no mistake, there is very little assurance that a top overall pick — like Wiggins, for example — will end up being the best player in his class, let alone have a career like Love’s. To put a finer point on it, just six of the 33 top overall picks (18 percent) who have finished their age-25 seasons through 2014 appear ahead of Love on the list above.* Anthony Davis, health permitting, will probably get there. Kyrie will need to trend upward to make it. John Wall and even Blake Griffin have virtually no chance. That’s how high the threshold is.
*Those 6 are (chronologically) Magic, Shaq, Duncan, Elton Brand, LeBron, and Dwight Howard.
Andrew Wiggins might get there someday, but even if he does buck the suffocating odds and put up six seasons that rival Love’s first six in the league, the Cavs would still be wise to make the trade. This is because Wiggins will almost certainly need time to grow acclimated to the NBA game, while the “veteran” Love — if you believe history and stuff — is likely to build upon his already impressive skills throughout the remainder of his twenties.
Love may seem like a relative graybeard when juxtaposed against the 19-year-old Wiggins, but the dude is twenty-five. Plenty of players are still a couple years from fully hitting their stride at that point, and the steepness of Love’s development curve doesn’t exactly suggest that he’s done growing as a player. Even if Love’s trend line flattens, though, it would take a bad injury or an unnaturally early decline in skill for him not to exceed the reasonable contributions expected — even optimistically —of Wiggins in his first few seasons.
Surely, removing Love from his starring role in Minnesota and putting him next to James and Irving would take a bite out of his scoring average, but teaming him with two players with such multi-faceted offensive games would be a boon to Love’s passing stats and his already impressive scoring efficiency. Beyond the superficially-compelling arguments — “Everyone plays better next to LeBron James” and “Combining three high-usage players is no sweat when you’re talking about such gifted and willing passers” and “Love, LeBron, and Kyrie each have inside-outside games, so they would be nearly impossible to defend and, oh, that spacing!” and “Seriously, one of these guys is LeBron freaking James, he’ll make it work” — Love’s Minnesota lineup data points convincingly to the likelihood of a fruitful union in Cleveland.
The Timberwolves have been dreadful during Love’s tenure there, but they’ve been significantly less bad when Love has been on the court. (Minnesota has been outscored by 2.1 points-per-100 possessions during Love’s minutes versus 7.2 points-per-100 possessions when he’s on the bench.) Similarly, as the squad as a whole has improved in recent seasons, the margin by which they are better with Love on-court has ballooned — the T-Wolves boasted a point differential of +5.6-per-100 possessions with Love in the game in 2013-’14, nearly 11 points better than their -5.3 deficit with him off-court.
Digging a bit deeper, Love’s career has included 35 instances in which he has played at least 500 minutes with a specific teammate over the course of a single season. In keeping with Minnesota’s general struggles, 25 of those 35 pairings of Love and a teammate have been outscored by the opposition. The 10 pairings that were able to score more points than they allowed are, I believe, relevant to Love’s potential fit in Cleveland.
Note the real and spectacular success that Love and Nikola Pekovic have had together; two editions of their pairing rank first and fourth, respectively, and underscore the importance for Cleveland — should they acquire Love — of either retaining Anderson Varejão (and keeping him healthy) or finding another big who can defend the pick-and-roll and protect the rim since, admittedly, defense is far from Love’s strong suit. Luckily for the Cavs, the (potential) presence of James, Irving and Love would mean that valuable cap space needn’t be allocated to a player capable of Pekovic’s offensive contributions. Instead, Cleveland could spend on a defensive-minded player, and those usually come much cheaper.
Beyond Pekovic, the only other player to make multiple appearances on that list is Rubio, a player whose preternatural passing ability is at or near the level of LeBron himself. The superb 113.1 offensive rating that Rubio and Love sustained over 2,300 minutes last year (their 30 minutes-per-game of shared court time was quite a large sample) speaks to the compounding value of playing two great passers together.
With Love, the Cavs would have three.
The other point guard who paired well with Love last year was J.J. Barea, whose quickness and shot selection makes him something of a (very) poor man’s Irving — with the defensive flaws to match. That the Love/Barea tandem was able to manage a respectable 103.6 defensive rating suggests that a defense that includes Kyrie and Love can be salvaged with good defenders filling out the lineup. Enter the aforementioned Varejão and, oh yeah, that LeBron guy.
Ah, yes, LeBron. How well, exactly, would he and Love play together? King James has now compiled seven consecutive seasons that each stand among the very greatest in the history of the sport. In doing so, however, he’s put an almost unprecedented level of mileage on his still-relatively-young legs. In fact, barring injury, early in the 2014-’15 season, we will see James pass the likes of Elgin Baylor, David Robinson, and (incredibly) Larry Bird in career minutes played. And just as there was no analytical model capable of forecasting the heights that James has now reached, there exists no reliable predictor of what his decline phase will look like. One day, he will, odd as it may seem, decline. It’s certainly possible that each remaining season of LeBron’s career will be the best one he has left. Witnesses once more, the onus is now on the Cavs to make sure they don’t squander LeBron’s second act like they did his first.
Truth be told, Andrew Wiggins might someday become as good as Kevin Love is now. He might even become better than Love when all is said and done. But Love is an elite NBA player right now and, at 25, may still improve. Love’s career peak should coincide perfectly with LeBron’s remaining super-elite seasons — whether there are three or five or 10 of them remaining. No such certainty exists for Wiggins, who could be an early bloomer, a late bloomer, or never bloom at all.
Kevin Love, on the other hand, is in full bloom.