A How-To Guide to Discussing Zach LaVine Trade Ideas

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

In a recent podcast, Bill Simmons and Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer ran through an informal “power rankings” of the NBA teams through one month of games. On the Timberwolves (ranked 25th and considered by Simmons “the biggest shocker of the season” due to their early struggles) the two discussed chemistry problems within their young core and went so far as to contemplate a Zach LaVine trade:

Bill Simmons: Towns and Wiggins are untouchable for me. I’m not sure LaVine makes sense with those two guys. Whether he should be a sixth Man coming off the bench, whether they should flip him for somebody else, I don’t know. I can’t figure it out — I like watching them, I want them to do well, I like maybe 7 or 8 of their players and — for whatever reason — as a collection, it doesn’t work. I’m confused.

Kevin O’Connor: I think they should try to trade LaVine.

BS: I do too!

KO: I like him a little bit more than I expected to, but — at the same time — that kid, he still doesn’t play good defense at all, and he still doesn’t do a lot else besides shoot and dunk. If I’m the Wolves, I’m trying to sell him perhaps for a King’s Ransom. Maybe another team looks at him and sees him as better than he actually is because he’s scoring…19 points per game, nearly 20 points per game I’m pretty sure. I think maybe they could get a little bit more for him than perhaps they should…

Their discussion continues on from there, but the bottom line is both believe the Wolves should think about trading away Zach LaVine.

Fake trade discussions are a quintessential pro-sports-fan activity. By playing pretend GM of one’s favorite team in a conversation with friends, the fan enriches his or her experience of following the NBA. We see the same players on the same teams every night. Sometimes it’s fun to imagine what a shake-up might look like. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But just because there’s nothing wrong with discussing trade ideas doesn’t mean that there aren’t better and worse ways of doing it. Arguing that, “The Wolves should trade LaVine,” by itself is either a stupid or incomplete statement. Taken literally, one might interpret that as saying the Wolves should trade him “no matter what,” or regardless of the return. On the flipside, arguing that the Wolves SHOULDN’T trade LaVine can have the almost-equally absurd problem that it implies they shouldn’t trade him, regardless of the return.

What follows is a step-by-step “How To” guide to discussing potential Zach LaVine trades.

Step 1: Name specific trade ideas, including who goes out and who comes back.

This is the most obvious step toward Intelligent Zach LaVine Trade Discussion, so it goes first. One fan who shouts, “The Wolves can’t trade LaVine!” might change her mind if then asked, “What about if they can bring back Jimmy Butler?” Another fan — perhaps frustrated immediately after a bad third quarter meltdown — might tweet out that the Wolves MUST trade LaVine. When he receives a reply tweet out of Philly about a potential LaVine/Jahlil Okafor swap, he changes his tune. “That’s not NEARLY enough!” Maybe “must” was the wrong word choice.

The point is, in order to talk about trading away LaVine, you have to have some idea of a return in mind. Otherwise nobody can tell what you’re really saying. While this is sort of true for any trade talk, it is less so about certain players. If somebody said in 2014 that the Wolves should trade Kevin Love, most would understand that to mean, “They need to start shopping Love because they’re going to lose him in free agency.” There was implied context. The same could be said about the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins right now. But with LaVine, there is no urgency or obvious reason why they would have to trade him. So in order to even have the conversation, you need to be specific.

For me, I like to throw out the “Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for Boogie Cousins” hypothetical. You could probably talk me into something similar for John Wall, to name another former Kentucky Wildcat All-Star who might be on the market sooner than later. Others might have lower expectations than that. But naming names is a necessary first step to having any meaningful argument.

Step 2: Consider the ways — both good and bad — that LaVine is a unique basketball player.

Zach LaVine is an incredibly unique player, with a very uncertain future, which complicates any discussion about trading him. Pretending otherwise will dumb down your trade discussion considerably.

