On July 11, 2014 at 11:17 AM CT, Lee Jenkins, then of Sports Illustrated, pressed send on a tweet that changed the landscape of the NBA. That tweet, which contained a link to the famous LeBron James letter announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after four seasons in Miami.
The Cavaliers had just completed a season that saw them go 33-49, but won the lottery for the top overall draft pick despite having just a 1.7% chance of doing so. As we all know, that top overall pick turned out to be Andrew Wiggins.
In Minnesota, Kevin Love had grown tired of the situation he had been in for much of his career. The Wolves had failed to reach the playoffs in each of Love’s first six seasons. The team continuously made poor decisions that put them in a place where they seemed to have an irreparable relationship with the three-time all-star.
On August 23, 2014, the two sides officially made the deal that sent Love to Cleveland to join forces with LeBron and Kyrie Irving, while the Wolves received Wiggins, and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett from Cleveland, and Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia. The Wolves also gave up Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the deal as well.
Despite all of those details, this trade has always been, and will always be viewed as Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins.
The feeling in Minnesota was that the Wolves fleeced the Cavs, and how could people blame them? There was plenty of reason to be optimistic about grabbing Wiggins as the No. 1 overall pick and the future face of the franchise. The sky was supposed to be the limit for the one-and-done player from Kansas, but we all know how things have gone. Five years later, Love has a ring, a max contract, and been a member of four teams that went to The Finals, and Wiggins, well, he’s got the max contract.
But what if all of those things weren’t true? What if some of them were, while other variables changed? How would the Wolves look today if all or some of those things played out differently? The way the Wolves handled the Kevin Love situation certainly wasn’t the best, and it leaves the mind questioning about what could have been.
What if LeBron James stays in Miami?
It’s an easy detail to forget five years out that the Wolves weren’t actually the team that selected Wiggins first overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. In today’s era of draft picks routinely wearing the wrong team’s hat on stage and being asked awkward, unnecessary questions about their future on draft night, it’s easy to forget that Wiggins’ summer leading into his rookie season was the most awkward of them all.
When he was drafted, he was actually in Cleveland’s plans. The Cavaliers were a long shot to win the lottery but got lucky with the right combination of ping pong balls. He was so much in Cleveland’s plans that the Cavaliers allowed him to play in four games in the Las Vegas Summer League amid all of the ongoing rumors. He then signed a contract with Cleveland, meaning that the Cavaliers had to wait a minimum of 30 days before they could include him in any trade.
Wiggins was supposed to be the next piece in a suddenly exciting rebuild in Cleveland alongside Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters. Then, LeBron James and Sports Illustrated released the aforementioned letter announcing his return to the Cavaliers. Suddenly, a team that went from young and promising transitioned into a championship favorite in the blink of an eye. The unproven, yet highly regarded Wiggins, didn’t fit in.
In the letter LeBron co-authored with Jenkins, he included the names of a few players on Cleveland’s roster. Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and veteran big man Anderson Varejao were all named, and Wiggins’ name was nowhere to be found. From that moment on the writing was on the wall.
If James doesn’t go back to Cleveland and instead stays in Miami, the Cavaliers still likely have interest in Love, but maybe not at the cost of Wiggins. James returning to Cleveland was the best-case scenario at the time for the Wolves. If he hadn’t, the question of where Love ends up becomes fascinating. Chicago, New York, Golden State, and Boston were all teams that had interest in him via trade at one point in 2014.
There were reports that the Bulls could include both Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler in a deal to pair Love with Derrick Rose (hello, future!). The Knicks reportedly offered Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Amar’e Stoudemire (LOL) to try and create a duo with Carmelo Anthony. The Warriors and Wolves talked about a Klay Thompson for Love swap. There was no shortage of hopeful suitors for Love that summer.
Looking back, those packages – other than Golden State (more on that later) – couldn’t compare to the crown jewel of the 2014 NBA Draft in exchange for Love. The Cavaliers and LeBron James reuniting created the best possible return at the time for Love, without question.
What if the Cavs had selected Joel Embiid instead of Wiggins?
As we look back at the 2014 NBA Draft we now know that Embiid was far and away the best player in the draft. The issue surrounding him was the fact that his medicals came back poorly. He needed to have a back surgery in college while at Kansas and had his foot operated on three days prior to being selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.
This would have been best case scenario for the Wolves – even if it would have cost them in the short term.
In Wiggins’ rookie season the Wolves finished with a 16-66 season and plenty of hope for the future. The wins couldn’t have suffered much more if Embiid was sitting out games rather than Wiggins actually playing them. The hopefulness that the fan base latched on to by way of the Rookie of the Year wouldn’t have existed, but looking back now, no one cares about that accolade for Wiggins, nor should they.
