Morning shootaround — Aug. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Irving to start vs. Slovenia | Drew ‘blindsided’ by Bucks firing | City of Charlotte ready to spend to upgrade arena

No. 1: Irving to start final Team USA tune-up — As of last week, the Team USA roster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup is ready to go. (And if you missed it yesterday, our John Schuhmann pointed out how the teams in the FIBA pool boast plenty of NBA players, too.) Before FIBA play starts this weekend, though, Team USA has one last exhibition date — a matchup with Slovenia today at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2). According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, Kyrie Irving will get the start at point guard tonight over Derrick Rose as coach Mike Krzyzewski irons out how best to use his All-Star guard combination:

Kyrie Irving will start opposite Goran Dragic at point guard Tuesday night when Team USA plays Slovenia in its final tuneup game leading into the FIBA World Cup.

But Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, in tabbing Irving as his starter against the Dragic-led Slovenians, told ESPN.com that one option under consideration is letting Irving and Derrick Rose trade off as the starter throughout the tournament, which opens Saturday in Bilbao with the Yanks facing Finland.

Krzyzewski says he can also envision Irving and Rose playing together once the tournament starts as Rose continues to acclimate himself to full-speed basketball after two major knee injuries limited him to just 10 games over the past two seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

“I asked him today, and he said, ‘I feel great,'” Krzyzewski said of Rose. “He did everything. He’s full go. I think there’s a part of him that’s like: ‘Quit asking me how I feel. I’m good.’ So I’m not going to ask him anymore.”

Having relied heavily on small-ball lineups in its last two major competitions, USA Basketball officials wanted the ability to play big lineups in this tournament when needed. The tag team of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins won’t necessarily be unveiled against a Slovenian squad that shoots 3-pointers as liberally as anyone in the field, but Team USA is sure to bust out that alignment on occasion en route to the Sept. 14 championship game, where host Spain and its hulking front-line trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka could be waiting.

Despite the pullouts of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook, as well as the emotional injury loss of Paul George, Team USA remains a heavy favorite to cruise through Group C play with no real resistance. Turkey, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic and Mike Fratello-coached Ukraine are the Yanks’ other opponents in pool play after the Finland game.


VIDEO: Relive Team USA’s top 5 plays from its game vs. Puerto Rico  

Losing a star does not mean losing hope


VIDEO: Flip Saunders talks about trading Love to Cleveland

What next for the Timberwolves was, predictably, damage control. Ads promoting the future that now includes Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 picks, their own 2014 first-rounder, Zach LaVine, and veteran Thaddeus Young. A catchy slogan — “Eyes on the rise” — to accompany the planned ascension.

Really, though, there was nothing else to do. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders, also the coach, was forced into a trade he wouldn’t have made without a loaded contract to his head, so an outbound ticket for Kevin Love it would have to be. There was something to be said for putting the mess behind them, and Saunders did about as well as could be expected while bargaining from a position of weakness, with the entire league knowing he had to deal at some point, and the Warriors drawing the line in the sand at the toes of Klay Thompson.

There is also the tangible reason for encouragement, the fact the other teams have been pushed down the same dark hole and lived to tell. The Timberwolves can look west to Denver and see that starting over doesn’t have to mean a giant step back. They can turn another direction, southeast to Orlando, and be reminded that losing the best player does not have to equal losing hope.

While each of the major trades forced by players in recent years is unique, depending on time and place, the first days of life without Love should come with knowing that moving an All-Star power forward against their true wishes does not have to be a major hit. The Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony, heard a lot of talk about needing time for the package of prospects to develop, then made the playoffs the same season. The Magic were pressured to offload Dwight Howard, took criticism for passing on what seemed to be the obvious idea of Andrew Bynum as replacement center, and got a better outcome, times a million, with Nikola Vucevic.

Some recoveries have been muddled by additional circumstances. Some have yet to lead to so much as a playoff appearance. But it also shows there is reason to actually keep an eye out for the rise in Minnesota.

TEAM: JAZZ

Player: Deron Williams

Trade: Williams to the Nets for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and cash on Feb. 23, 2011.

Long-term perspective: Utah moved Williams before the situation had a chance to deteriorate into the distraction other franchises had, and would, endure. The Jazz got back to the playoffs the next season, but have mostly gone through difficult times that have yet to lead to a clear direction. They will start this season amid predictions of another lottery finish.

