Breaking Down The Blockbuster Trade With Memphis

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Let’s start this with the big fat cavaet that I rarely watch, and am certainly not very well versed about, college basketball. And since two of the key principals in the eight-player swap that the Timberwolves and Grizzlies pulled off in the middle of the night Thursday/Friday are high-caliber college players, I am working with hearsay and inferences rather than my own eyes about how good or appropriate Kevin Love and OJ Mayo will be while plying their now-lucrative trade for their new NBA teams. Maybe when I get a gander at Love and Mayo in action, I’ll have a totally different take. For that matter, maybe my college ignorance is why I seem to be among the minority (and in agreement with ESPN’s Chad Ford, which may be worse) in thinking it is a good trade for Minnesota. So be it. You can only go with what you think you know. I’m not trying to hedge, I’m just honestly laying out the context.

First of all, the question isn’t whether the Timberwolves helped themselves last night–compare the pre-draft and post-draft rosters and try to tell me they didn’t significantly upgrade–but whether they helped themselves as much as they could. My answer is no, they didn’t, but that’s because they idiotically punted the 34th pick for no discernible reason other than to be pennywise, and we all know the second half of that course of action.

Let’s cut to the chase. Here are the reasons I really like the Memphis deal.

1) Mike Miller, who is one of the more underrated players in this league.

Well, maybe not underrated so much as unknown despite his gaudy accomplishments. If you put out the trivia question: "Which NBA player has been named both Rookie of the Year (in 2000-01) and 6th Man of the Year (2005-06) during his career?" how many guesses would it take before folks came up with Miller? Having turned 28 in February, the guy is in his prime, yet sports the kind of game that isn’t likely to fall off a cliff once he moves past 30. Last season was arguably the best of his career. He sank over half his shots (50.2%), which is made more impressive by the fact that over 40% of them were treys (359 three pointers, out of 824 total FGA), of which he converted 43.2%. Those are career-best numbers but not a huge aberration, as Miller is a career 40.3% shooter from behind the arc after nine NBA seasons. He also led the Grizz in rebounds last year, averaging 6.7 per game, and doled out 3.4 assists. He’s 6-8–a legitimate 3 and a matchup problem for opponents at the 2. He is a floor-spacer par excellence, making it very difficult for teams to double down on Al Jefferson in the low block without getting singed from outside.

2) Having a plan and sticking to it.

The most glaring need for the Wolves coming into the draft was gaining size, and picking up personnel that would banish the absurd smallball that had Jefferson at center and Ryan Gomes at power forward many times during the season. Taking OJ Mayo with the third overall pick meant that for the fourth straight year the Wolves were drafting a backcourt swingman (McCants/Foye/Brewer/Mayo). When the team thought Mayo was indeed their pick, I heard Fred Hoiberg tell the Draft Party audience that they could always address the need for a big in free agency. Ah, but when you look at the free agent list, it’s slim pickin’s indeed–the best of the lot are probably Kurt Thomas and Dasagna Diop, both less-than-perfect fits (to put it mildly) who will command inflated salaries on the free market. So, that meant paying through the nose or putting up with another year of Mark Madsen and Chris Richard when you didn’t want to play smallball.

Now you’ve got Jason Collins, who has fallen off a bit but is still a better complement to Jefferson in the pivot than anyone else previously on the roster. He’s a legit seven-footer who doesn’t need touches on offense and knows his meal ticket is rugged defense. You’ve got Collins for one year and then his $6.2 million comes off the books and you might have to look for another backup center before you can bring over the hot second round pick Nikola Pekovic, who most agree can be a player in the pivot once his rich deal with a team in Greece expires in two years.

