Andrew Wiggins vs. Kevin Love is one of the deepest, most polarizing conversations about a possible NBA trade in quite some time.
Even after both subjects are stripped of their connection to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, the symbolism this hypothetical deal holds is overpowering: Wiggins is the ideal representation of untapped, above-the-clouds potential, and Love is acknowledged perennial All-Star production.
Nobody knows how good this year's No. 1 overall pick can be, which simultaneously makes trading him for Love a no-brainer and out of the question. He's 19 years old and hasn't logged a single minute of professional basketball. The most recent evidence we can go from is one deflating season at the University of Kansas, and a handful of Summer League games played in the baked Las Vegas desert.
On the other hand, Love is arguably the world's best offensive power forward. He can shoot threes (37.6 percent on a ridiculous 6.6 attempts per game last season -- only the fourth time in league history someone 6-foot-10 or taller was that accurate launching at least 500 shots beyond the arc) and doubles as the best pound for pound rebounder of his generation. But Love's game is smeared by imperfect defense, a questionable attitude and his inability to lead his team into the postseason. (It should be mentioned that the Minnesota Timberwolves have won two playoff series in their 26-season history, and both came during Kevin Garnett's historical MVP campaign in 2004. So, yeah, maybe this isn't Love's fault?)
Should Cleveland, once again on the verge of a title thanks to LeBron's presence, exchange potential for production? That question is a bit more complicated than it sounds, but by comparing both players' long and short-term contract value, we can crawl a little bit closer to finding a reasonable answer.
Wiggins will play the first four years of his career on a rookie-scale deal before becoming eligible for a major extension (when he'll be 23 years old). He hasn't signed a contract yet, but when he does it'll be for a little more than last year's No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, who's set to earn roughly $24 million.
According to a study by Roland Beech at 82Games.com, there's a 70 percent chance Wiggins becomes a "star," averaging 32.9 minutes, 16.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game for his career. (It's also noted in the study, but career averages are obviously lower than those from any given player's prime.)
For the sake of argument, let's say Wiggins is Paul George 2.0: An elite wing defender who's scoring average incrementally rises by about four points per game each of his first four years in the league. He's a borderline All-Star in two years and one of the league's best two-way players by the time his extension kicks in. (This production does not include the unquantifiable impact playing beside LeBron will have on Wiggins' development, which is enormously positive and should expedite the process.)
If this is the case, Wiggins could potentially be the best bargain in the NBA. His contract will allow Cleveland the financial flexibility to fill out their roster with the proper depth necessary of every legitimate championship contender. With so many teams across the NBA possessing cap space, the market for marginal role players has exploded. This summer, we've seen the likes of Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Nick Young and several others take more money than originally expected.
In Butler's case, it's possible his unreasonable two-year, $9 million contract (the second year is completely non-guaranteed) was the end result of a bidding war between two or more teams that had cap space to fill. Point being: Right now it's extremely difficult to fill out a roster with quality players at an affordable price (unless you're the San Antonio Spurs).
As the No. 1 overall pick, Wiggins' production should exceed his current price tag and allow Cleveland the cap space they need to stock up on quality three-point shooters, rim-protectors, rebounders, etc.
The year Wiggins turns 22 is the same year the NBA's overall salary cap is expected to increase by $17 million. It's also only the third year of his contract, putting Cleveland in an incredibly advantageous position if Wiggins is providing above-average play on both ends of the floor (he should by then). Guys like Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Love could all enter free agency that summer and Cleveland should be able to afford at least one. (The Cavaliers currently have one contract on the books that summer: Kyrie Irving's max deal.)
If they trade Wiggins for Love, what they'll get in return is a much higher price tag. The 25-year-old (he turns 26 in September) is an incredible offensive force who only provides so-so defense at a position where negative play is extremely detrimental. He can't protect the rim -- the Cavaliers as currently constituted have zero players who can -- and doesn't move all that well in space against the pick-and-roll.
If acquired before this upcoming season's opener, Cleveland will push for Love to pick up his 2015-16 player option. That's $32.4 million for two years of service, and more than $20 million more than what Wiggins will earn. The expected difference in on-court production during that time should make any financial concerns negligible, but if LeBron and Love opt-in for 2015-16, Cleveland will have about $53.2 million locked up in those two and Irving that season.
The salary cap is expected to rise, but filling up your sheet with two players who offer little on the defensive end is a definite gamble. It somehow makes paying Love all that money (which, by the way, he ultimately deserves) a more hazardous decision than simply keeping Wiggins, the lesser player, at a fraction of the cost.
This also won't just be a one-for-one deal; the Cavaliers will have to part ways with other players (Bennett, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, a draft pick(s), etc.) to make things kosher with the league's rulebook, which only further depletes LeBron's supporting cast and makes padding depth all the more tricky.
Involving a third team could soften that blow, though, and the aforementioned higher salary cap could make adding another piece around LeBron, Love and Irving easier than expected.
Wiggins' contractual value will be superior to Love's for the next four years, but by then LeBron will be 34 years old, playing under a different CBA with the likes of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis Godzilla-smashing cities on a nightly basis. It's difficult to guarantee the addition of Love as a net-positive for Cleveland before knowing what else exactly they'd send to Minnesota, but it may be that Wiggins' incredible potential and important contract creates an easier path for Cleveland to win in the short and long-term regardless.