It has not gone unnoticed that the lack of a consistent point guard has been an issue since Williams’ departure, though the arrival of Trey Burke in the 2013 draft and Dante Exum in 2014 has raised hopes that it is a problem of the past. The biggest redemption factor for the front office, strangely, is D-Will himself. He generally has not performed like a max player and was stained by the impression his actions led to the departure of beloved coach Jerry Sloan, so the split, however much of a setback on the court, probably does not feel like much of a loss around Salt Lake City.

TEAM: MAGIC

Player: Howard

Trade: Howard to the Lakers on Aug. 10, 2012, as part of a four-team deal that included Bynum and Jason Richardson going to Philadelphia, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, Arron Afflalo and Vucevic to the Magic.

Long-term perspective: The Howard breakup was different than any other, played out over seasons, plural, and with theaters full of drama that eventually felt like nausea. And when it happened, there was wreckage everywhere. New roster, new coach, new questions about which superstar Magic center in his prime would end up with the Lakers next.

Two seasons later, it doesn’t look so bad. Drama followed Howard to L.A. in some coincidence, reminding people in Orlando what else they were losing, before he left the Lakers for Houston as a free agent. Wanting Vucevic instead of Bynum has turned out to be a genius move and the Magic will open 2014-15 as a possibility for the playoffs. It helps to be in the East, as opposed to the others trying to make the climb, but there is a real future in Orlando. Again.

TEAM: HORNETS/PELICANS

Player: Chris Paul.

Trade: Paul and two second-round picks to the Clippers on Dec. 14, 2011, for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick.

Long-term perspective: That hurt Paul too, after the years of building a connection to the city of New Orleans. The team he left behind suffered on the court, with losses piling up, an ownership change, a name change and very little to show in return for the face of the franchise. Kaman and Aminu are already gone, the pick was spent on Austin Rivers — ironically the son of the current Clippers coach — and Gordon has struggled to stay healthy or come close to reaching what once seemed to be star potential.

TEAM: NUGGETS

Player: Anthony

Trade: Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Shelden Williams and Anthony Carter to the Knicks on Feb. 22, 2011, as part of a three-team trade that sent, among others, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, three picks and $3 million to the Nuggets and Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph to the Timberwolves.

Long-term perspective: Denver made the playoffs that season, signaling there would be no post-Carmelo rebuilding, and then built on that by pushing the heavily favored Lakers to seven games in the first round the next year. Coach George Karl loved the spirit of that group, and there would even be a third consecutive postseason appearance.

And then it went wrong. Karl was fired. General manager Masai Ujiri, Denver’s point man for the complicated negotiations, left for Toronto. Gallinari blew out his knee. The Nuggets are an uncertainty heading toward this season, waiting to see how much they can count on Gallinari and prospects, but not because of the trade. That generated forward momentum. It’s everything that happened after.

World Cup stacked with NBA players


VIDEO: USA tops Puerto Rico in exhibition

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – LeBron James was always taking the summer off from competitive basketball. Kevin Love decided to do the same just before the U.S. National Team opened training camp in Las Vegas last month. But there are still reasons for Cavs fans to watch the FIBA World Cup, which begins Saturday in Spain.

The Cavs are one of two teams that will have four players taking part in the World Cup. Kyrie Irving, of course, will start (at least some games) at point guard for the United States. He’ll face new teammate Erik Murphy, playing for Finland, in the USA’s first pool-play game.

Murphy, who was acquired in a trade from Utah last month, may not necessarily be on the Cavs’ opening-night roster. Only $100,000 of his $816,000 contract is guaranteed, the Cavs are already over the 15-man roster limit, and they’ve yet to sign Shawn Marion.

Irving has already faced Brazil’s Anderson Varejao in an exhibition game. And he could go head-to-head with his Cleveland back-up — Australia’s Matthew Dellavedova — in the knockout round.

The Rockets are the other NBA team that will have four players at the World Cup. James Harden, the Dominican Republic’s Francisco Garcia, Lithuania’s Donatas Motiejunas and Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou will all represent the Rockets in Spain.

Papanikolaou is one of five incoming rookies at the tournament. The others are the Bulls’ Cameron Bairstow (Australia), the Nets’ Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia), the Jazz’s Dante Exum (Australia), and the Pacers’ Damjan Rudez (Croatia).

Croatia’s Bogdanovic is not to be confused with Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was selected in this year’s Draft by the Suns and will play at least two years in Turkey before coming to the NBA. The Serbian Bogdanovic is one of six guys taken in the last two drafts who has yet to come over.

