Do you ever look back on your life and pinpoint a watershed moment where your entire upbringing or current state of affairs would have been wildly different had you chosen a different path? Perhaps a college choice, a job, or even something as “simple” as staying a little longer at a bar and meeting your husband or wife? For me, my life would have been 100% different had I not made the decision to play the drums in 5th grade band at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, MN in 1994. Trumpet was the early favorite, but I copied my childhood best friend, chose percussion, and the rest is history. Will spare those details.
The trade of Kevin Love to Cleveland in a 3-way to Philadelphia in exchange for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young is a trade filled with watershed moments, both in and out of the control of the decision-makers. While I think the ineptitude of what led the Wolves here is brushed under the rug by many fans, approval of this move is arguably close to unanimous. Dissenters question Wiggins as a prospect, Bennett as a prospect, the failure of the FO to capitalize on a second HOF player in a decade, the growing pains this team will go through in lieu of immediate wins, the amount of prospects on the roster, among other takes that are valid if you think about it outside of the savage optimism occupying most Wolves online gathering places. However, and while it is a little defeatist in a way to celebrate Love’s departure, what few can argue with is that this move is perhaps the highest immediate value return for a superstar in a trade, ever. For starters, the #1 pick in the draft has not been traded since the year before I chose drums over trumpet in the 5th grade. Additionally, the #1 pick has not been traded after the draft and before the season…..ever (by what I could find). While draft selections aren’t the only factors to consider, it demonstrates the value of the #1 pick in the draft. Teams waste multiple seasons trying to acquire an asset like this. A trade like this is a historical anomaly and the move itself is a testament to the rare ground the Wolves found themselves on.
So what on earth allowed this trade to happen? It is a web of complication, and the below comments are only a fraction of the factors. To avoid absurdity, we will only start in 2002.
1. The tanking 2002 Cavaliers had a season as bad as the 2010 Wolves. 17 wins. The leading scorer that season was Ricky Davis, who Wolves fans should all be familiar with, Zydrunas Illgauskas and Jumaine Jones. The youth movement on the team was centered around Davis, Jones, Smush Parker, Carlos Boozer, Darius Miles and DaJuan Wagner with David Kahn seemingly running the front office. It was the Cavs’ worst season in a 5-year stretch that peaked with 32 wins in 1999-2000. The result was a 12 game decline from its previous clip of 29 wins, otherwise known as a tank job (as someone who doesn’t care for blatant tanking, it seems to have worked here and also had massive league-wide implications for the next 12 years).
Without that tank job, this all ceases to exist. One more win for Cleveland, perhaps they take this close game in April of 2003 against the Bucks (I really hope a missed Ricky Davis jumper resulted in the loss. To be able to credit Ricky Davis for all of this would be awesome, but 12 year old game recaps are not easy to find) for one additional win, and the entire landscape of the league is entirely different than what has transpired up until today. If Cleveland had won just one extra game that season, they would have moved behind Denver for 2nd worst record and the lottery would have surely had different results. One game, and potentially one basket on an idle Friday, sealed the NBA’s 12-year fate.
Following the season, the lottery came down to a traditional photo finish. With Jerry West and the Memphis Grizzlies set to lose their pick unless it was first overall, tensions were high. And as fate would have it, things came down to Memphis and Cleveland for first overall. Cleveland won the lottery, Memphis’ selection moved to Detroit (poor Darko), and LeBron was drafted by the Cavs where he would start to become the best basketball player in the world deep into the following decade.
2. Cavs suffer small-market NBA blues. Unless accompanied by supportive, quality ownership and intelligent management, in the NBA and other sports small market teams generally remain a farm system for the glamour markets. But LeBron’s situation up until now has remained a unique case because of the “home” factor. In LeBron’s first year, the Cavs finished 35-47 and missed the playoffs. But it was an 18-win improvement over the previous season despite no significant player acquisitions. Much of the core from the previous season remained in place and LeBron, Illgauskas and Boozer led the team in scoring. Castoffs such as Darius Miles and Ricky Davis remained on the team. LeBron’s rookie season came with an 18.3 PER and a WS/48 of 0.78, where he led the team in scoring and won rookie of the year. So, for Wolves fans thinking Wiggins can replace Love immediately and lead the Wolves to a Cinderella playoff story, I would urge you to soften those expectations.
The following year (2005), Cleveland goes 42-40 and makes the playoffs for the first time since 1998. The remainder of LeBron’s tenure resulted in one trip to the finals and several deep playoff runs, but the traditional story Wolves fans know painfully well reared its head: management failed to surround LeBron with the necessary championship talent, several larger-scale trades didn’t pan out, and LeBron increasingly began questioning his future in Cleveland.
