What a difference a year can make. A year ago today the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love. The deal was the first trade of many that helped transform the Cavs from a talented young group that would be carried by LeBron James into a legitimate title contender for the foreseeable future.
When teams make trades in the NBA both sides usually believe the deal will benefit their team, but very rarely does a trade look like an outright win for both teams like this one. With Love committing to the Cavaliers for five years this summer and the Wolves adding Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft, both teams have cores that appear to be poised for future success.
Andrew Wiggins was able to go to a situation where he would be able to get the touches necessary to make mistakes and learn from them. If he ever was going to become a star player in the NBA, the situation that he is in now is much more likely to bring that star out of him. While his ability to slash and get to the line would be helpful to the Cavs, there simply wouldn't be many touches available playing next to LeBron and Kyrie Irving. The availability of touches was a concern after the signing of LeBron, but with Kyrie breaking out as a bona-fide superstar last season there would be even fewer touches available than people figured. Although one could make a convincing argument that Irving wouldn't have had nearly as good of a season without Love.
Wiggins would likely have been relegated into a role similar to the one Iman Shumpert was put in after being acquired from the Knicks, which would be very far from maximizing his talents. If you feel the Cavs didn't put enough emphasis on maximizing Kevin Love's talents, you can assured that they wouldn't go out of their way to cater the offense to an eighteen year old rookie. Without the trade the Cavs would still be in need of a shooting guard that could space the floor, a big man that could stretch the floor so LeBron and Irving can operate and a rim protecting center. While David Griffin did a fantastic job turning Dion Waiters and a first round pick into Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith and a second round pick, it's unlikely he would be able to adequately fill that list of needs with the limited number of trade-able assets the Cavs possessed. Plus Bennett's contract - he's due a little more than $5 million this year - would limit options and would likely require attaching picks to him just to move him out for cap space.
On the other side of the deal there's Love. Love had a down year statistically as he adjusted to not being the number one option he used to be; averaging 16.2 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. While those numbers are far cry from his career best season in 2013-2014, they certainly aren't anything to sneeze at. Those numbers come with the context of the chemistry struggles the entire team went through at the beginning of the season, as well as the back spasms and knee trouble that plagued the first three quarters of his season. Towards the end of the season and in the first round of the playoffs we saw a glimpse of what this Cavs team can look like with a Love that is hitting his stride. With two days of rest Love averaged 20.6 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, so even if you feel like he wasn't used as well as he could have been, he still was putting up significant numbers when he was physically right.
But basketball is a team sport and the greatest impact of Love on the Cavs is not found in his individual numbers. His versatility as an offensive player means that he can operate in the low post, high post, baseline and beyond the three point line. The spacing he creates allows Irving and James to get to the rim and he is nowhere near as bad defensively as he is perceived. While his pick and roll defense is poor and his rim protection isn't great, he plays good man defense and has shown a willingness to take charges, even with on and off back problems during the year. The numbers speak for themselves, the Cavs were better by 4.8 points per hundred possessions on offense and game up three points per hundred possessions fewer when Love was on the court. The difference was even greater in the playoffs with +13.2 net rating with Love on the court. While most expect some improvement from Love in his second year with the Cavs, the fact of the matter is he was a part of a historically good team once all the pieces were together. He was a massive part of the Cavs being 33-3 with the big three together after the January trades and at only 26 years old there's reason to believe his best days as a basketball player are still ahead of him.
So in the end, the Timberwolves were able to move a player who was upset with how he was treated and turn him into a player with a reasonable shot at being a cornerstone piece of a contender. In exchange, the Cavs received a cornerstone piece to their contender that can help maximize the back years of LeBron prime and evolve into a more featured role along with Irving once James is no longer able to play the incredibly high level we have all been accustomed to for so long. The trade was an intelligent decision and a calculated risk by Griffin. Even if Wiggins doesn't become a star player or if Love has something unforeseen happen to him, the deal was an intelligent one that put both teams in a position that is better than if they were to stand pat. That's what every team strives for when making a trade.