As the NBA offseason wears on, the race for Kevin Love has become much less of a race. The Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors are still talking to the Minnesota Timberwolves about the three-time All-Star power forward, but a recent ESPN report -- as well as common sense -- make it clear that Love will end up joining LeBron James in Cleveland, in return for a package built around this year's No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins. Such a deal would be a game-changer, unprecedented in league history. Only a handful of No. 1 picks have been traded before their rookie season, the most recent being Chris Webber in 1993. And none has been traded for a top-10 player in his prime. A Wiggins-for-Love swap is the rare disgruntled-superstar trade that would be a genuine win-win for both teams.
It's only logical that the Timberwolves are zeroed in on Cleveland as a trade partner. None of the other packages are nearly as attractive. Wiggins can't be traded until August 23 (30 days after the signing of his rookie contract), so the two teams have plenty of time to hammer out the details. Maybe they find a third team to take on Kevin Martin or J.J. Barea. Maybe the Cavs take back one or both of those contracts. Maybe Thaddeus Young is involved. Maybe some other ancillary pieces are swapped out. They'll figure all of that out. But none of it ultimately matters as long as they get Wiggins. If it were somehow financially possible to trade Love for Wiggins straight-up, that would still be the best offer the Wolves will get for Love. As long as Wiggins is involved, the Cavs have a package that can trump anybody else's -- or, for that matter, any other package for a player of Love's caliber in recent NBA history.
Several other superstars have been traded in the last few years, and none of the teams dealing them away have received anything close to a replacement as the face of the franchise. The Knicks gave the Nuggets a litany of picks and solid players like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. They probably gave up more than they had to, considering Melo was adamant that he would only sign an extension with one team. But none of the players the Nuggets got back were superstars or potential superstars.
The Jazz traded Deron Williams to the Nets at the same trade deadline for a package headlined by former lottery pick Derrick Favors, the Nets' top prospect at the time. And Favors has developed into a solid, starting-caliber big man for the Jazz. But he isn't an All-Star or even a likely future All-Star in a loaded Western Conference.
At the league's urging, the Clippers included Eric Gordon in the package they sent to New Orleans for Chris Paul. Gordon was their best young player outside of Blake Griffin, but nobody was under any illusions that he could be the best player on a title-contending team.
The team that's gotten back the best return for a superstar talent has been the Magic, who traded Dwight Howard to the Lakers in 2012 in a four-team deal that netted them sharpshooter Arron Afflalo and an assortment of prospects, the best of which is center Nikola Vucevic.
See the pattern here? If you're trading a superstar, the best you can usually hope for is a collection of complementary players. These teams are still on their own in finding the next franchise player. The Hornets/Pelicans got theirs in Anthony Davis. The Jazz are hoping Summer League phenom Dante Exum is that guy. The Nuggets and Magic are still searching.
This is where the Timberwolves have the chance to buck history, not only setting themselves up for the future but possibly setting a new precedent for teams that are going to lose their superstars. The best-case scenario for any team trading a player of Love's caliber is to return a player with the potential to be as good or better. Wiggins is the only player on the table that fits the bill. The Warriors are still refusing to part with Klay Thompson, who doesn't have close to Wiggins' ceiling and is due for a massive extension next year. Nobody the Bulls could offer (Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic) has Wiggins' upside. Plus, Wiggins is 19 and going into the first year of a team-friendly rookie deal. The Timberwolves can have him under team control for at least five years, likely eight or nine, the first four of which would be well below market value if Wiggins turns out as good as advertised.
The road to contention will be a long one for the Timberwolves, playing in a brutal Western Conference that will only be tougher this season in a small market that's never been a destination for marquee free agents. They can't realistically expect to be in the running for any of the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/LaMarcus Aldridge-level names coming on the market in the next few years, so they'll have to find other ways to get better -- mostly through the draft. A few more inevitable years of losing will help them accumulate more lottery picks, but the process of rebuilding is much easier when you already have your franchise player. The Thunder have been able to build around Durant and Westbrook, a team that would merely be a smartly assembled also-ran if not for the presence of two superstars. The Pelicans have a leg up in their rebuild because of Davis' presence. The Magic are still floundering because they haven't found theirs. If the Timberwolves are losing Love anyway and can replace him right away with a talent like Wiggins, it's hard to be in a better position.
There are few silver linings to losing a player as good as Kevin Love. The Wolves wouldn't be in this position if they had built a better team around him. The good news is, once they make the trade that seems at this point like a mere formality, they won't have to wait for a chance at a do-over.