The others are Alex Abrines (OKC, Spain), Arselan Kazemi (PHI, Iran), Joffrey Lauvergne (DEN, France), Raul Neto (UTA, Brazil) and Dario Saric (PHI, Croatia).  

Wolves opt for litter of Timberpups


VIDEO: Flip Saunders talks about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new additions

Building a serious contender around one superstar power forward named Kevin wasn’t working for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It didn’t work with Kevin Garnett ultimately, despite a string of eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997-2004. And it surely didn’t work with Kevin Love, whose six-season stay in the Twin Cities merely extended the Wolves’ postseason drought from four years to a full decade.

So now Minnesota is trying another way. It’s going to raise a litter of Timberpups and hope there is success in numbers.

By acquiring Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett on Saturday in the long-awaited, two franchise-shifting trade of Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and adding him to their own 2014 lottery pick Zach LaVine, a still-young Ricky Rubio (24 in October) and last year’s first-rounders Gorgui Dieng and, er, Shabazz Muhammad (for the moment, tick tock), the Wolves have youth and hope and dreams. But mostly youth.

They have it in numbers, too, as if seeding their organization for a bountiful harvest in a few years. Oh, Flip Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations and its coach, will talk about excitement and development in the meantime – he is, after all, a masterful amateur magician talented in the sleight of hand.

But the real payoff, if it comes at all, will come between the games as his group of raw, talented players coalesce around each other.

Synchronizing things has always been a problem for Minnesota.

It snagged Garnett in a dice-roll Draft decision 19 years ago and had a dozen years to assemble a championship-caliber team around him, but never managed to fully do so. The initial vision of Garnett and Stephon Marbury as a new-millennial Karl Malone-John Stockton (or at least Shawn Kemp-Gary Payton), with first Tom Gugliotta (and then Joe Smith) as third stars, never achieved full focus. Gugliotta left, Smith was no more than a role player and Marbury torpedoed his own career in one of sports’ many examples of $100 million airport, $10 control tower.

Kevin McHale, the Wolves’ basketball boss, kept patching around Garnett and got them as far as the 2004 Western Conference finals by hiring mercenaries Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. That approach had no better legs than Sprewell and Cassell themselves, though, and after the usual death spiral – coaching changes, contract squabbles, missing the playoffs in Garnett’s last three Minnesota seasons – the big guy participated in the trade to Boston that got him his ring. And left the Wolves as, well, the Wolves.

The Love years were even worse. McHale got the UCLA forward in a Draft night switcheroo with Memphis for O.J. Mayo and seemed to be the perfect mentor for Love.

But McHale’s own tenure in Minnesota was out of sync with his new young big, and when Wolves owner Glen Taylor dumped McHale in favor of David Kahn, bad downshifted to worse. Erratic Draft picks and personnel moves followed, along with an uneasy atmosphere – or creepy culture, if you go by some Wolves insiders – during Kahn’s four lost seasons in charge.

It’s quicker to note what went right in that time than what went wrong – the Wolves didn’t pass on Rubio, Love developed himself into an All-Star and Rick Adelman stabilized the coaching position for a time – but it wasn’t enough. By the time Saunders was brought back 15 months ago to do some serious sweet-talking, Love already had one foot and half of his other out the door.

So now they’ll try it this way: Round up as many young players as possible, fold in a key veteran or three (new acquisition Thad Young, plus current Wolves Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin until they can shed the contract), and bake.

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to build not an individual, we’re trying to build a team,” Saunders said Saturday. “That’s the thing that we’ve sold to the players or anyone that we bring in here.”

For an outpost franchise like Minnesota, a big part of the plan is that the players – in growing up together – see ways in which their whole can end up greater than the sum of their parts. The risk is that someone feels slighted by being a spot or two down in his own ideal pecking order – if Bennett or LaVine feels stunted because of Wiggins, or if Rubio locks in on max-contract dreams when he hasn’t earned one yet – and blows up the blueprint.

That’s akin to what happened in Oklahoma City, which took a similar approach until James Harden chafed at being neither Batman nor Robin. He wound up with his own team in Houston, but at least the Thunder reached The Finals once and have managed to stabilize the roster since his departure.

Then again, maybe OKC proves that it all eventually comes full circle. And building around a superstar forward named Kevin really is the way to go.

The fall guy in Cleveland?