Embiid missed the first two seasons of his career due to a foot injury, and then missed the majority of his “rookie” campaign with a knee issue. Since then he’s been one of the best big men in the league, if not the gold standard at that position. One of the great unknowns is whether or not the Wolves would still have taken Karl-Anthony Towns first overall in the 2015 NBA Draft knowing that they had Embiid.
There’s an alternate reality somewhere out there where the Wolves have Embiid, Towns, and Zach LaVine, and that is one of the most fun scenarios in terms of what could have been. The Wolves would have two of the five best big men in the league and a dynamic, explosive – but not without plenty of warts – lead guard to build an offense around. Figuring it out might have been a challenge, but the possibilities, and talent, would have been wild.
Obviously, with Embiid going third, it meant that not only Wiggins went before him, but Jabari Parker, too. What if the Cavs had gone in that direction?
Leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, the public debate at No. 1 was between Wiggins and Parker. This wasn’t a draft like the most recent one where there was a sure-fire top pick. In reality, those drafts are few and far between, and 2014 was far from that.
Both Wiggins and Parker were one-and-done players at their respective blueblood programs. Despite Wiggins not living up to the potential that many thought he had to date, there’s no question he has been much better than Parker by sheer virtue of making his way onto the floor consistently.
Over the course of their careers, Wiggins has played in 400 of a possible 410 regular season games. Parker has only played in 247 games over that same stretch due to a number of knee injuries. The former Duke standout will be starting the 2019-20 season playing for his fourth team in just his sixth year in the NBA.
In terms of production, having Wiggins as opposed to Parker is certainly the better option. It also needs to be considered that if Parker were in Minnesota instead, the team likely wouldn’t have felt as comfortable extending a maximum offer to a player that had just one full, disappointing, season under his belt. Sure, the same could be said of Embiid, but the talent with him was more evident in his brief time on the floor than it was with Parker.
If Parker were the player sent back to Minnesota for Love, the Wolves may have nothing to show for the trade today. Some folks may deem that a good thing (more on that later), and Parker probably becomes his own ‘What If?’ question in the Minnesota sports landscape thanks to his laundry list of injuries. Maybe Minnesota could have been more patient with Parker than Milwaukee could afford to be, we’ll never know. But at this point, for as far of a cry as Wiggins has been from the typical No. 1 overall pick, Parker has been far more of a bust.
What if the Wolves would have agreed to take back Dion Waiters instead of Andrew Wiggins?
This trade would have been more difficult to swallow, but they definitely – okay, probably – would not have paid Waiters the way they paid Wiggins. The Wolves also would have had a much tougher time selling this deal to the fan base. Waiters was coming off of his second season in Cleveland where he averaged just a shade under 16 points per game on 43% shooting (36% from deep) and had to fight off rumors that he and Irving didn’t hate each other.
Waiters has, at times, been a solid NBA player for Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Miami. He’s never flashed the potential that Wiggins has had. There was far less hype surrounding him after his first two seasons in Cleveland than there was surrounding a No. 1 overall pick, and rightfully so.
With Waiters on the Wolves, the equation certainly doesn’t change as far as just how bad they would have been in 2014-15. The Wolves are certainly still bad enough where they have the best odds to land Towns in the draft that summer.
The present day would look different, though. Whether or not the Wolves would have viewed Waiters as a foundational piece is the fascinating part of this equation. Giving up Love for him pressures them into doing so, but his production would have suggested that he wasn’t worth building a team around. Would he have been worth keeping around? Probably. His production dipped during his third year, but that would have been easy to forecast after playing a sixth man role in Cleveland behind LeBron, Iriving, and Love, and then a similar role in OKC behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder.
Maybe he would still be in Minnesota as an ancillary piece surrounding Towns, or maybe he’s elsewhere, but he definitely isn’t making max-level money no matter what situation he’s in.
It’s worth noting here that Cleveland would have looked drastically different if this were the trade made, too. Waiters was shipped off to OKC during the 2014-15 season as a piece that helped Cleveland acquire JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov from the Knicks and the Nuggets, respectively. Cleveland probably wouldn’t trade Wiggins for spare parts the way it did Waiters, and subsequently probably doesn’t win the 2016 NBA Finals without those ancillary pieces.
What if the Warriors agreed to the Love/Klay Thompson swap?
The Wolves didn’t just have an effect on the Cleveland side of the NBA Finals from 2015 until 2018, but the Golden State side, too.
One of the hot rumors at the time was that there was an offer from Minnesota to Golden State on the table to trade Kevin Love for Klay Thompson. Jerry West, Bob Myers, and Golden State ultimately passed on that one, and now Thompson has three championship rings as a member of the Warriors.
