Finding Love in the NBA


Every couple of years, an established or potential star, typically in a smaller market, becomes disgruntled after the team that drafted and developed him cannot deliver what the player feels he deserves. This tradition, popularized by Wilt Chamberlain in the late 1960s, has led to regular movement of top players as their teams are forced to to either trade the franchise cornerstone or risk getting nothing in return for their star player if he leaves in free agency. Over the last decade, these type of trades have increased as maximum contracts have become shorter and more structured under recent Collective Bargaining Agreements, and players have had fewer reasons to stay loyal to their current small market teams. A few of these trades over the last few years include James Harden’s trade from Oklahoma City to Houston in 2012, Chris Paul moving from New Orleans to Houston and Denver sending Carmelo Anthony to New York, both in 2011, and in 2010, Chris Bosh and LeBron James being traded to Miami from Toronto and Cleveland, respectively.

When Kevin Love signed his “four-year” deal in 2012, most predicted that it would lead to this situation. Like Kevin Garnett a decade before, Love has gotten tired of dealing with the limitations presented by playing in Minnesota. The Timberwolves’ mediocre management has been unable to overcome the issues related to being in a small market, and they have advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once in their 25 years in the league. Love’s contract has a player option for a fourth year, which he promised to opt-out of if Minnesota did not improve. Two seasons and two lotteries later, teams are lining up to see if they have enough to get the Timberwolves to officially give up on keeping their franchise player.

Love is a player with the modern skill set of an ideal offensive stretch four, a big rebounder with an accurate shot. He ranked top-10 in both rebounds and three-pointers made, hitting threes at an impressive 38%, while also hitting 82% of his free throws and averaging 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. However, even after six years in the league, it is still unknown whether he can carry a team on his own. He does not have especially good court vision or passing ability, limiting how much the offense can run through him, and his defense and athleticism are both average at best. Because of these shortcomings, he is not a franchise cornerstone in the same way Chris Paul or LeBron James are, but he still has the skills to push a team from competitive to contender in the right situation. Three teams, the Golden State Warriors, the Chicago Bulls, and the Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged as the favorites to land the skilled power forward, but considering his unique skill set, each needs to consider how Love will fit on their team and affect the franchise not only next year, but over the next four or five years, especially since his contract is only guaranteed for next season.

The Golden State Warriors emerged as the early favorites for Love before the draft. Golden State appreciates Love’s ability to stretch the floor and the fact that he is five years younger than the guy he would be replacing, David Lee. Their big hangup is letting Klay Thompson go for Love. The Warriors love their sharpshooting wingman and are extremely hesitant about giving up the versatile Thompson for Love, so they continue to offer other players and assets instead, including Harrison Barnes. Even though I appreciate Thompson, I think it is worth giving him up for a player who fits their team so perfectly. Athletic wings who can shoot come along much more often than big, rebounding power forwards who can shoot, and Thompson is only a year and a half younger than Love. Even if they complete the trade without Thompson, it would be hard to resign both Thompson and Love without paying a significant luxury tax. If they do the deal with Lee, Thompson, and a future first round pick for Love and Kevin Martin, they will be able to replace most of what Thompson contributed with Martin and new signings Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush.

The Chicago Bulls recently became a contender for Love, but unlike the Warriors, the Bulls’ decision is not clear cut. Chicago does not have any players the Timberwolves covet nearly as much as Thompson, so they would have to get creative to put together a package that may entice Minnesota enough to let Love go. Rumors have indicated that the package would most likely include Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and at least one, possibly two, future first round picks. The Bulls would be giving up all their front court depth, most of their shooting, and mortgaging their future to make a run with Love now. The problem with that strategy involves the uncertainty around Derrick Rose. In the short term, a healthy Rose, along with Joakim Noah, Love, Jimmy Butler, and new addition Pau Gasol could contend in the East, but is it worth giving up two first rounders, two players under 24, and a reasonably priced veteran to get there? Probably not, especially since one of those young players, Mirotic, is a stretch four from Real Madrid with a lot of potential. Also, on a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, the best player should probably not be mediocre at defense. Minnesota and Chicago would also have to involve a third team with cap space, like the 76ers, to take on a salary, like Martin’s, in exchange for an asset like a draft pick. Even though the trade would help in the short term, the Bulls are better off moving forward with Rose, Noah, Gibson, and Gasol while waiting to see how their young players develop under Thibodeau.

Soon after Cleveland re-signed the best player in the world, rumors began to swirl that the Cavaliers were going to make a run at Love. Sources and analysts both inside and outside the organization felt that a Love-James-Kyrie Irving core would guarantee contention over the next five years while further cementing the Cavs’ position as the team to beat in the East. Even though Love would undoubtedly make the Cavs co-favorites for the championship with the Spurs, and he does fit head coach David Blatt’s European offensive scheme, trading for Love would really limit the Cavs’ long-term potential. Any trade for Love would most likely involve Andrew Wiggins, which I think is too high of a cost for the Cavs. Cleveland should be in no rush to uproot their team. They just signed the best player in the world and are the top contender in the Eastern Conference. Giving up Wiggins, who would have the opportunity to develop under James and should be a great defensive and athletic complement to the best player in the world, would be a huge mistake long-term. The Cavs do not need another star right now, they need assets to insure they have the flexibility to add complimentary players to help Irving, James, and Anderson Varejao win now. James also deserves the opportunity to be the alpha dog on a championship team, which was denied to him last summer when his teammates on the Heat broke down and the franchise was unable to provide him with the support they needed due to lack of assets. I have no problem giving up Dion Waiters or even Anthony Bennett to get another front court player who can contribute and stretch the floor, but giving up Wiggins, a player who could pick up the torch after LeBron, is way too much for a very good one-way player who would be the third option in the offense.

If the Spurs’ championship has remind us of anything, it is that it does not necessarily take three young superstars to win a championship, you just need the right players and chemistry. Basketball is the sport most influenced by individual players, and whenever a star becomes available, there is hope and excitement throughout the league that he can make a difference in winning the championship. However, aside from LeBron or maybe Kevin Durant, no player is priceless and there is a limit about how much a team should spend to get any player. Most teams would love to add a player like Love to their roster, but they have to be careful about not getting caught up in the hype and mortgaging their future for a slightly better present.