VIDEO: Kevin Love is Cleveland bound — how will his arrival help the Cavs?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Seventeen games into his tenure with the Miami Heat, LeBron James was taking abuse from every direction. In those early stages of the 2010-11 season, the Heat were 9-8 and the Big 3 era was off to a shaky start, given the outrageous expectations that accompanied the joining of forces between LeBron, fellow free agent Chris Bosh and incumbent face of the franchise Dwyane Wade.

The Heat rebounded from those early stumbles and made it to The Finals before being taken apart by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and the Dallas Mavericks.

In the aftermath of that ugly finish to their first season, LeBron was quickly cast as the scapegoat (with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra stuck in the mud with him). He flatlined at crunch time in The 2011 Finals. Unlike Wade, he had no championship ring or Finals MVP to fall back on. And Bosh was seen as the third wheel, so there was no way he could be the fall guy in that scenario. So LeBron was left to shoulder that burden, one that ultimately led to back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs.

The roles have been shuffled in LeBron’s latest super-team situation in Cleveland, where he’s the championship veteran with rings and Finals MVPs, playing alongside young All-Stars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Unlike Bosh and James back in 2010, though, the next playoff points Love and Irving score will be their first.

Far be it from me to rain on the attention parade going on in Cleveland, the epicenter of the sports universe with the Cavaliers’ new look and the seemingly never-ending Johnny Manziel news cycle. But what happens if (it’s blasphemy, Cavaliers fans, I know) LeBron and friends don’t win the title in their first season together?

Who is the fall guy this time?

Forget the common sense that should come with a new team with new leadership (coach David Blatt playing the Cleveland edition of Spoelstra’s role). The 2010-11 Heat and the 2014-15 Cavaliers face this similar circumstance: anything short of a title will be viewed as a disappointment by most.

And that means someone has to shoulder the burden of that disappointment the way LeBron (and Spoelstra) did when he went dark for weeks after The 2011 Finals trying to reflect on what had been a whirlwind 11 months.

LeBron should be immune this time around. We know what to expect from him. He has extensive experience playing with other elite superstars. He won’t have to make as many adjustments to his game to be effective. Even with the San Antonio Spurs shredding the Heat in The Finals this year, LeBron (cramps aside) was basically unstoppable. It was his supporting cast, both Wade and Bosh in particular, who didn’t play up to their own lofty standards.

And the Spurs were so good, it might not have made a difference if Wade and Bosh played well or not.

Love and Irving are clearly in the crosshairs this time around, given their lack of playoff experience and the fact that the only time they have shared a locker room with players as good or better than them is during All-Star Weekend and their time with USA Basketball. No one knows how either of them will hold up in the crucible that is the postseason. All of those regular-season highlights are useless if either of them melts down in the playoffs or runs into a matchup they simply cannot win.

Love will have to assume the Stretch 4 role that Bosh played in Miami, where his numbers dipped considerably compared to what he put up as a stand-alone All-Star in Toronto. Irving will have to relinquish some of the facilitating duties and scoring load that he’s had to carry early in his career to make sure his game meshes perfectly with two new elite teammates with higher profiles than his own.

Both Love and Irving will have the luxury of playing with the best player on the planet. But not even LeBron will be able to save them from expectations that are not fulfilled. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, general manager David Griffin and LeBron have all done their part. The pieces for success at the highest level have been assembled.

The rest is up to Love, Irving and the supporting cast. And if things go awry come playoff time, the scapegoat list will be easy to make!

Morning shootaround — Aug. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Thompson looking to make ‘huge’ leap in 2014-15 | Sixers likely to keep Shved, Mbah a Moute | Report: Celtics unlikely to trade Rondo

No. 1: Thompson looking to take ‘huge’ leap — Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson found his name in and out of the trade rumors all offseason as his team toyed with the idea of acquiring Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thompson, though, has had a good summer so far, as he’s part of Team USA’s 2014 FIBA World Cup squad and is hoping a successful showing there will launch him into a career year come 2014-15. Marcus Thompson of the San Jose Mercury News has more:

All-Star guards Damian Lillard and John Wall didn’t make the team. But Thompson did. Along with his Splash Brother, Stephen Curry. That’s a big deal.

“This is crazy,” said Thompson, who was taking a break from packing and on his way to lunch in New York City. “In my mind, I was going to make it no matter what. For what I can bring — the ability to spread the court and guard 1 through 4 in international basketball, and I’ve practiced on getting into the lane a lot — I was expecting to make it. I thought our first game in Brazil, I was a little rusty. But the last couple games, I think I played really well.”

