Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves Ace First Test in Post-Kevin Love Era

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

Minnesota Timberwolves team president of basketball operations and new head coach Flip Saunders, right, responds to a question as team owner Glen Taylor, left, listens during a media availability in Minneapolis, Friday, June 6, 2014.  (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Kevin Love gave Minnesota Timberwolves president-coach Flip Saunders no choice.

After unofficially officially demanding a trade at the start of this summer, Love made a few things clear: He needed to be moved sooner than later, and he had to sign off on the destination.

Nothing about the situation was unique.

Love was following the footsteps left by stranded small-market stars before him, and the Wolves scoured the NBA landscape for the best possible return package. That was where the narrative changed for Saunders and his organization. While their superstar loss hurt just as bad as the rest, they were the first ones to leave the negotiating table with a star of their own.

As Saunders noted at the press conference discussing the deal, he deserved a pat on the back for potentially squeezing out a premier player in top pick Andrew Wiggins.

To be clear, Wiggins is not a best-case scenario. The only one that existed in this situation was not being forced to give up the player who posted 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists a night last season.

But Love took that option off the table, forcing Minnesota to act. And no matter which potential trade partner the Wolves tabbed, they weren't going to find another Love.

History had already taught that lesson.

Teams in Minnesota's position don't win these trades—they simply hope to survive them. That almost always means gambling on potential (Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Derrick Favors, Chris Paul etc.), but never before has it yielded someone with Wiggins' ceiling.

"He's raw, but his ceiling is high," reigning MVP Kevin Durant said of Wiggins last November, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. "He can be like a Hall of Famer, All-Star, for sure."

Granted, there's a pretty wide gulf between All-Star and Hall of Famer, but Durant's words do a good job of framing Wiggins' intrigue.

Physically, he is a generational freak. He has terrific size (6'8", 200 lbs), great length (7'0" wingspan, per DraftExpress) and better genetics (his dad played in the NBA, his mom was an Olympian track star).

The 19-year-old is still learning how to consistently maximize his natural gifts. He needs a lot of work. But he has already flashed a devastating combination of instinct and athleticism that hints at his massive potential should he ever fully figure things out.

His future is packed with promise, but his present isn't without its own perks. He could play an impact defensive role out of the gate, and his transition offensive game could be among the best in basketball.

"Offensively, the way this game is played, he was by far the best finisher in college basketball," Saunders said at the press conference. "His ability when he got the ball on the break, he finished at the rim as well or better than anybody. Those are things that transcend into the NBA with the open-floor games that we play."

It's a style the new-look Wolves should wear quite well next season, and one that helps Minnesota earn its best possible marks for the transaction.

The Wolves didn't just find a talented player in Wiggins. They may have discovered their personality.

"Adding Wiggins gives Minnesota an immediate direction, and that was the single most crucial element of any trade involving Love," wrote Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver. "Floundering without a foundational piece would have been a cataclysm."

Wiggins was the backbone of Minnesota's return package, but he wasn't the only piece headed to the Gopher State. The Wolves also picked up Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, and Thaddeus Young, who averaged 17.9 points in the Philadelphia 76ers' fast-paced attack last season.

Along with newcomer Zach LaVine, the 13th selection in June's draft, Minnesota's arrivals bring with them an identity.

The Wolves—thanks to Saunders' discipline, patience and savvy negotiating skills—now know what they're building. And with Love no longer building the pressure to perform, they can construct something substantial at their own pace.

This isn't exactly like hitting the reset button. That option doesn't exist for a franchise trapped in a 10-year playoff drought.

But their moves will no longer be viewed under the lens of helping or harming their chances to keeping Love. The 2014-15 season will be a chance to see what Minnesota has assembled, not an 82-game recruiting pitch to keep the second best player in franchise history happy.

Apr 16, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) and forward Kevin Love (42) at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

And it should be the debut for a young, athletic core that could form the franchise's nucleus going forward. As Saunders told reporters, there is a pattern behind Minnesota's roster reshaping:

With the additions of Wiggins, Bennett and Zach LaVine this summer, we have brought in three exciting young athletes who all have the potential to have an impact in this league. All three of them complement each other very well and we believe they will be foundations of our team for years to come. In Young we are getting a proven NBA player who is entering the prime of his career. Our fans will enjoy watching these exciting players this coming season and beyond.

This team should be looking to run at every opportunity, and that should only help athletic incumbents Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. Dieng is the oldest of these six at 24, so the Wolves' facelift should fit for years to come.

That potential sustainability is important to remember, because things are likely to get worse before they start getting better.

Minnesota's roster features an awkward mix of win-now pieces and future assets, but the majority of its most prominent players fall into the latter.

That could lead Saunders and Co. to eventually turn more of these proven commodities into parts to be used at a later date. If the Wolves want to build around Rubio (23 years old) or Wiggins—or both—they have the time to manufacture the right environment around them.

It's a daunting task for a franchise forced to practice patience for this long, but the team's work this time around litters the road with high hopes. The Wolves were put into a situation they could not win. They emerged with their dignity in hand and a possible star within their ranks.

More tests are sure to follow, but Minnesota aced the one that matters most. The Wolves might not be better without Love now, but they gave themselves a chance to be just that in the future.



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