But more importantly, if you’re Kevin McHale, you have eliminated excuses, introduced more direct accountability, and gone out and acquired the person you unequivocally state is "the best big man in the draft." Kevin Love is just a shade under 6-10, has a wide body, is reputed to be a tenacious rebounder, and was named the Player of the Year in the PAC-10 as a freshman, a league that also contained OJ Mayo, Brook Lopez and Russell Westbrook. Many think he is too small to succeed in the NBA paint: McHale is not one of them. The Wolves front office get feisty in pointing out that his combine numbers for size and athleticism compare with Atlanta center Al Horford. They think Jefferson and Love are a legit 4/5, or 5/4, depending on the matchups. I don’t know if they’re right, but I do strongly suspect that Jefferson/Love will play bigger than Jefferson/Gomes, with the 7-footer Collins available to change the mix. More to the point, you don’t have a paucity of big men that enable you to trot out a 3-guard offense as the other side of frontcourt smallball and pretend that’s what you really wanted to do. If you’re McHale, you drafted Randy Foye stating that he can be a combo guard with a primary emphasis on the point, and OJ Mayo is not around to gum up and otherwise complicate that evaluation. The Wolves needed size and they got a better backup than they had last year and the person they believe is the best big man to come out of college this year. If they’re wrong, it will be very easy to notice.

3) Boil down the legacy and it’s a 2-for-1 swap

Thank god for salary cap junkies who keep us all honest, and for closet GM types always figuring the roster angles. They will have a field day with this 8-player (count ‘em, eight!) deal and all its salary implications and ability to maneuver or not. Well, having watched this Wolves squad for the past four non-playoff seasons, I am well aware of what Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker and Greg Buckner bring to the table. Jaric has been reviled for what he got–a ridiculous contract that will pay him more than $7 million a year through 2010-11–and what he was not–he was not a good complement for Kevin Garnett, not good in the clutch, not capable of making anyone forget he cost not only Sam Cassell but a precious first round pick that has led to tanking by the franchise in order to keep it. Marko can be a spasmodically effective player in a "do all the little things mode." That’s not the definition of a $7 million man, however. Walker would have been bought out last year if he hadn’t greedily wanted more than he was worth to go away. And Buckner spent more time in street clothes than a uniform.

Minnesota is not exempt in this deal from taking on the Grizzlies’ mistakes. Foremost among them is Brian Cardinal, who will make $6.5 million a year through 2009-10 and is less effective than Jaric. And Collins we’ve already discussed–overpaid at more than $6 million. So there you have it. The players who are truly coveted in this exchange, the ones whose talent really matters and will thus determine the legacy of the deal, amounts to OJ Mayo for Memphis and Mike Miller and Kevin Love for the Wolves. And that’s what will have to be determined: Is OJ Mayo ultimately worth more or less than Love and Miller?

Those are the three reasons why I currently endorse the trade. But do I perceive there to be any downsides to the deal? Yeah, some potentially serious downsides. This is by no means a slam-dunk bonanza. Here are my primary concerns.

1) No defense and lots of turnovers

The Wolves brass seem convinced that Love and Jefferson on the front line is perfectly sufficient–no, even better, part of the
new vogue–for the long term future of the franchise. But almost all the raving I’ve heard about Love is about his passing, his midrange and long range shooting, his savvy box-outs–not a lot about his defense. On top of that, there are some questions about his physicality in the paint. Now I know Jefferson’s game, and his offense is light years ahead of his defense. So going with a pair of legit power forwards who don’t excel at D sounds like a recipe for disaster in the paint against large lineups. True, large lineups don’t happen even a majority of the time anymore, but, funny, the really good teams seem to be able to defend them, mostly by having one themselves. Not to put too fine a point on it: Minnesota’s interior defense could be in trouble if Jefferson and Love are your frontcourt. Maybe it will be better than Jefferson-Gomes, simply because Love is larger, but let’s not forget that Gomes is pretty big (250 pounds) and smart too.

What’s more, you no longer have Mayo in the backcourt and by most accounts, Mayo can be very good with perimeter defense. Stopping penetration was one of the team’s biggest bugaboos last year, and Mike Miller doesn’t seem like the answer. In fact a quintet of Jefferson-Love-Gomes-Miller-Foye, as marvelous as it might be on offense, sounds like a disaster on D. The Wolves would win and lose a lot of game by scores like 115-111, and that’s not the way to build a winning culture in the NBA.

