Kevin Love trade: Timberwolves have done this, and failed, before
By Andy Greder St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS — The first time the Timberwolves traded their franchise player, the plan was to rebuild a team that would be back in the postseason within two to three years.
It’s now 10 and counting, the longest active postseason skid in the NBA.
“I think that when you give up a top-10 player, it’s the exception to the rule that you survive,” said George Karl, an ESPN analyst.
The question now is whether the Timberwolves can be the exception. Last time, they weren’t.
Minnesota got five players and two first-round draft picks when they sent Kevin Garnett to Boston in July 2007. The Celtics got an NBA title in 2008; the Timberwolves, as their fans well know, got nowhere.
Since then, the Wolves are on their fifth head coach, third front-office boss and no playoff appearances. Yet, they’re again on the verge of trading one of the NBA’s best players as soon as Saturday, the first day they can finalize a deal to send sweet-shooting, big-rebounding power forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for 19-year-old Andrew Wiggins, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft.
In reality, Minnesota has virtually no choice. Love has told the Wolves in no uncertain terms that if they don’t trade him, he will play this season and walk next summer as a free agent, leaving president of basketball operations Flip Saunders to salvage what he can.
The deal has been widely reported as virtually done, awaiting apparently only the NBA’s month-long moratorium since Wiggins signed his rookie contract on July 24. It might include power forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, and a future first-round pick. It also could be made into a three-team deal that includes Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young.
Whatever the details, Karl is skeptical.
“In general, I think Minnesota could have gotten more,” he said. “They should have gotten more.”
But will it get them back to the postseason for the first time since their 2004 run to the Western Conference finals, the lone high point for one of the NBA’s least successful franchises?
In the tough Western Conference, Karl said, “They probably don’t see the playoffs for at least two years, maybe three.”
For long-suffering Minnesota NBA fans, that might be OK.
Pitfalls of potential Garnett led the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances, from 1997 to 2004, though they advanced past the first round only once. They had missed the playoff the final three years of Garnett’s era and trading him to Boston was to be a stepping-stone to another series of postseason appearances.
The Wolves wanted young players, salary cap relief and draft picks and got all three in Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair; Theo Ratliff’s $11.7 million contract off the spreadsheet; and two 2009 first-round draft picks.
Jefferson was the key piece. Only 22, he had just averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Celtics, and the Wolves believed he could develop into an all-star player with cornerstone capabilities.
“We have obtained very talented young players with a lot of potential,” Wolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale said in a statement announcing the trade. “This will not be an overnight fix, but it is the big step in renewing our commitment to build an exciting franchise for our fans.”
By any standard, the trade was a bust. Jefferson played up to par, but was sidelined by a torn ACL in 2009 and traded to Utah in 2010. With those 2009 draft picks, the Wolves selected point guard Jonny Flynn and off guard Wayne Ellington and infamously passed on Golden State all-star Stephen Curry.
So much for rebuilding.
Wiggins’ potential might make it easier for fans to stomach another rebuilding effort. The 6-foot-8 Canadian out of Kansas University projects to be a perennial all-star like Love and Garnett before him, but that doesn’t make the Wolves winners in the trade.
Former NBA and Vancouver Grizzlies executive Stu Jackson, now an NBA TV analyst, said the team that usually receives the best player in a trade comes out ahead. But, he added, given what Minnesota reportedly will receive, Saunders did the best he could.
“I would say that Minnesota did very well for themselves given the caliber of the young players and the totality of the assets,” Jackson said.
Happy returns? But could they have gotten more?
A purported deal with Golden State stalled because it was never clear whether off guard Klay Thompson, the key piece, was truly on the trading block. Chicago reportedly was willing to send a combination of players that included 2014 first-round draft pick Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler to put Love alongside Derrick Rose, but a deal never materialized.
Karl was Denver’s coach when the Nuggets traded their best player, Carmelo Anthony, to the Knicks as part of a three-team deal in 2011. The Nuggets got Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, three draft picks and cash — and made the playoffs the next three seasons.
“We got three guys that could play 25 to 30 minutes, and we also got draft picks to go with it,” said Karl, who was NBA coach of the year in 2012-13. “When you’re giving up the best player in the deal, you’re hoping for a lot in return and some future potential in return.”
Although the Wolves have some good players, such as point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic, the Love deal isn’t expected to play quick dividends. The real winner “is not going to be determined until we know what Wiggins is going to become,” Karl said.
In Wiggins, the Wolves would get a supremely athletic wing player who will need time to develop. And Minnesota, with longtime NBA coach Saunders, might be a better place for him to develop than in a frontcourt with LeBron James on a team aiming for a title this season.
“I think Flip knows how to take players and give them good opportunities and situations,” Karl said. “I think Wiggins, in some sense, has a better chance to come (along) faster in Minnesota than he would have in Cleveland.”
If Bennett is sent to Minnesota instead of Philadelphia, Saunders will be tasked with developing a preliminary draft bust. The No. 1 pick in 2013, he averaged 4.2 points, three rebounds and shot an unsightly 36 percent from the field last season. Further, a knee injury limited him to 12.8 minutes in just 52 games.
“With his performance this year, you can’t say anything but ‘disappointment,’ ” Karl said. “It was a disappointment from the standpoint of physicality. It was a disappointment in his performance. It was probably a disappointment from his mental commitment — what it takes to be a pro.”
But, Karl added, “We’re all still in the dark on what could happen with him. He has things that great players have,” size (6-8, 240 pounds) and “great hands.”
Jackson concurred, adding that Bennett was an improved player at the Las Vegas summer league in July.
“I saw a player that exhibited a commitment to get his body in shape, and what you saw was his game start to catch up,” Jackson said.
Current roster The departure of Love after six seasons — including 26-point, 12-rebound and 4-assist averages in 2013-14 — creates leadership opportunities for Rubio and Pekovic.
“As long as Kevin Love was there, they were going to be the secondary guys. Now, that personality didn’t make the playoffs,” Karl said. “I don’t think Minnesota has a bad roster. They just haven’t been able to be a playoff roster. I’d say three of the last four years, it’s been injury-ridden more than performance-ridden.”
Jackson sees the Wolves making a concerted effort to get more athletic, starting with picking up Zach LaVine with the 13th pick in the June draft.
“If they develop properly over the next two or three years, I think you’re really going to have the start of something,” Jackson said, echoing the same playoff timeline as Karl.
“As young players, it takes them a couple, three years to really get their footing,” Jackson said. “If they have the proper veteran leadership, it will take two or three years until they understand how to win NBA games.”
But the Wolves are losing their most-proven talent. Love trailed only LeBron James and Kevin Durant in Win Shares, a basketball-reference.com metric to determine an estimated number of wins contributed to a team. Love had 14.3, while James had 15.9 and Durant had 19.2.
Meanwhile, ESPN said no NBA star had less support in his career than Love. Zero teammates had a Win Share above seven last season. Rubio and Pekovic each had 5.9.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with the Forum News Service.