3. Kevin McHale trades for Kevin Love in the middle of the night on June 26th, 2008. I remember coming back from an off-the-radar fishing trip in Canada on draft night, but luckily McHale was surprisingly not up north fishing on draft night as well. Re-watching the draft and avoiding the news, I was very happy with OJ Mayo. But in a polarizing plot twist, McHale traded prospect-extraordinaire OJ Mayo to the Memphis Grizzlies following the team announcement where Glen Taylor and Fred Hoiberg gushed at Mayo’s superior upside to Love. But, unfortunately for them, McHale wasn’t done. The Wolves ended up with Love, (who in his interview following was ecstatic to come to Minnesota at the time, comparing Minneapolis to his home town of Portland, OR) Antoine Walker (later traded for a first round pick if I recall correctly), Mike Miller (later part of the Rubio trade and now reuniting with Love in Cleveland), Jason Collins, and Brian Cardinal (later traded for Darko Milicic) while also jettisoning Greg Buckner and Marko Jaric. In this draft, the Wolves also selected starter Nikola Pekovic in the 2nd round. Reactions to the Love trade were highly mixed, but this ultimately proved to be one of the biggest draft day heists of the modern era and was arguably McHale’s best move of his 13-year tenure, not involving Kevin Garnett of course.
4. The Clippers sign Baron Davis to a 5-year $65 million deal. In a shocking turn of events that at the time was a true outlier and rarity during his tenure as owner, Donald Sterling spends money on a significant free agent and approves the signing of Baron Davis away from the Warriors. Even our old pal Donald Sterling played a role in what led up to today. Why? After two somewhat disappointing seasons in LA the Clippers, perhaps reasonably, traded Davis and the remaining 2.5 years of his contract to the Cleveland Cavaliers with an unprotected pick attached. In the first wave of the Cavs’ ridiculous lottery luck, this pick, slated at 9th overall originally, would become the first overall selection and eventually Kyrie Irving. Without Irving in place in Cleveland, it could be argued LeBron never returns home. So, raise a glass to Donald Sterling!
5. The 2008-2009 Wolves season. With excitement strong, the season ultimately is a complete disaster. Team staffers are calling fans on the phone to talk about the team (Fred Hoiberg actually called my cell phone at work, and I recall specifically whining to him about Mike Miller’s unwillingness to shoot the ball, and him ultimately agreeing with me after some persuasion), and the Wolves open the gate playing like they are the worst team in the league. The Wolves start off 4-16 before ousting Randy Wittman and finally relieving McHale from his position as Vice President of Basketball Operations, unbeknownst to anyone that months earlier he had made one of the best moves in Wolves history. He would coach the team for the remainder of the year. The Wolves went 12-4 in January under his watch, and things were looking up. And then, of course, Al Jefferson tears his ACL in early February, which ends any and all positive momentum immediately. Why is this relevant? Because the net result of the terrible start to that season was the final straw for McHale and the catalyst of his firing.
Let the David Kahn era begin.
6. David Kahn is hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves as President of Basketball Operations. David Kahn’s introductory press conference showed us a well-spoken, energetic executive with a plan, and that he sure didn’t care about the presidential title. Fans were excited for a GM that would actually come into the office for a full day of work and complete a transaction or two every now and again. These were the minimum expectations for the dwindling fan base and, while Kahn responded to these cries with impunity for four years of catastrophic disaster, he started off really well. His first move was relieving Kevin McHale of his coaching duties (arguable, but probably for the best at the time), and followed that by trading Mike Miller and Randy Foye to Washington for the 5th pick and a collection of meaningless contracts. Kurt Rambis was later hired in a move that generated some approval at the time, and Kahn began filming commercials as the face of the franchise (oh, God). Positive Change was on the horizon.
7. The Wrath of Kahn. We know. In the 2009 draft, Kahn drafts Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry in what is the first of a set dramatic mistakes that would completely destroy any chances of success for this era of the Timberwolves. I was at the draft party and I can tell you without hyperbole the Rubio pick generated a chorus of screaming approval, and the Flynn pick over Curry resulted in silence and confused murmuring. It was a horrendous and inexcusable pick the moment it was made. Over 5 years later, the Wolves are still trying to recover from this fatal mistake. That summer and summers that preceded Love’s breakout season, Kahn tried to trade Kevin Love for “long and athletic,” yet terrible players such as Anthony Randolph and JaVale McGee. Rambis benched Love immediately or gave him fewer than 30 minutes per game up until the point where he put up an unbelievable 31 points and 31 rebounds for the first time in nearly 30 years in an incredible comeback win against the New York Knicks in November of 2010. This is what f***ing caused the Wolves management to blink on Love. The type of performance that hadn’t occurred since the early 1980’s. Think about the amount of ineptitude that existed at this point. It is beyond words.
By this point, the fans were plenty smart enough to have understood the amount of buffoonery going on in this front office, and it would continue as Kahn made several other draft day blunders that you are likely aware of. The fear of him running this franchise into the ground was common and proving to be true. And I haven’t even touched on the fact that previous cornerstone and 2014 All-NBA center Al Jefferson was traded to the Jazz for nothing of value prior to the start of that season.
8. LeBron goes to Miami Not much detail is needed. You know the story as it has dominated the national NBA media for four years. LeBron leaves Cleveland and stuns his home state. Talk of a return one day is pushed aside as Cleveland citizens burn jerseys, write books with interesting titles, and swear they would never welcome him back. LeBron makes four trips to the finals, wins a pair of rings, and leads the most disliked team in the league. Miami fans surpass Knicks and Lakers fans as most detestable in the league.