There is another reason. Today, the Warriors decision to not to trade Thompson in pursuit of Kevin Love became official.

Love will be traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers today. No, the Warriors didn’t choose Thompson over Love. They chose Thompson, Curry and David Lee over Love and the contract of Kevin Martin. They chose chemistry and well-roundedness over the potential that comes with Love’s superstar talent.

“I’m happy. It makes me feel great,” Thompson said. “The Warriors believe in me. That makes me want to work that much harder. They believe in me and Steph, they believe in the team we have. I believe in us too. I think we have all the ingredients to win a championship.”

A championship? With this roster?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think a lot of it hinges on our health. Our ability to improve our offense. Me and Curry have another year together. Another year with Andre Iguodala. Another year under the belt for Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. We know what we’re going to get from David Lee consistently. Andrew Bogut’s coming in healthy. If Festus comes back and play like he did his rookie year, that’s huge. We’d have another big body and we need that, especially in the West. It’s going to be a grind.”

Of course, being a productive player for Team USA, being the primary reason the Warriors didn’t acquire Love, Thompson will have a much higher profile entering this season.

“I always thought people already do know who I am,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I want to be great. That comes with pressure. It comes with eyes on you. In year four, I’m looking to take a huge leap like I did last year.”

Thompson plans on making his mark as one who gets it done on both ends.

“Absolutely. One of the best ever, Michael Jordan, was one of the greatest defenders ever,” He said. “I’m not saying I am Michael Jordan. But if you want to be a championship player, you have to play both ends. We’ve got some great players in this league who are two-way players. Kobe Bryant. LeBron. Paul George. Kawhi Leonard. I’d love to be known as a guy who gets you 20 points and locks down the best offensive player.”


VIDEO: Relive Klay Thompson’s best plays from 2013-14  

Morning Shootaround — August 24


VIDEO: Kevin Love’s top plays with the Timberwolves

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Cavaliers trade for Kevin Love | Wolves get Young | Team USA’s new look

No. 1: Cavaliers trade for Kevin Love — After months of talk and rumors, the suggestions have become reality as the Minnesota Timberwolves have traded Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a package including this year’s No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Wiggins, and last year’s No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett. While LeBron James may have chosen to return to Cleveland in part because of their combination of young players and draft picks, giving the team a bright future, this trade allows James to team with Love and Kyrie Irving, giving Cleveland its own dynamic version of a big three. More important, as our Fran Blinebury writes, adding Love almost certainly accelerates the timeline for contending in Cleveland.

But the simple truth is that arrival of Love to Cleveland gives the Cavs with James and Kyrie Irving the best young All-Star threesome in the NBA.

James himself had cautioned everyone not rush to judgment and expect too much too soon. He said it would be a long road for the Cavaliers to reach a champion’s level and that was speaking from the experience in Miami.

That was also speaking from as the lone playoff-tested veteran on a team where the rookie Wiggins would have had to learn about the league and about himself. But all of a sudden, James and the Cavs have a shortcut.

Love, 26 in a couple of weeks, is a completely different animal, a top 10 level talent, who can produce double-doubles every night and has 3-point shooting range. Love is someone who changed his body and has changed his game to become one of the most consistent number producers in the league, the kind of front-line anchor right now that the Cavs could only have hoped they’d get from last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, who was included in the deal with Minnesota.

No. 2: Wolves get Young — While picking up two former No. 1 picks, Minnesota continued its makeover by moving Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Philadelphia in exchange for Thaddeus Young. With Young, Wiggins and Bennett in the fold alongside Ricky Rubio and draft pick Zach LaVine, the Timberwolves now have one of the most athletic cores in the NBA. As Wolves GM/coach Flip Saunders notes, the Wolves should be able to get up and down the floor in a hurry this season.

“It became very evident to anyone that contacted us that, in order to do something, we were going to demand something in return that was going to benefit us either now or in the future,” Saunders said.

With the three new players — as well as Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft — Saunders said the Wolves have an identity that includes the athletic, two-way players they lacked when he was hired as president last year.

With Wiggins and LaVine making plays at the rim, Saunders called it “a point guard’s delight” for Ricky Rubio, who can become more of an on-court leader with Love gone.

Before they take the court, Wiggins, Bennett and Young will be introduced at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Minnesota State Fair. LaVine, who is close with Wiggins, will join them.

