MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s a question that is going to be asked over and over again as time goes on, but it especially can’t be avoided on a night such as Saturday, when the up-and-coming rookie explodes for a career high in points and almost leads the worst team in the NBA to an upset of the league’s newest super-squad:
As much as Saturday’s pregame story was about Love’s first return to Minnesota since the trade and how the fans would receive him (for the record, there were boos, but even Love admitted with a smile afterward, “truth be told, I thought it was a pretty good reception”), after Wiggins dropped 33 points on 14-for-25 shooting and had the Wolves leading the Cavs by five early in the fourth quarter, the only postgame thought is: Did the Cavs give up on him too soon?
Before we attempt to answer the question, let’s establish some truths.
Truth 1: Cleveland is just fine how they are right now. Yes, the Cavs had a slow start, and yes, at 29-20, they only have the fifth-best record in the East, but their 106-90 win over Minnesota was their 10th straight. They got it on the road after finishing a brutal stretch of four games in five nights, and they still managed to hold the Wolves to 41.5 percent shooting as a team -- keeping up their standard as the No. 1 defense in the league in defensive field goal percentage over their past eight games.
Truth 2: Comparing Love’s stats this season to Wiggins’ stats this season doesn’t mean anything. Sure, that Wiggins is averaging 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game while shooting a respectable 36.7 percent from 3 tends to appear more glass half-full than the glass half-empty 17.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and just 32.9 percent from 3 for Love. That's because Love’s numbers have all taken a considerable dip from the past season, when he was at 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 37.6 percent from deep, but let’s consider context. First, every game Love is playing in matters. There is an incredible amount of scrutiny, and the opponent is almost always giving the Cavs its best shot (as Minnesota showed Saturday).
Meanwhile, the Wolves are a cellar-dweller, and wins are not expected. You have to know Wiggins’ numbers -- on a losing team in a league that’s only about winning -- don’t matter as much as the numbers Love put up, which were questioned, during his six postseason-less years with the Wolves.
Second, Love is playing with guys such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving every night, while Wiggins teamed up Saturday with Lorenzo Brown, a guy on a 10-day contract who played all but five seconds in the game. Of course Wiggins is going to get the ball.
Although Wiggins said after the game, “I feel like this is the best spot for me” and “I feel like I’ve grown a lot more here than I would’ve there,” remember, he is talking about growing as a No. 1 option. Whereas Love has never been asked to be that for the Cavs, as coach David Blatt detailed before the game.
“I mean, he’s averaging a double-double,” Blatt said. “If you want to compare him to last year’s numbers, maybe there’s a difference, but that’s still pretty good production for anyone, anywhere. Obviously, he’s doing that in a team where there are other players with the same type of capability in one respect or another. So, I think what he’s doing is actually quite special, and I also think Kevin is being asked to do things here that maybe in the past he wasn’t asked to do because of the load on him offensively. And he’s really, really improved and embraced his defensive role on the team as well, and I see that as a big upgrade, perhaps, on his play from before, which was by all means outstanding.”
Truth 3: The Cavs’ championship window coincides with the peak of James’ prime. Yes, it’s feasible he could be an elite player for the next five or six years, but based on how his body has started to show signs he is human, a safer bet would be his being on the dominant level for the next three or four years.
Now that we’ve established the sky isn’t falling in Cleveland, that you have to throw out numbers when evaluating these guys and that time is of the essence, the argument really becomes about fit.
Wiggins, first of all, plays the same position as James. Although James is versatile enough to be slotted at a variety of spots on the floor, which makes that not as egregious an overlap as if Wiggins were paired with say, Carmelo Anthony, it is still something to consider.
Love, on the other hand, is a rebounding power forward who stretches the floor and is comfortable operating from the outside, thus opening up driving lanes for James and Irving while also taking a defender with him from the paint to the perimeter and giving those guys a better chance to finish in less traffic.
After the Wolves game, when Love still finished with 14 points, 17 rebounds and three assists, despite an off shooting night (1-for-5 from 3 and 1-for-4 from the foul line), James was asked if he “likes” Love’s game.
“I love it,” James said with a smile. “I just think his basketball I.Q., people don’t see that. The way he stretches the floor for us, his rebounding. His basketball I.Q. is really high, and it adds to our team. It adds to our team as far as everything -- knowing where guys are both offensively and defensively, and he’s been great.”
Blatt put it this way: “Look, at the end of the day no one wanted to see Andrew go. That was just a deal that was made with the idea of what we wanted our roster to look like and, with LeBron coming back, what we needed. Andrew Wiggins is already a fine, young basketball player, and he’s going to be a great player, as is Kevin Love, who we brought to the team to play the position and give us the skill set that we were lacking. I thought that was a good deal all around and one that really should have good feeling for everyone involved.”
Nobody is trying to say Wiggins won’t someday be a top-tier player in the NBA.
“He’s a great talent,” James said. “A great talent. I think he has a very, very good feel for the game. That’s good to see. He’s really calm. He played the game the right way tonight. He didn’t make many mistakes. I don’t know, as a rookie you expect that, but I think he’s grown each month in the season as far as a rookie. So they got a good piece.”
He’s shown that talent even more against the Cavs this season, averaging 30 points in the two meetings. That shows he has the internal engine to be great too, which is further evidence to support his destined success.
“It’s always a motivation game against Cleveland, especially when they have one of the all-time great in LeBron,” Wiggins said. “That’s motivation for me.”
James, in turn, drew motivation from Wiggins, as he scored 16 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter to seal the win. At one point, James scored 11 straight for the Cavs. He outscored Wiggins 16-2 and the entire Wolves’ team 16-11 in the fourth.
“It’s fun when you have great competition,” James said. “I remember when I was a rookie and I played against T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] on Christmas Day. And I played against Kobe [Bryant], I played against A.I. [Allen Iverson], and all those guys I was shadowing in the league at that time. I remember how I got up to play those guys, so I know what he was feeling.”
That feeling will always be there, so long as Love’s in Cleveland and Wiggins is in Minnesota.
“Will they be tied at the hip forever?” Wolves coach Flip Saunders asked. “Probably. That's part of what always happens when you go through any type of trade from that perspective.”
As difficult a transition it’s been for Love, he is still a player the Cavs believe they can rely on in pressure situations -- those two fourth-quarter benchings notwithstanding. It is easier for him to sacrifice numbers and touches and still be a contributor than it would be for Wiggins to try to grow as a player in that pressure-cooker environment.
Yes, Wiggins was spectacular Saturday, but don’t forget he was 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter, as the Wolves’ five-point fourth-quarter lead turned into a 16-point loss.
“You can see he’s going to continue to get better as time goes on, and being the focal point of their team right now, I know that they’re struggling, but he’s going to have a lot of opportunities to better his game this year and in the next few years as they grow and get better as a team,” Love said of Wiggins. “I think you saw it tonight a lot of flashes of what he can do, and he’s going to continue to get better.”
It is possible the answer to both questions -- “Will Wiggins be a great player?” and “Did the Cavs make the right trade?” -- is a resounding yes.