Flip Saunders couldn’t win.
You simply cannot trade a superstar, an elite talent and get equal value back.
Kevin Love is an elite talent (if you don’t see that it speaks to your hoops IQ) and he was forcing a trade — Love wasn’t coming back and everyone around the league knew it. That wasn’t Saunders’ fault — it was all the previous GM David Kahn who screwed up picks to put players around Love (drafting Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry and Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins) then insulting Love by not giving him a five-year max rookie contract extension — but Saunders could not repair the relationship. It was too far gone.
By the time of the playoffs and Finals this summer Love’s agent was working hard to get his client out of Minnesota and to a destination of his choosing, using he hammer of where he would and would not re-sign after this current deal is up. That started the build up.
By the time of the draft in June there a buzz and the feeling of pressure — the naive on twitter and some talking heads said, “Saunders needs to trade Love right now, the market is never going to get better.” But teams were low-balling Minnesota, thinking there really was pressure and they wanted to get the deal done sooner rather than later.
So Saunders walked away. He was patient. He knew the low-ball offers would always be there, he could wait for better.
In any negotiation, the guy with the power is the guy more willing to walk away from the table. Saunders was that guy. He took a page out of Masai Ujiri’s book when he had the same situation with Carmelo Anthony in Denver — be patient, let a trade market really develop, wait for someone to give you something you really want.
Better offers did come in, slowly. Chicago came in with Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and future picks, but that was not enough. The Celtics had a nice package of potential picks and young players, but Minnesota wasn’t ready to go that route.
Then the Warriors came in with a tempting offer but Saunders held out for their most prized rookie contract — Klay Thompson. Golden State wouldn’t do it. A team who has great former shooting guards in key decision making positions — consultant/owner Jerry West and coach Steve Kerr — did not want to give up on Thompson and pairing him with Curry. So Saunders waited.
Eventually, Cleveland threw Andrew Wiggins in a package. Most likely because LeBron James told them to — part of the reason he returned to Cleveland is he and his guys have a lot more power in the organization there. Once Cleveland got LeBron back they became a win-now team and Love fits that better than the developing Wiggins. Credit LeBron for being a smart GM here.
Now the Wiggins for Love deal is set, it just can’t be executed until Aug. 23.
But that worked for Saunders. If not an outright win, it was as close to it as he would get.
Saunders got what he needed — a potential elite player back. We don’t know how good Wiggins is going to turn out to ultimately be — he is incredibly talented but has a long ways to go — but Saunders got a young player who at the very least will be part of the future core of this team. If not it’s leader and cornerstone. And he got a guy on a rookie deal that he can control for a while (Wiggins will eventually sign some kind of rookie contract extension in Minnesota and likely be there at least seven years, maybe more).
Saunders also got Anthony Bennett, a former No. 1 pick who will never live up to that billing but showed at Las Vegas Summer League this year he can become a solid rotation big in the NBA. And he got a future first round pick.
Combine that with the potential of Zach LaVine (athletic but a lot farther to go in terms of game feel than Wiggins), plus the still young Ricky Rubio and others you might have something to build on in Minnesota. Saunders will look to move players of some value for assets now — J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved and others — and start to build for the future. In the deep West there is no reason for them to get vets and try to get the eight seed, rebuild the right way. It’s about player development in Minnesota.
But the key part of rebuilding is getting the cornerstone piece, and Saunders got that.
Saunders couldn’t win, but he played this all about as well as one can. He deserves a nice golf clap for that.