No. 3: Team USA’s new look — As Team USA arrives in Europe to prepare for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo explained some of the squad’s recent roster moves to ESPN.com. While many observers assumed DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee were battling for one roster spot, all three ended up making the final roster as Team USA went with size and strength over speed and versatility. According to Colangelo, assembling a bigger roster allows Team USA “an opportunity to throw a new look at people.”

“This gives us an opportunity to do some things we haven’t had a chance to do in the past,” Colangelo said. “It’s true that the preferred style of play [in recent years] has been going small, but you have to ask: Was that by choice or by necessity?

“Early on [this summer], we said it would be hard to carry four bigs, but that was kind of put on the shelf. Certainly there won’t be any discussion going forward about, ‘What are you going to do about bigs, what are you going to do about playing teams with size?’ If Coach wishes to show a big front line, he now has the capacity to do so.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Before the Wolves’ moves were announced, they scooped themselves with an ad in the early edition of a local paper. … The Cavs sent a letter to fans who bought a Wiggins jersey to give them some options. … The Houston Rockets have re-signed Francisco Garcia. … According to a report, NBA veteran Hakim Warrick will work out with the San Antonio Spurs

With Love in the air, Cavs’ time is now


VIDEO: Relive Kevin Love’s top plays with the Timberwolves

Almost from the moment last month when LeBron James said in a Sports Illustrated essay that he was returning to Cleveland, the sports books in Las Vegas made the Cavaliers the favorites to win the 2015 NBA title.

With a roster then full of young, unproven talent in a city that took pride in being wanted again, that was largely about pure emotion.

Now it’s about (Kevin) Love.

With the official completion of the long-awaited deal that sent a package including No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves, the Cavaliers have vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.

Oh, there will be plenty to be heard from out of Chicago, where former MVP Derrick Rose tries yet another comeback as he joins up with a formidable group of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.

But the simple truth is that arrival of Love to Cleveland gives the Cavs with James and Kyrie Irving the best young All-Star threesome in the NBA.

James himself had cautioned everyone not rush to judgment and expect too much too soon. He said it would be a long road for the Cavaliers to reach a champion’s level and that was speaking from the experience in Miami.

That was also speaking from as the lone playoff-tested veteran on a team where the rookie Wiggins would have had to learn about the league and about himself. But all of a sudden, James and the Cavs have a shortcut.

Love, 26 in a couple of weeks, is a completely different animal, a top 10 level talent, who can produce double-doubles every night and has 3-point shooting range. Love is someone who changed his body and has changed his game to become one of the most consistent number producers in the league, the kind of front-line anchor right now that the Cavs could only have hoped they’d get from last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, who was included in the deal with Minnesota.

The critics will say that Love never got the Timberwolves to the playoffs in six seasons, point to a sometimes detached attitude and something less than a whole-hearted enthusiastic commitment to that franchise.

Yet the perpetual state of turmoil that has been a trademark of the Timberwolves certainly is responsible for much of that. He missed 64 games in the 2012-13 season due to a broken bone in his hand, but otherwise has been the guy who scored the ball and attacked the backboards equally with as much hunger as anyone in years. Love is the only player in the past 30 seasons to have a 30-point, 30-rebound game.

Maybe Love wasn’t a lead horse who could pull the weight of the entire wagon. Not everyone is. Now he doesn’t have to be.

There are sharp edges that will have to be honed in the playoffs, just as there are with the gifted and not-always-clued-in Irving. But those are edges for James to sharpen as he returns to his old neighborhood as the wise head who has been to the mountaintop and held the Larry O’Brien Trophy (twice).

Love had reached a crossroad in his career where he was simply going to pile up mountains of stats or make the transformation to being part of a contender’s foundation. It is no coincidence that in the weeks since the trade was agreed upon and had to wait for a 30-day embargo, the Cavs reeled in James Jones and Mike Miller from Miami, Shawn Marion from Dallas and could still add Ray Allen, if he chooses to play again next season. The role-playing veterans recognize the potency of the juiced up lineup and the immediate potential. With LeBron and his kiddie corps, the Cavs were still facing a long, hard slog to be able to truly compete with the Bulls in the East, not to mention the crop of contenders — Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies — in the A-list Western Conference.

The next task for Cleveland is to get Love to sign a contract extension that keeps him around past the end of the upcoming season. That shouldn’t be difficult. This is the situation he’s been searching for, the kind he’s needed, a place to learn and grow and win all at the same time.

