Trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick for Kevin Love has officially worked out. Give it whatever grade you want going forward, but Love was a key member of the team that delivered the franchise its first championship. Therefore it was a success. Love also re-signed in Cleveland to a five-year, $110 million deal in 2015 and made the All-Star Game this season, further justifying the outlay.
But as Minnesota visits Cleveland on Wednesday, it is worth checking in on the Wolves' end of the deal. As was widely reported at the time, the Wolves preferred to do a deal with the Golden State Warriors built around Klay Thompson. The Warriors ultimately backed out after adviser Jerry West and coach Steve Kerr objected.
Then Wolves president Flip Saunders made the deal because he felt it was the best he could make at the time. Though before his death in October 2015, Saunders told friends he believed the Warriors were willing to revisit the trade after the talks with the Cavs became public.
Saunders preferred a more established player, which is why he targeted Thompson first, but he felt good about the deal after Wiggins won the rookie of the year award in 2015. Bennett was bought out after one season and is now out of the league. Saunders flipped the pick the Cavs sent to the Philadelphia 76ers for veteran forward Thaddeus Young and later traded Young to bring back Kevin Garnett, who played just 43 games before retiring.
At the end of the day, the trade ended up being Wiggins-for-Love.
Wiggins appears to have always circled Cavs matchups to prove a point. He got a quick lesson in the business of the league when the Cavs drafted and celebrated him as No. 1 overall pick only to trade him two months later. He handled it with class, never publicly complaining about the unprecedented and somewhat disrespectful situation. But it's clear he hasn't forgotten.
Rather transparently, Wiggins has been more prolific against the Cavs than any other team, averaging 28.8 points in his first four meetings while shooting 57 percent. His uptick in aggression in these games has been noticeable, which is relevant.
Now in his third season, Wiggins' career has been characterized by breathtaking moments offset by long, frustrating doldrums. He is regarded by scouts and executives as one of the most talented players in the league but also the most frustrating because his effort ebbs and flows. When he's fully engaged, he can be nearly unstoppable. And against the Cavs, he has usually been fully engaged.
Recently, he has been playing well as he has scored 20 or more points in six straight games. He's averaging a career-high 22 points a game and coach Tom Thibodeau continues to show trust in him, running the offense through him late in games.
Monday night he hit a contested jumper to force overtime in an eventual win over the Orlando Magic. Last week, he made his first career game-winner, nailing a leaner at the buzzer to win in Phoenix. In all, the Wolves have won eight of their past 11 games, the best run of Wiggins' career that has also gotten them into playoff contention. For a team with a 13-year playoff drought, that is no small feat.
Yet Wiggins has also been disappointing along the way. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and nearly a 9-foot standing reach, Wiggins has all the tools to be a dominating defensive player. That has not been the case and often it has appeared to be tied to inconsistent effort.
Wiggins rates 77th of 79 qualified small forwards in ESPN's Real Plus Minus data, a metric that judges a player's impact on the score based on defensive possessions. Last season he was 25th among small forwards. The backslide has been unexpected with Thibodeau harping on his techniques and effort. Beyond the stats, it is clear there were times when Wiggins was just not engaged defensively.
It shows in more basic stats, like his rebound average of just 4.3 per game and that he averages less than a steal per game and just 0.4 blocks per game. These are unexpected numbers for a player with his physical skill set. At the start of the season, Wiggins admitted in interviews that he had to improve his hustle stats. But to this point the results have been mostly absent.
Wiggins has improved certain aspects of his game. One of the most noticeable is his ballhandling, he has more polished escape dribbling techniques that help him create space when being tightly guarded. It was never more on display than with this game-winner, in which he shook Suns defender P.J. Tucker and gathered himself to hit the pressure shot. But overall, his shooting numbers have been mostly flat since his rookie year, which is concerning.
He also has been maddening at the foul line under pressure. He's shooting just 62 percent at the line in clutch situations this season, though it's actually improved over the past few weeks. Previously, he was at about 50 percent.
Those misses have contributed to the Wolves' woeful performance in close games, having started the season 0-10 in games decided by four points or less. Wiggins has been better lately and, therefore, so have the Wolves. They've won their past four tight games. In a short span in the fourth quarter Monday night, Wiggins had a thunderous dunk in traffic -- his explosion and lift being classic examples of his ability -- but also had two mindless unforced turnovers on bad passes. They contributed to Minnesota blowing a seven-point lead. There was Wiggins in a nutshell, topped off by the clutch jumper that saved a game his team should've lost.
Wiggins won't be at All-Star Weekend; he's too experienced for the Rookie-Sophomore game and not yet accomplished enough to make the big game. He likely wasn't close to being voted in as a reserve. He hasn't made the jump that so many great players do by their third year in the league.
It's impossible to know what would've happened had Wiggins played alongside James the past three seasons in Cleveland, where he wouldn't have had as large of a burden but his performance would have been under a more intense microscope. With the way James has sometimes treated the much more accomplished Love -- subtweets and all -- there's a chance Wiggins would've been worse for the wear with James' expectations.
Wiggins won't be 22 for three more weeks. He promises to have a long and highly productive career. Whether he will mature into a difference-making superstar is still an open question. The Wolves will probably bet on it and give him a huge contract extension before next season.
The Cavs will probably take a look at their banner and feel good about their choice.