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The Cavs Can Win Now, and Later, If They Keep Wiggins

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ANDREW WIGGINS
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Almost as soon as LeBron James left the Big 3 in Miami for a return to Cleveland, rumors began swirling that a new Big 3 could be in the works for the Cavaliers. Cleveland has been exploring the possibility of trading for Kevin Love in the hopes of pairing the Timberwolves forward with James and Kyrie Irving, but the deal is hinging on one key question: Is attaining Love worth losing rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins?

Pulling the trigger for Love seems wildly appetizing, and this week a legendary coach was just the latest to all but declare it a no-brainer. After all, the Eastern Conference is there for the taking. LeBron is edging the precipice of 30, and, though he spoke earnestly of a desire to retire a Cavalier in his letter to Sports Illustrated, the reality remains that James is only on a two-year deal. The Cavs need to exhibit a "Win Now" train of thought. Bringing on Love is inarguably a step toward that mission statement.

But so is keeping Wiggins.

The discourse surrounding the Wiggins-for-Love debate is, too often, simplistically framed as "Winning Now" vs. "Winning Later," and that's misleading. There's no doubt holding onto Wiggins spaces out Cleveland's window for long term success immeasurably, but it's also by no means a detriment to the team's present-day title aspirations. Wiggins isn't a "project" or an "unknown" or a "gamble" or any of the other buzz words usually (and appropriately) conferred on young players. He's the bluest of blue chippers, a player ready come in and provide meaningful value from his rookie year onward, on both ends of the court, and off it to boot.

For starters, Andrew Wiggins is a freak of nature who's excited scouts long before he got to college, let alone the NBA. He comes into the league equipped with off-the-charts athleticism, length, lateral quickness and defensive awareness. He's barely 19 (he won't even turn 20 until after next season's All Star break), and projects as a potential decades-long cornerstone for a franchise. The knock on Wiggins' offensive game is that he "isn't assertive enough," but running the floor with James, Kyrie and Waiters ensures he will be able to let the part of game come to him gradually, while utilizing his physical skills and raw athleticism to contribute on the defensive end right away. It just cannot be said enough that letting Wiggins develop alongside LeBron is too perfect an opportunity for Cleveland to pass up. James isn't just far and away the most gifted player of his generation, he's also an insatiable competitor and tireless worker. Learning under a consummate professional like LeBron might ensure Wiggins maxes out his potential not just eventually, but almost immediately, and perhaps to a caliber even higher than heretofore expected.

For his many offensive talents (and they are certainly manifold), Kevin Love is not a perfect player. Wiggins is an underrated rebounder (he once pulled down 19 of them against Iowa State), while Love might just be an overrated one. For such a highly touted glassworker, Love's Offensive Rebound Percentage was 19th among players who logged 30 minutes or more a game. Furthermore, what the Cavs are most readily lacking at the moment is interior defense and rim protection. Love's ability to provide both is shoddy at best. Opponents shot 57% at the rim against him last season, which is an indefensible clip (figuratively as well as literally). As Ricky O'Donnell argues convincingly on SB Nation, you really have to think twice about trading a talent like Wiggins for a player that does nothing to fix your team's most pressing weaknesses. Additionally, Love's lack of rim protection means you'd have to play a traditional defensive center alongside him, which in turns moves LeBron to the 3 -- ruining the phenomenal advantages LeBron brings as a stretch-4.

In fact, the Cavs wouldn't just be trading for a historically poor defender -- they'd be relinquishing a potentially marvelous one. Wiggins' 7' wingspan and other-worldly quickness positions him as a solid perimeter defender from day one, and the thought of him becoming a lockdown, All-NBA defender is not out of the question. This is another instance where Wiggins can help LeBron immediately in a way Love cannot. James has logged an inordinate amount of minutes for a 29-year-old (he's already approaching 40,000), and they're grueling minutes at that: never take a play off, carry the load offensively and guard the other team's best defender night-in-and-night-out minutes. As Wiggins grows as an NBA talent ready to check another team's best weapon, he will be taking a major burden off LeBron's odometer. Retaining Wiggins wouldn't be wasting the remainder of LeBron's prime -- it just might be what extends it.

And don't just picture Wiggins subbing in for LeBron on defense; feel free to imagine the two of them defending the floor and eating up opposing teams' offenses together. In a recent Grantland shootaround, Bill Simmons compared Wiggins' defensive ceiling to none other than Scottie Pippen, and for a change the Sports Guy wasn't even being hyperbolic. Putting a wing defender of Wiggins' caliber alongside LeBron would allow the Cavs to carve up opposing teams like a turkey dinner. The number of steals leading to transition baskets would be enough to keep the SportsCenter highlights apparatus rolling in perpetuity.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Wiggins will be playing on a rookie deal, which provides Cleveland with all his tremendous on-court value while simultaneously maintaining enviable financial flexibility as well. A trade for Kevin Love will cost the the Cavaliers not only Wiggins, but also a future first round pick and a second young player like Anthony Bennett or Dion Waiters, and locks up their cap space for the foreseeable future. Foregoing the transaction, however, allows Cleveland to retain those multiple assets and pencil in over $19 million in cap space to go out and land any of the veteran studs (LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard, and perhaps even, yes, Kevin Love) that could be on the free agent market during the 2015 summer. James just lost an NBA title to a franchise that surrounded its top playmakers with a younger, faster and cheaper roster than a cap-hamstrung Pat Reilly could assemble around his Big 3 -- locking in Love's max deal alongside Kyrie's and his own could be a path to a similar fate.

Landing LeBron was an emphatic coup for a moribund franchise that seemed like they were destined to continue toiling in obscurity for seasons to come. The inclination to go out and acquire Kevin Love by any means necessary is understandable and reasonable. For almost any other prospect you make this move without reservations. However, Andrew Wiggins is not your average prospect. He might not even be your average first overall pick. Holding onto him and letting him develop alongside James is benefiting your present as much as it is extending your competitive window down the line. This is a player primed to make an on-court impact, while simultaneously allowing the Cavaliers to maintain their other young talent, future first round draft picks, and financial flexibility in the process.

Any smart NBA team knows to draft Andrew Wiggins. It's the smartest teams that know to keep him.

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