People who tend to say that the Wolves SHOULD trade LaVine focus on his poor defense and bad plus/minus statistics that suggest he is not a helpful player. ESPN’s “Real Plus-Minus” advanced stat ranked rookie LaVine 471st out of 474 players. Last year in his second season, he improved marginally, up to 388th out of 423. This season, LaVine’s RPM has improved to 169th in the league through 19 games played (Eds note: that ranking will continue to change as the season moves along. I checked on the evening of December 4). However, the Timberwolves’ on/off advanced stats continue to suggest that he is more “problem” than “solution.” The Wolves play their best basketball (+6.0 per 100 possessions) with LaVine on the bench. When he plays, they are outscored by 3.4 per 100, which is third-worst on the team. (To be fair, those rankings are scarily close to franchise cornerstone Towns, whose play has likewise correlated with losing more than many would have expected.)

LaVine is not a winning player, they say, so trade him now while he still has value.

People opposed to trading LaVine focus on other things. LaVine partisans point to his young age and lack of experience. He won’t turn 22 — the age of most college seniors — until March. His supporters focus on other-wordly athleticism in a 6’5″ frame that allows him to do things like 360 dunk from the free throw line. They are impressed by LaVine’s beautiful shooting mechanics that allow for prolific three-point range at such a young age. (As of this writing, he ranks 13th in the league in made threes.) When you combine LaVine’s youth with his athleticism and shooting skills, there is far too much potential to entertain trading him away. While he has yet to master the finer points of the NBA game, those things come with repetition. LaVine has everything that is unteachable and scarce.

You keep him, work with him, and — one day — reap the rewards that come with having a superstar player.

The truth is that both camps make legitimate arguments and both sides need to be appreciated when having this discussion. LaVine might be a losing player right now, but he is undeniably getting better. To use a different advanced stat, his Win Shares per 48 minutes have increased from a catastrophic -0.018 to a below-average 0.054 to a decidedly average 0.102. And as mentioned, his physical tools are elite. But just because he’s improving doesn’t mean that a linear path to stardom is in any way inevitable. What if he plateaus this year? Or next year? Starting at a “league worst” level makes for an easy baseline to demonstrate progress. He might always struggle to understand team defense. He might always struggle to get into the lane and draw fouls (he’s currently averaging 3.0 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, which is a career worst for him).

But then again, he is a prolific three-point shooter who can 360 dunk from the foul line, and he’s only 21 years old.

If you trade away LaVine, you risk sending out on a future All-Star before he enters his prime.

If you don’t trade LaVine now while his value seems high, you risk suffering major opportunity cost if he never becomes an all-around winning player.

Step 3: Understand how contracts and free agency work.

One of the easiest ways to screw up a Zach LaVine trade discussion is to propose that the Wolves send him out and bring back a veteran player who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Unless you believe the 6-14 Timberwolves could make a deep playoff run THIS YEAR with the right LaVine trade (and even then, maybe) you probably don’t want to agree to something like that. If the new player is a free agent in 2018, you need some assurance that he’ll re-sign after spending a season and a half in ‘Sota.

Likewise, you have to understand LaVine’s contract situation in the context of NBA rules, because it is a huge reason that he would have high trade value. He is in the third year of his rookie-scale contract. That runs four seasons before he either begins his extension (if the Wolves and LaVine reach an agreement next October, like they did with Gorgui Dieng recently), or he enters restricted free agency where the Wolves can match any offer that he receives on the open market. In all likelihood, the Wolves will have every opportunity to keep LaVine for five more years after this one. That is huge, when paired with the stuff written above about his upside. If LaVine continues to progress into a star, the Wolves will be the team that has him. If they trade him away this year, the team who adds him will hold those same rights.

For an example of a trade that went horribly awry in part due to this reason, look to the infamous James Harden deal. The Thunder dealt Harden after his third season, while he was still on his rookie contract. They could have kept him not only for the remaining one year on his rookie deal, but for four more after that one — essentially the same situation the Wolves will be in next summer, with LaVine. They did this purely for financial reasons, not wishing to pay three players (Harden, along with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) maximum salaries and therefore some luxury tax bills. In dealing away Harden, the Thunder brought back several assets, but the primary player was Kevin Martin. Martin played one solid season for Oklahoma City before joining our very own Timberwolves. They got a one-year Kevin Martin rental.

Meanwhile, Harden immediately signed a 5-year extension with the Rockets, meaning they had him for at least six years under contract, right away.

