Assuming the reports we’ve seen the last few days are accurate, Andrew Wiggins will become a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the end of the month as a result of a huge blockbuster deal sending All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the Cavs, the logic is undeniable. They get a top 3 power forward to pair with LeBron and Kyrie Irving, forming yet another formidable trio with LeBron as the centrepiece, and catapulting themselves into the depths of the league’s elite, becoming arguably the favorites to win the East, if not it all.
Giving up Wiggins however, is not easy. The top draft pick from June is by NBA standards already a terrific defender with exceptional leaping ability and is one of the most impressive athletes in the league. There’s no question that he and LeBron would form one of the most devastating wing duos defensively, even going as far as seeing a bit of the same qualities Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had alongside each other. Their pressing defense and half-court traps were outstanding, frequently forcing opponents into forced passes, turnovers or simply instilling panic in them.
In fact, not having Wiggins on board, will make these Cavaliers considerably worse defensively from the get-go, and likely put too much pressure on LeBron to be a game-changer on that end of the floor.
Irving is one of the most inconsistent and undisciplined defenders in the league, frequently getting himself and others in trouble by not reading the floor properly, or not knowing his opponents. Irving is the type of guy who will go over the screen against Ricky Rubio, and under the screen on Stephen Curry, because he hasn’t considered the consequences of his decision. Granted, LeBron will help change that as he has a wonderful basketball mind and will point out these things as soon as he sees them, but to expect Irving in one season to become just an adequate defender, is pushing it.
Kevin Love himself is frequently underrated as a defender, although what he delivers on that end still isn’t good. He can’t challenge shots at the rim, he doesn’t have the quickness and agility to consistently put himself into proper positioning, and let’s face it, he does have a tendency to chase rebounds, even if that claim is drastically overrated compared to reality.
With Wiggins gone, Cleveland would likely throw out Dion Waiters at the two unless they sign Ray Allen, who at best is a shaky defender. Waiters is awfully similar to Stephen Jackson in the sense that Jackson could play exquisite defense when his mind was right and he was into the game, but looked careless and uninvolved whenever he wasn’t. Waiters’s defensive peak isn’t the same as Jackson’s, but when he catches the flow of the game, he’ll work harder and more often than not end up playing psychically sound team defense. Maybe the stars will align for him more frequently with LeBron on board – that’s undoubtedly the hope in Cleveland at least – but with a guy as emotional as Waiters, you just don’t know.
With an assumed starting unit of Anderson Varejao, Love, LeBron, Waiters, and Irving, Cleveland isn’t exactly a deep defensive team. Bench guys in form of Mike Miller and James Jones also struggle on that end of the floor, which means you’d have to rely on Tristan Thompson to play a similar role as Taj Gibson does in Chicago, where he can come off the bench and zone in defensively, while only getting opportunity buckets.
Cleveland will properly manage somehow, but with Wiggins on board instead of Love, the defensive structure would be almost reversed. Instead of having just two players on the court who can defend at an acceptable level, the Wiggins line-up would carry four, seeing as Waiters will be used as a sixth man, and Thompson getting major burn at the four. Wiggins is agile enough to slide over to both wing spots, which means the Cavs also lose some flexibility. Love has played 35% of his career minutes at center, but has never functioned well as the last line of defense, meaning Minnesota always sacrificed defense when they put him in smaller line-ups for scoring purposes.
Offensively, there’s no question that the Cavs are league’s better with Love than a rookie Wiggins who still struggles shooting the long ball, but you have to wonder how much of a concern that is given that all three of LeBron, Irving and Waiters can put up 30 on any given night, with LeBron likely averaging something near that, on high efficiency.
Given that the Eastern Conference is more defensive-minded than the West, Cleveland’s need for versatile scoring is a fair one. Even Chicago, or Indiana had Paul George not gone down, would have trouble chasing Love and Irving off the three-point line, while simultaneously keeping LeBron away from the rim. But even so, there is at least something to the idea that Wiggins in the very near future, assuming he was playing alongside LeBron and gaining valuable playoff experience, could become an absolute monster two-way player in this league. His offense, while flawed, isn’t broken. He’s got improving handles, which is ridiculously valuable for a 6’8-6’9 wing who has a huge first step and terrific length. He can finish plays, be one of the best transition scorers in the game, and a guy who will develop under LeBron at his own pace, thus lowering the risk of him forcing the issue as an offensive player.
Trading off potential for immediate impact has always been a hot topic for NBA fans, and this will prove to be one of those examples that will be used and re-used in the future. Cleveland knows Wiggins is special, but they’re intentionally ignoring it because they’re hungry for a ring. I get that. You get that. Everyone gets that. But what happens if Cleveland goes ringless, with Wiggins blossoming into a super-duper star in Minnesota? Acquiring Love would then be viewed as a “Good effort” move, but maybe not the right one if Wiggins and LeBron together could extend that championship window and win not one, not two, not three…