When the oddsmakers tabbed the Cavs as the team to beat in the aftermath of James’ homecoming, that was as much about hope as anything. Now it’s about Love and reality.

Rookie picture continues to evolve


VIDEO: How will Andrew Wiggins’ talents translate to the NBA?

Kevin Love goes to Cleveland, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young go to Minnesota, two expiring contracts and a protected first-round pick go to Philadelphia, and the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year race goes back into the blender.

The last part is far down the list of implications now that the blockbuster trade involving an All-Star power forward and the last two No. 1 picks has gone final, somewhere after what the deal means to the Cavaliers as championship contenders and measuring how much of a setback this is to the Timberwolves. (It’s not like they were stringing together playoff appearances with Love, after all.) But the ever-changing look for the first-year class gets more interesting by the week.

The other big-picture development with the three-team deal finally complete is that the June 26 draft wasn’t close to setting the line on Rookie of the Year. It still wasn’t close weeks later after the biggest moment of free agency, LeBron James buying a return ticket to Cleveland. Back then, Wiggins had the benefit of learning work ethic from the greatest player in the world and the added bonus of being able to develop out of the spotlight as a complementary part of the Cavs, Doug McDermott didn’t have nearly the same chance to get open looks with the Bulls and Julius Randle didn’t have to contend with power forwards on his own team before dealing with the rest of the league.

And now:

– Wiggins in Minnesota, or anywhere with more of a featured role than he would have had with the Cavaliers, dramatically increases his chances for Rookie of the Year. Scouts and front offices had cooled on him since the start of what became a one-and-done career at Kansas, when Wiggins was the top player in the nation in his recruiting class and the consensus choice for the top pick in the draft. But that level of athleticism combined with the instant opportunity he should get with the Timberwolves equals the possibility of an immediate impact.

He goes to a team with a point guard, Ricky Rubio, who will deliver the ball. Plus, the Wolves have a chance to not be terrible — Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, the fast-improving Gorgui Dieng heading into his second season, Young coming from the 76ers, Kevin Martin — and a good season for a decent club resonates with voters more than putting up numbers on a 30-win group.

– Nikola Mirotic, the No. 23 pick in 2011 who developed into a lottery talent playing in Spain, is finally coming to the Bulls to play power forward and some small forward. The obvious problem for his Rookie of the Year chances is that both are crowded spots, including the presence of fellow newcomer McDermott. But Mirotic is 23 now (turns 24 at midseason) with physical and basketball skills further along than other rookies, and steps into an organization with a star coach and a foundation of success.

– McDermott, meanwhile, has been a Bull from the start, but everything has changed around him. Mirotic moving to the NBA is a potential minutes hit in addition to the presence of Mike Dunleavy as the incumbent at small forward. But Chicago signing Pau Gasol provides another smart big man, along with Joakim Noah, who can pass and find a shooter on the perimeter. And the return of Derrick Rose will give opponents another Bull to worry about with the ball, something that had been lacking.

– Nerlens Noel, expected back on the court after missing last season in Philadelphia while recovering from a knee injury, had enough very good moments in Summer League in Las Vegas and Orlando to show he will be a prominent part of this rookie class. That makes two players from previous drafts who could have a big impact on the 2014 Rookie of the Year race.

– Gasol, who could have played center with Randle at power forward, left the Lakers, but Carlos Boozer joined the team after being amnestied by … the Bulls. Randle is obviously the future in L.A. But as a prospect who projects as being able to score inside right away, he has a chance to be the present as well. However, with win-now mode in effect as long as the roster is built around Kobe Bryant, Boozer has an advantage as a veteran.

So much has changed. The long-distance look at the Rookie Ladder coming out of Summer League, with the disclaimer that changes were possible before the first actual 2014-15 ranking, was Noel first, followed by McDermott, Jabari Parker, Elfrid Payton, James Ennis, Jordan Adams, Randle, Gary Harris, Dante Exum and Jordan McRae. The new, larger opportunity for Wiggins probably moves him into the top five.

Shed no tears for Andrew Wiggins

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wolves head coach Flip Saunders talks about Andrew Wiggins’ potential

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Don’t cry for Andrew Wiggins.

That’s the message delivered by the last two men who coached the No. 1 Draft pick. When the Cleveland Cavaliers finally shipped Wiggins — shunned by LeBron James since the day the King announced his return to Cleveland six weeks ago — to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love on Saturday, he joined Chris Webber (1993) as the only No. 1 picks since the NBA-ABA merger to be traded before ever playing a game for the team that drafted them.