While OKC scored pretty big with one of the draft picks they received for Harden (Steven Adams, selected 12th in the 2013 Draft), the Thunder made a huge mistake by dealing away what quickly became a perennial MVP candidate who they could’ve had for at least five more seasons. Once Martin left, and Jeremy Lamb (another acquired) failed to pan out, the return looked pretty slim for a player of Harden’s caliber.

This leads into Step 4…

Step 4: Assess the Wolves current roster situation, and ask how it would change by adding the new player received in a LaVine trade.

If LaVine is traded, what sort of roster is the new guy(s) joining, and what can the new team accomplish? Assuming New Guy is a veteran, does the new roster quickly begin making playoff runs? The main core pieces remaining would be Wiggins and Towns. If the Wolves were to make the aggressive decision to trade away the unofficial third member of their “Big 3,” then they’d want to make sure that there is a new one in its place.

Basically: New Player X + Andrew Wiggins + Karl-Anthony Towns would need to = Badass Big Three upgraded from the previous one.

I think an implicit factor in any Trading LaVine Discussion is a desire to get better sooner. This means that the roster at large needs to be ready for a new veteran to lead into the playoffs and beyond. Perhaps the trade wouldn’t be made in isolation, but other extremely-young Wolves (not named Wiggins or Towns) would also be moved in order to deepen the roster with quality role players around the New Big 3.

While the Harden deal represents how NOT to trade away your budding star shooting guard, there is a different, somewhat-recent example that worked out much better, and it highlights the importance of pairing the new star player with a “bird in the hand.”

Shortly after the lockout ended in late 2011, the Clippers were preparing to enter what figured to be a fun season of continued development. They had a very young team coming off of a 32-win season and figured to make a run at the 8 seed if things went well. Blake Griffin was the reigning Rookie of the Year and a clear-cut superstar power forward in the making. Shooting guard Eric Gordon was not quite 23 years old and was coming off a season where he averaged 22.3 points and 4.4 assists per game. A great young forward complemented by a promising young guard seemed like a nice recipe for entertaining and improving basketball.

Then Chris Paul became available and everything changed rapidly.

After David Stern vetoed the CP3-to-LAL trade, the Clippers were able to pounce on the opportunity to add a legitimate superstar. By making Gordon the centerpiece of a package that also included Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and the Timberwolves unprotected 2012 draft pick (#fml, thanks McHale) the Clips were able to acquire Paul and pair the league’s best point guard with their soon-to-be-franchise power forward.

In that lockout-shortened season the Clips went 40-26, increasing their winning percentage from .390 to .606. Since the initial CP3 & Blake campaign, they’ve won 56, 57, 56, and 53 games. While they have had some disappointing letdowns in the playoffs, the Clippers have been a powerhouse for the past four years and the primary reason for that is they traded away Gordon when his value was high and acquired a superstar to pair with their best young player.

When the next star becomes openly available on the trade block like CP3 did in 2011, the Wolves will be armed with an enticing asset in LaVine. Whether that specific star player is worth this high price tag is definitely dependent on how well he would fit with Wiggins and Towns, and whether that New Big 3 could realistically mesh into a quick contender.

Step 5: Think about the current team chemistry, on and off the court.

The final step toward intelligently discussing potential Zach LaVine trades is to consider chemistry of the team they have right now. This is another factor that cuts both directions.

Simply put, it is not clear right now whether Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins can reach their potential as individuals when they’re on the floor together as a shooting guard/small forward pairing. For one thing, each figures to be a “shoot first” wing player. There is only one basketball and when that basketball also needs to be amply shared with franchise big man KAT, there aren’t always enough touches for two primary wing players.

Ball movement suffers.

For another thing, each player seems best suited (in a lot of people’s minds anyway) at the shooting guard position. The 2/3 distinction is possibly the least meaningful of all adjacent basketball positions, but when Wiggins is consistently giving up size it seems to wear on other parts of his game. His physical advantages are clearer against smaller players.