The silver lining in this, perhaps, anyway, is that the NBA showed us this year that defense is more than ever (in this time of zones are okay and hand-checking isn’t) about time synergy more than individual prowess. The Celtics only had two good/great individual defenders in its starting lineup–KG and Rondo–yet played masterfully together, rotating and fluctuating as if everyone was on a string. By contrast, the Nuggets had two defensive studs among its five starters–Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter–and played wretched, dreadful, pathetic team defense. The lesson is emphasis and motivation. Do I think current coach Randy Wittman can emphasize and motivate a subpar defensive team to be appreciably better than their individual collective talents? No, not really, which is why this is a concern.

The other concern with the new Wolves roster is turnovers. For all of Miller’s strengths, he turns the ball over more 2.6 times per game, which is plentiful. As a rookie, even a precocious one, Love is going to make mistakes that lead to turnovers. Most importantly, Randy Foye is going to have to be your floor general and steady ballhandler. In addition to being a porous defender last season, Foye was hardly Mr. Steady with the handle. In fact I’d say Bassy Telfair is a large beneficiary of this trade, even as Corey Brewer seems penalized by it.

2) That Mayo is a Superstar about to happen

On draft night a few years back, everyone was wondering whether Detroit should have taken Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko. Turns out the real choice was Dwyane Wade after LeBron. It happens every year: Some people thought Marcus Williams deserved to go over Chris Paul and Deron Williams and some thought it idiotic. And there was Foye/Roy. Now we’ve got two guys who are consensus stars in Rose and Beasley, and divided opinion on OJ Mayo. Some see him as star who belongs in the conversation with Rose and Beasley, much as Wade did with LeBron and Melo. If those people are right, then this will obviously be a horrible trade for Minnesota. There are some things that could make it much less horrible–the emergence of Randy Foye into a star himself, making Mayo’s stardom redundant to the position; or the overachievement of Kevin Love from very solid pro to Chris Bosh-like invaluability. As I said before, the legacy boils down to Love/Miller for Mayo. And if Mayo is the dominant star who leads his team beyond expectation, bad deal for Minnesota.

I’ll tell you what I’m not concerned about. I’m not concerned about Mike Miller retarding the development of Corey Brewer and inflating the Wolves to mediocrity so it can’t seize any more stud draft picks. If Brewer develops, he’ll earn minutes–the Wolves desperately a quality defender in their rotation–and the idea that Miller is going to come and go before he can be really important to the franchise underestimates his shelf life value.

Last but not least, I want to reiterate how dumb it was for Minnesota to fritter away its second second-rounder at #34. I like the blockbuster Memphis trade (with the college cavaet unfortunately attached) and the first second rounder, who seems to be a mixture of draft luck and solid scouting. But this seems like it was a pretty deep draft–at least that’s what the Wolves braintrust itself was telling everyone to get its flock excited about the second rounders. And this did seem to be a draft where there was more-than-usual disagreement about who did and didn’t have first-round potential, meaning that some players regarded by smart, diligent scouts as first-rounders were still there at #34. For the Wolves to let Miami simply take it from them for two future second-rounders and cash feels like a lack of resolve to improve as rapidly as possible and bear relatively small cost for trying.

More than that, it was stupid public relations. As one of the commenters to his site, Andy G, mentioned last night, there is going to be at least one or two players picked at or beyond #34 that will pan out in this league, opening the Wolves up to the same kind of scorn they received for Josh Howard.

Worst of all, it may be the pick they handed over to Miami that is the specific example. The Heat chose Mario Chalmers, who the rep of being a steadying influence, a selfless point guard who enabled his more talented teammates at Kansas and then hit the big shot when it mattered to send the championship game into overtime. In other words, Chalmers is calm, seasoned and without a lot of ego. Now he is going to a team that has a pretty dire situation at the point, meaning that Chalmers might be able to work his way into getting quality minutes with a starting unit that includes Wade, Beasley and Shawn Marion. There’s potential for 8-10 assists per game right there, and if Chalmers gets them as a rookie, he’s going to have a very high profile. For all I know, this will be a laughable scenario when we look back on it a year from now. But if so, the Wolves will have dodged a bullet–and one fired from a gun they handed over to their critics.