A sad end to a long, strange summer for Wiggins? More like an eagerly anticipated beginning, says Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ high school coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia.

“Andrew is such a good kid; he’s just a classy kid, very humble, very respectful,” Fulford, now an assistant at Missouri, told NBA.com this week. “I think this whole process with the trade rumors, he could care less. That kid just wants to play basketball. The fact that LeBron never reached out to him, Andrew could care less what LeBron James thinks of him.”

Throughout this saga in which the Cavs selected the Toronto-born Wiggins No. 1 and watched him flash his promising skills during the Las Vegas Summer League all the while trade rumors swirled and LeBron sweet-talked Love, Wiggins, 19, handled the enormity of the situation with graceful maturity always accompanied by a warm, playful smile.

It didn’t surprise Fulford, who saw such characteristics from the time Wiggins arrived at Huntington Prep to enormous fanfare to the day he left for Kansas as a McDonald’s All-American. His departure included a heartfelt thank-you note to the people of the Huntington community published in the local newspaper.

“You have to understand, this kid, the media circus was around from the beginning when he got here in August of his junior year in high school until he left Huntington in May of his senior year after graduation,” Fulford said. “It was just a circus. I think it prepared him for what was going to happen at Kansas and even now he’s used to it, and I think he’s handled it really well. With the parents that he has, both have been professional athletes, I think it helped that he’s been kind of groomed in that manner.”

All Wiggins wanted, he reiterated during several interviews over the last month, was a place to call home, a place where he feels wanted. And so Wiggins will not flank the game’s greatest player on an instant contender in Cleveland, but instead will embrace replacing the fed-up Love as the next great hope for the long-languishing Wolves.

Fulford keeps in relatively close contact with the long-limbed, 6-foot-8 phenom, typically through text messages. The message he’s received loud and clear is that Wiggins is excited to make his own name for a franchise in need of a leader.

“Andrew’s going to be a superstar,” Fulford said. “This gives him a platform from Day 1 to kind of be the guy, and he’s ready for that.”

Earlier this month, Wiggins’ former coach at Kansas, Bill Self, said nearly the same after telling reporters that Wiggins had told him he hoped Cleveland would trade him.

“Even though, in a weird way, everybody would love the opportunity to play with LeBron because you’re guaranteed winning, for the longevity of his career, he needs to develop that mindset to be the guy for him to be great,” Self told reporters. “And I think being in Minnesota will help him do that.”

For glum Wolves fans, the Love fiasco has the potential to yield a happy ending after all. The greatest fear for an organization is it will never come close to recouping equal talent when forced to trade a disgruntled All-Star. Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders has reaped a haul as strong as anyone could expect.

In the three-team trade, Wiggins heads to Minnesota with the Cavs’ 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and Philadelphia’s consummate pro, Thaddeus Young, 26, a solid immediate replacement for Love at power forward.

They’ll join a cast that includes 23-year-old, potential All-Star point guard Ricky Rubio, veteran guards Kevin Martin and J.J. Barea, emerging center Nikola Pekovic, small forwards Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger, Wiggins’ fellow Huntington Prep alum and quick-learning 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng, and high-flying ’14 first-round pick Zach LaVine.

The fit in Saunders’ up-tempo plans should suit the slashing Wiggins well. Fulford said Kansas’ high-low attack that included big man and No. 3 pick Joel Embiid didn’t always afford Wiggins the driving lanes he craves, turning him into a jump-shooter.

“He’s going to have more space to work with,” Fulford said. “And he’s extremely … I won’t say he’s impossible to guard in space, but he’s close to it.”

Love’s Wolves never made the playoffs, a six-year span that included exceptionally disappointing endings to the last two seasons. Nobody should expect a rapid ascension this season in the competitive West as the Wolves again transition, but young and athletic, Wiggins’ new team is stocked with upside and should be an exciting squad to watch grow.

“I don’t think there’s any question he’ll have a great rookie season. He’s groomed for this,” Fulford said. “In college he got better the year he was there, but he’ll be a better NBA player than he was a college player, and he was an All-American at Kansas, so sky’s the limit for him.

“It’s one of those things, him being on a team where it’s kind of really going to be his, I think, is a good thing for him.”

So shed no tears for Andrew Wiggins. Or the Wolves.