Finally, the stats are hinting that these two play better apart than they do together. In 540 minutes together this year, LaVine-Wiggins lineups have been outscored by 51 points. In Wiggins’s 189 minutes sans LaVine, the Wolves outscored opponents by 35 points. In LaVine’s 166 minutes without Wig by his side, they outscored opponents by 2 points. These aren’t huge, entirely reliable samples, but there is some math support for the proposition that these two have more success when separated. Last season in a larger sample, Wiggins was +21 in 1,371 minutes without LaVine on the floor. When they played together in 1,474 minutes, their lineups were -88.

There are two counterarguments to this chemistry point:

The first one stays on the basketball court: These guys are 21 years old and even if they don’t combine for success right now, they probably will over time. Developing chemistry between them should be a team priority and they just need time to grow and learn.

The second counter-chemistry-point when discussing a LaVine trade is that it might be bad for team morale; specifically, it might upset his young teammates — especially Wiggins, coincidentally, as the two seem like good buddies, drafted in the same class — and it would expedite their realization that The NBA is a Business; that the team that drafted them isn’t all that special, and isn’t much different from the other 29 franchises. There are other teams and one day they might wake up and –- through no decision of their own – find that they’re playing for one of them.

If the Wolves trade away LaVine, it is possible that it will not only piss off Wiggins (or Towns) but it will lessen their sense of commitment to this franchise. To use a cheesier word, it will make the Timberwolves organization feel less like “family” to them. This seems like a trivial point when they haven’t even reached restricted free agency yet, but it is the sort of thing that gets looked back upon after a player does exercise free agency and sign elsewhere. To use the highest profile example of late, think about all of the media attention paid to Kevin Durant’s thought process that led to him playing in Golden State instead of Oklahoma City. His friendship with Russell Westbrook was dissected ad nauseam, and there were all sorts of other issues analyzed that had nothing to do with basketball.

We often mention how it’s easy to forget how young the Wolves core players are. Most of them are just 21 years old, the typical age of a college junior or senior. We bring that up to remind fans to be patient with some of the mistakes they continue to make on the floor, during games.

But that reminder of youth is also helpful in the context of where these guys are in their lives, what they are doing, and who they are surrounded by. The vast majority of talented 21-year-old basketball players are spending a few hours per day in classes, a few hours practicing hoops with their teammates, and the rest of the time hanging out on a campus that has thousands of people in their peer group. College is a time of growing into adulthood together with everybody else your own age. When LaVine and Wiggins (and Muhammad, and Towns, and Jones) left all of that after just one year to go pro, they thrust themselves into this crazy life surrounded by adults. With the responsibility of being an adult.

I can only imagine that friendships like Wiggins and LaVine’s matter. Trading one of them away would come with cost in these intangible departments of employee satisfaction, locker room morale, and loyalty to the franchise.

So, to recap, if you want to have a good discussion about whether the Wolves should or should not trade away Zach LaVine, be sure to do as follows:

  1. Name specific trade targets.
  2. Consider how uncertain LaVine’s future is. He could become great, or something far below that.
  3. Pay attention to contracts, and appreciate how valuable LaVine’s is.
  4. Ask what happens to the Wolves with their new player. Do they have themselves a real contender?
  5. Talk about chemistry. Can LaVine and Wiggins figure theirs out on the floor? Is it worth jeapardizing team chemistry off of it?

Follow those simple steps and you’ll win your next bar-room or barbershop argument about whether or not the Wolves should trade Zach LaVine.

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11 Responsesso far.

  1. Joe says:

    Good Stuff.

  2. Steve says:

    If you can’t get a star caliber player for Lavine, why force it for a deal that is a wash at best and a risk to be a big minus in a few years when he nears his prime and improves IQ? I am more partial to dealing Wiggins for star like Paul George than I am trading Lavine for a plus role player who fits in a culture that is in the middle of big changes. Who is the best player you think could be traded straight up for Lavine? My guess is Biyombo, another flawed player with some very strong characteristics.

  3. pyrrol says:

    A lot of these chemistry problems will evaporate if Rubio (or any decent passing PG) is given the keys to distribute the ball. He can then control the offense, help control who gets the ball and when, and try to use the players situationally (for instance, give the ball the Zach when we need threes). He can keep the ball going where it needs to be to get everyone involved but keep their ball domination from stalling the O.

