Trading for Andrew Wiggins, in many ways, was the first step.
By the end of 2014, Kevin Love had established himself as a premier 3-point shooting big man, an elite rebounder and was widely regarded as the best power forward in the league.
He was also, reportedly, not satisfied with the state of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
By then, the infamous interview with then-Yahoo Sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski was already a couple years old.
“You walk into the locker room every year, and it’s completely turned over,” Love told Wojnarowski in that interview. “There’s new guys everywhere. And then it happens again and again. You start to wonder: Is there really a plan here? Is there really any kind of a … plan?”
That was conducted at a time when David Kahn was running things for the Timberwolves front office, often referred to as the worst era of Timberwolves basketball.
By the end of 2014, Flip Saunders had a year under his belt as president of basketball operations, with Milt Newton as the team’s general manager.
Darko Milicic was gone, as was Al Jefferson. Head coach Rick Adelman had decided to call it a career.
Meanwhile, Nikola Pekovic was at the height of his career, Ricky Rubio had developed a chemistry with both big men and Kevin Martin was still a quality shooting guard.
And Love was having the best season of his career.
It was February of that same season – not the following summer – that the Cleveland Cavaliers first approached the Timberwolves about a trade that would send Love to the Cavs, sources tell Zone Coverage.
In February, of course, there were some hold-ups. Saunders still wanted to work out a way to keep Love, LeBron James was still in Miami and the Cavs hadn’t won the NBA Draft Lottery yet.
And during the time of those original Love-to-Cleveland talks, a source says there “wasn’t really any belief” that James was going to bolt from Miami and return to Cleveland.
This is important; because even after the Cavaliers won the lottery and a deal seemed more appealing to Saunders and the Wolves, Love wasn’t interested in joining a LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers roster.
With Love being on the last year of his deal, the Cavs didn’t feel like they could give up the first pick.
Essentially, dominoes needed to fall first. This trade needed LeBron to come back to Cleveland.
“The reason the LeBron part was so meaningful was LeBron’s presence made it possible for Kevin to be really serious about staying,” a source told Zone Coverage.
So when James decided to join the Cavaliers in the offseason, everything surrounding trade talks jumpstarted again.
From the inside looking out, a couple things made a trade of that first pick very likely.
Before James signed, the meetings with the Cavaliers front office included discussions about the first pick. In other words, they did not discuss Wiggins as a future teammate, but rather as an “asset value of the pick” to get as much talent around James as possible, sources say.
This explains why the famous letter James provided to Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins didn’t include Wiggins on his list of guys he was “looking forward to playing with.” This was not an accident.
This was great news for Saunders, who was a big Wiggins fan even before the deal was done. So even with all the other trades reportedly being offered Minnesota’s way, a chance at getting the first overall pick was hard to pass up.
With all this happening, the Cavaliers got a chance to meet with Love to see if he was more willing to join their organization.
But even as Summer League hit, the Cavaliers still had Wiggins and Anthony Bennett suited up in Vegas.
But this was also right around the time the talks between the two teams really got going. Just a few games into Summer League, Wiggins and Bennett were both pulled from the remaining slate of games.
It was never announced publicly why they were being pulled, but the assumption was it was because of a potential move.
“That’s when things got really heated up,” a source said.
Eventually, the Timberwolves and Cavaliers agreed on the deal for Wiggins and Bennett — another guy Saunders was a big fan of, sources say. Saunders went out and got the 76ers to serve as the third team, which brought Thaddeus Young to Minnesota as well.
The deal was a rarity in nature. Very rarely in NBA history does a top overall pick get traded for a star player, even one of Love’s caliber. But the circumstances called for it.
The trade was also rare in that it legitimately helped both teams in the long run.
The Cavaliers won the NBA title two years after acquiring Love, and Wiggins became a good enough player to warrant a max contract, signing when the opportunity became available.
Of course, problems persist in Cleveland, with reports of internal drama and team-only meetings becoming standard during a mostly-tumultuous Cavs season. Love breaking his hand last week was the icing on the world’s most disappointing cake.
The Cavaliers are 28th in defensive rating and are victim to some of the biggest blowout losses of the season by any team.
One of those teams is the Timberwolves.
While the Wiggins contract sparked some heated discussion over his actual worth, the Timberwolves as a team are experiencing their best season since 2004. Wiggins has had an up-and-down season on the offensive end but has also experienced substantial improvement defensively.
While Wiggins’ improvement was presumably inevitable to a degree, the acquisition of Jimmy Butler has likely had a major impact on his desire to improve on that end.
It’s possible the Cavaliers have hit their peak with this current group of guys, and that’s okay. They won a title two years after acquiring Love and seem to be in need of a spark.
Of course, James’ presence in the Cavaliers locker room makes it hard to ever count them out of anything, including this year’s playoffs.
Meanwhile, Wiggins and the Timberwolves likely have a few years before they hit their highest point. Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are both under 24 years old and are still experiencing their first year playing with a legitimate superstar in Butler.
A title for one team; a bright future for the other. It’s exactly what both teams hoped for when they made the trade in the summer of 2014.
It seems to have worked out.
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