9. Rubio arrives, Adelman is hired, a winning team, and yet another tragic injury. If there is one area Kahn handled well from start to finish, it was the acquisition of Rubio. Kahn signed Rubio prior to the start of the lockout in 2011, and hope was again alive. In addition to firing Rambis after posting a record only rivaled by new Wolves assistant Sidney Lowe in awfulness, Kahn shocks the world and hires Rick Adelman as head coach. The team begins a solid run of wins and Target Center is roaring with excitement. Upper level tickets were going for $40 a pop on StubHub, and a single game attendance record is set during Linsanity. Wolves fans finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. But, of course, Rubio tears his ACL attempting to draw a charge against Kobe Bryant in the closing minutes of a game in early March of that season, and the team fails to recover (which, in hindsight, is a testament to either Rubio’s leadership prior to the injury or says something about the lack of leadership involving Love, Adelman and the others and their odd inability to recover without the presence of a rookie who really wasn’t tremendously productive his rookie season). The Wolves are lottery bound again after, at one point, being a playoff seed well past the mid-point of the season.
10. The Extension. Somewhere in the ramblings that are bullet 9, the Wolves and Love agree to a contract extension. Love wanted a 5 year deal and at the time it was an easy decision to make. Love WANTED to stay here two additional years. Instead, the story goes that Kahn (via Taylor) denied this request and threw an extension on Love’s lap in the training room following a loss. One with a three-year opt out. Fans see through this easily. Tensions are clearly high between Love and Kahn and perhaps irreparable. The singular and painfully obvious mistake is made.
11. Recovery and Knuckle Pushups. Kahn brings in Andrei Kirilenko that summer after a failed courtship of Nic Batum, and Wolves fans are rightfully convinced a playoff run is finally on the horizon. Then, in what is arguably the single biggest watershed incident of this era of Wolves history, Love breaks his hand after doing “knuckle pushups.” After a failed comeback attempt, Love breaks the hand again. He played a total of 18 games. The rest of the roster is decimated by injury for the entire duration of the season and the training staff is put under scrutiny (and to be honest, I refuse to believe until proven otherwise that the Wolves’ training department is very modernized given their history. Too many injuries for it to be a coincidence. They used Lifetime Fitness trainers for their players for several years, for example). Had the Wolves not had those injuries, a playoff berth probably happens and it is probable Kahn is still with the Wolves today. A very interesting “What-if.”
Also during this season, Love expresses his disapproval publicly and speaks to Woj at the oddest time imaginable. At this point, fans begin to turn on Love a bit and prepare for his inevitable departure.
12. Flip is hired as POBO. Kahn’s kahntract is not renewed and the decision is met with universal acclaim, but he is replaced by Flip Saunders in a polarizing move by Glen Taylor. Flip puts his spin on the roster and makes amends with Love, but the season is a flat one driven by fan expectations that surpassed the win total; ultimately the Wolves miss the playoffs yet again.
13. The Cavaliers win the draft lottery for the 3rd time in 4 years. I am not sure what the odds of this happening are but according to this article it is roughly 1-in-10,000. It remains relevant due to Cleveland’s accumulation of assets that ultimately resulted in the Wolves finding an acceptable package for Love, and the luck also played a major role in LeBron re-signing in Cleveland.
14. Joel Embiid is injured pre-draft. What if this never happened? What if Embiid had a clear bill of health? Is he not staying in Cleveland as the first overall pick? Is he a Wolf? Would we like him being a Wolf despite the major read flags on his health? An under-discussed factor.
15. Flip stays patient. Golden State unbelievably “refuses to trade Klay Thompson.” The common story is that Klay was never on the table. However, we know he was at one point. What killed talks with Golden State in my opinion was the Wolves’ desire to have Barnes and a first round pick included in the deal. Had GS honored this request, Love is a Warrior before the draft. Klay was always available, as his father went on record saying the trade was probably going to happen. The refusal was a likely attempt for the Warriors to save some face. Another factor in this is, there was an overwhelming desire for Flip to trade Love before the draft, so much so that fans were counting down the days as if this was an arbitrary deadline. There are a lot of GM’s who wouldn’t have had the guts to wait it out, even if talks with Cleveland had began before this point. If Flip had listened to the fans on this one, this never happens.
16. LeBron goes back to Cleveland. The final nail in the coffin for Love’s tenure in Minnesota. If you are a supporter of this move, don’t boo LeBron again. Without all of the above coming together and the best player in the world leaving his aging and capped-out team to return home to the team that happened be in his home state and won the lottery on the year of his drafting, this never happens. Moves of this magnitude don’t happen. It was as rare of a chance as any for the Wolves to get what could be an insane package for a player who was going to leave anyway. 6 weeks ago I thought a player of Thaddeus Young’s caliber would be the centerpiece of the deal. Crap, I forgot that Hinkie’s tank job plays a role in this, but this is getting way too long. Anyways, now Young is a secondary factor and a subject of fan debate as to whether or not we even want the guy.
The Wolves capitalized on an opportunity that may never happen again. The odds against this happening were staggering. As fans, we should be excited about what is to come, even if it was the result of painful ineptitude.