If the Warriors had decided to trade Thompson for Love, what would it have looked like for both sides? We know that Thompson is one of the best shooters in NBA history, but would he be good enough to carry his own team to the playoffs? Do the Warriors win three out of the next five championships if Love replaces Thompson on Golden State? Who do the Cavaliers find to fill the Kevin Love-sized hole in their roster?
Thompson leading the way for the Wolves probably makes them a little bit better than they were with Love as the top guy, but it also probably isn’t enough to make them a legitimate contender of any kind. LaVine and Thompson would have been a fun backcourt pairing with lots of potential, but they certainly wouldn’t have been able to come close to reaching the heights that Thompson has with Curry.
With the Wolves adding Thompson, they become slightly better than mediocre, but far too good to land a top talent like Towns in the NBA Draft. The Wolves probably become good enough at some point to end the infamous playoff drought – just like they actually did – but the future today may actually be brighter than it would be in this alternate universe.
How long Thompson would have been around in Minnesota was one of the selling points for the Wolves. During October of 2014 the Warriors signed him to a contract extension, and even if the Wolves had not been able to come to terms with him that quickly, they would have had his restricted free agency in 2015. He likely wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
What if the Wolves would have held onto Love?
Love was unhappy, obviously. That’s how all of this started in the first place. Love wanted out, in part, because the Wolves opted to pay Ricky Rubio rather than him. If the Wolves didn’t trade him in the summer of 2014, he wasn’t going to re-sign with them in the summer of 2015 like he did Cleveland. The Wolves would have lost him for nothing.
The question here then becomes would you rather have had nothing or Wiggins. Back then, the question had an easy answer. Everyone in their right mind would have said Wiggins. Now, that question becomes fuzzy when the contract that Wiggins carries comes into play. The debate isn’t whether or not the team would be better without Wiggins, it more so is what would the Wolves look like without that the same amount of money tied up in Wiggins.
The real downside to keeping Love wouldn’t even be that they lost him for nothing, it would have been that he would have walked away for nothing and made the Wolves far too good to draft Towns the summer of his would-be departure.
In Love’s last season with the Wolves the team finished with 40 wins. There was no real reason to think that was going to decrease moving forward, despite the ultimate ceiling being limited. Adding Zach LaVine to the mix might’ve increased their win total by a few games, but likely not enough to catch the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans.
Even then, would four playoff games have been worth it? Probably not.
What if the Wolves would have paid Love?
This timeline probably looks relatively similar to if they Wolves had let him walk, at least initially. The Wolves would likely find a way to be mediocre for at least the final year of his contract, and then it becomes a question.
We now know that Love was the third-best player on a championship team, but we don’t know if he ever would have been the best player on a playoff team. That’s something that could have happened with the right moves to surround him with talent in Minnesota, but again, we don’t know what those moves would have been. It’s arguably impossible to know what the Wolves would have done with the trajectory changing so quickly and drastically.
With Love the Wolves would probably finish with between 37 and 45 wins on a regular basis. Think the post-LeBron Miami Heat. A team with a relatively high floor, but a ceiling that isn’t nearly enough to get anyone excited.
As things stand right now, Love is the second-best player in franchise history for the Wolves behind Garnett. What he did in Minnesota throughout his first six seasons doesn’t get brought up often, but he is second in franchise history in Win Shares – he’ll be passed by Towns within the first couple of months of this upcoming season. He’s since been passed on the team scoring list by both Towns and Wiggins, but remains second in total rebounds and first in rebounds per game.
The fortunate part of losing the second-best player in franchise history was the fact that it enabled them to draft Towns, who has the chance to become the best player in franchise history.
What if the Wolves would have drafted Steph Curry the next year?
And now, the greatest “What If?” in Timberwolves history.
The Wolves, as we all know, selected both Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in the 2009 NBA Draft, one year after trading for Love’s draft rights. Minutes after Flynn heard his name called with the sixth pick, the Warriors selected two-time NBA MVP and three-time NBA Champion Stephen Curry.
We know that the Warriors at some point fantasized about the pairing of Curry and Love, but we also know that it would have been possible for the two to team up in Minnesota had the Timberwolves done things correctly.
The Wolves probably never turn into the Warriors. They don’t win 73 games in a single season, they don’t win three championships in a five year stretch. But, they do become a consistent playoff team and they do become championship contender. Maybe they win one, maybe they don’t, but this tandem would have by far been the best in the history of the franchise, and likely means this era would have topped the early 2000s with Kevin Garnett leading the way.
Maybe there would have been an opportunity to add someone else to the mix and create a trio of star players the way the NBA was trending those days, or maybe they just continue on as one of the top duos in the NBA. Just like everything else in this story, we’ll never know what could have been.