Hope is a funny thing in sports. For teams and fans, it means that their current situation is bound to improve in either the short term or the longterm. Hope is what gives fans of annual lottery contenders reason to tune in, buy tickets, or generally care, year in and year out. And when you have that hope, you have something tangible that you can point to at the end of the day that tells you better times are ahead of you. For two teams in in the Kevin Love trade– the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers –this holds true.
Talk to a Timberwolves’ fan about their thoughts on the last few years and it’s likely that they’ll bring up the decade-long playoff drought. It’s been the monkey on their backs that they’ve been unable to shake since I was a sophomore in high school. Since then, they’ve endured two separate rebuilds, and now a third with the acquisitions of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thad Young. Starting over is always difficult, but especially when your patience is tested each year. Timberwolves fans have been sold on the likes of Rashad McCants, Jonny Flynn, and Al Jefferson as franchise saviors, with each coming year the year the drought finally ends.
While that year has yet to come for fans since 2004, this time feels different, and there is once again hope that things will come around. Not that Kevin Love or Jefferson aren’t exceptional players, but they were surrounded by mediocrity and questionable decision makers for years. And by the time that Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic were laid as cornerstones, it had become too late for the Kevin Love era. However, the team starts again with Wiggins as the new, eventual face of the franchise. And this is the reason that things feel different: the team isn’t being torn down to the studs. Rubio and Pekovic will be there. So will Gorgui Dieng and a handful of other useful players. There are also enough veterans surrounding the team’s youth so that they won’t have to have their development rushed in the name of keeping fan interest.
If this benefits anyone, it’s Anthony Bennett. After an offseason shoulder surgery and a breathing issue combined to sabotoge his conditioning, Bennett endured one of the worst rookie seasons imaginable. While Bennett never asked to be the number one pick, his draft slot still carried some lofty expectations. While it remains to be seen if Bennett is actually any good, he moves to a far better situation in Minnesota. With the Timberwolves, he won’t be expected to carry a team to the playoffs. No, all he will be asked to do is hold down the backup power forward position behind Thad Young, and life will be fine for him. This way, not unlike Wiggins, he will be able to develop at his own pace since nobody is expecting the Timberwolves in the playoffs next season.
As for Young and his early termination option for next season, he’ll get a look at the team’s situation and be able to decide what he wants to do. While it may have seemed obvious to exercise that option next summer with a Philadelphia team appearing to have no immediate interest in winning, the direction may be more apparent in Minnesota. While he’s just 26 years old, the idea of enduring rebuild after rebuild has to be exhausting. But with a likely promising foundation present and Young may try to wait this one out. After all, Young is a big reason that the Timberwolves would be ill-advised to bottom out at this point.
On the other hand, there are the Cavaliers. For the last four years Dan Gilbert has been trying frantically to get back into the playoffs. There have been coaching changes, Kyrie Irving’s development, and a good amount of pressure on the likes of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Last season in the Eastern Conference, it was feasible that a team like the Cavaliers could sit awkwardly on a horseshoe and catapult themselves into a low playoff seed. But that never came to be, and it never felt entirely possible without LeBron James. In fact, it was James’ signing that caused Love to do a 180 on the city of Cleveland, and now the Cavaliers have true hope of returning to contention.
It’s an admirable thing to try to build through the draft, but unless you’re going to connect on a Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in back-to-back years, you’re going to have to be patient. Some teams can do that, but the Cavaliers didn’t seem to buy into the virtue of that option over the last several years to make it work. While Waiters, Thompson and Bennett were intriguing prospects, the team never had much interest in waiting for them to develop before their playoff aspirations.
Now, with all of that being said, there is nothing wrong with building a contender through trade and free agency. In fact, it makes a lot more sense to acquire multiple superstars to expedite the rebuilding process if you want to win-now instead of trudging through the lottery every year trying to accomplish the same thing. We saw the Indiana Pacers build one heck of a team, but that was the product of years of drafting. And by the time they did add David West, they already had Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Paul George and Lance Stephenson in tow. Plus, they had already made the playoffs, further demonstrating how tedious this approach can be, so I don’t blame Cleveland for not wanting to wait that process out.
A core of James, Irving and Love will be very good…eventually. Unless you’re the 2008 Celtics, very few teams can add this much talent so quickly and hit the ground running. James saw this with his Heat back in 2010, who went from looking like a dress rehearsal on opening night to the Flying Death Machine we saw by the end of his time in Miami.
Here’s the other thing: it’s very likely that this team won’t be as bad defensively as people think. Adding a player of James’ caliber can go a long way to invigorate a lethargic defensive culture. There was a rap on Chris Bosh for being a subpar defender in Toronto, but became very good in Miami. In fact, Irving has already looked like a changed player on the defensive end with Team USA. Even Love, narratives be damned, is capable of being a good-not-great defender. The big issue with Love’s defensive focus is keeping him motivated, which his Minnesota teams rarely did for him. When it was an All-Star starting spot on the line, he was in the right spot at the right time, and knew what to do. But when there wasn’t much for him to get excited about, he lapsed or became somewhat disinterested.
To my point, during the ’11-’12 season, Love had the following defensive ratings to begin the season: 101 in December; 100 in January; and 102 February over 33 games. After the break he posted defensive ratings of 109 and 117 as the Timberwolves’ season slipped away. It’s as if Love got tired of doing all of the work (Which showed on his face by March of each season) on both ends and took his rests on the defensive end. Now, look at these Cavaliers. It’s not very likely they won’t have anything to play for in March, and neither will he have to do all the work. So, yes, Love can be a capable defender, and the Cavaliers will benefit for it.
The Kevin Love trade was a very rare one in which multiple teams in the trade benefited. Minnesota got hope that a return to relevancy will happen sooner than later, and Cleveland once again has hopes of contention. On top of that, both teams will be a treat to watch. The Timberwolves with their fun run-and-gun roster and Cavaliers with their Love-to-LeBron outlet passes will both be pleasurable for everyone.
Hope can be a tricky thing, but this time both of these teams can justify it, moreso than they have been able to in recent years.