    It’s a little odd that we are having this discussion surrounding LaVine, particularly in terms of chemistry. The biggest ball stopper on our team has been Wiggins. What is he good at? He’s a good scorer. Yes, he’s improved his 3 shooting, but he’s no dead eye. But as a scorer what does he excel at? He does a lot of mid range post ups or face ups often in iso or double covered. He can hit shots of that type that most aren’t capable of, but they aren’t really ‘good shots’ to start with and because he takes so many questionable shots, when he goes cold he goes ice, and so far we tend to keep feeding him even when it isn’t helping us. He can take it to the hole, but can be quite lazy about it and isn’t all that much better at it than LaVine (he takes it through crowds more, but LaVine uses his speed to get ahead and avoid the D when he drives, so it tends to be different situations when they do it). On D, Wiggins isn’t all that good, no not good at all. And he was projected to be a plus defender from the moment he stepped on an NBA court. While he is better than LaVine, he has not come any closer to meeting his D expectations. Wiggins is mostly a better defender because he’s a tad less skinny and 6’8″. In a lot of ways, our assumption that Wiggins is our go to guy has held this team back. He doesn’t have a 1st fiddle personality. I hope he has a good 2nd fiddle personality. LaVine seems more aggressive, avid and confident. Wiggins can float and feel disconnected way too often, even when he’s the focus. LaVine doesn’t float in the same way. He always feels present, ready to go. He feels mentally more resilient than Wiggins.

    I’m not for trading either and think, frankly, that they can play together but both need a huge improvement on D and ‘little things,’ as well as someone (a PG) running the team offense for them. If we do trade LaVine, we might be moving the wrong one. We could get more return for Wiggins and he may have the lesser future. I don’t like it, but the way the league is going LaVine’s 3 pt shooting (and ability to create those shots himself) is of huge value to the type of roster we have. We can afford to send Wiggins’ skills down the river more than LaVine’s if you look at it in a certain way. A big problem our team has had is that we treat Wiggins as the de facto go to or even leader. He’s no leader, and while a good offensive player, I think Towns should be the #1 go to guy, and in some ways I’d rather see Zach take game winners than Wiggins (depends on type and situation of course).

  4. enai says:

    On paper Zach’s and Wiggins’ skill-sets make sense together- Wiggins as a slasher and iso player, Zach as the spot up catch and shoot guy on the perimeter. The main problem with the Zach/Wig combo is the positional crunch: both players best position is SG. Even if Wiggins puts on weight and can defend the beefier 3’s, he’s never going to have the sorts of juicy matchup advantages that he has against opposing 2-guards. And while Zach has some appeal as a 6th man Jamal Crawford type scorer, the Wolves really need his 3-pt shooting in the starting lineup since Rubio can’t hit 3s (except in the most clutch scenarios, I guess; see the game against Charlotte, or last years upset of the Warriors) and Wiggins 3-pt shooting is still very inconsistent; without Zach in the starting lineup, driving lanes for Wiggins and Towns will be much more congested. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m definitely opposed to any Lavine trade, at least one that nets us anything short of the king’s ransom.

  5. pyrrol says:

    Yeah, the positional thing may be a real issue. I think that’s on Wiggins, though. There’s no reason a 6’8″ guy with long arms and a iso/post game shouldn’t thrive as a SF. If he goes against bigger SFs he should eat them alive with his speed, athleticism and wide skill set. He has improved to a streaky but near normal SF type three point shooter, but ideally you would want better 3 pt shooting out of a shooting guard than he’s suggested he can provide, esp in this era. He should be able to bulk up and learn that SF. I don’t see why he’s a natural SG at all, and why ha can’t be a natural SF.

    On the other hand, Zach is 6’5″ and will never be ‘unskinny’. He has prototypical SG size and skills and really doesn’t have the correct size to play SF and as we learned the hard way IS NOT A PG. Zach is doing what he needs to do, positionally. And in this era, having a 3 point shot maker and creator in the starting line up is important, in fact required. He does need to bulk up too, and get better on D.

  6. finchy74 says:

    I hate the thought of trading Lavine purely because it’s impossible to know what the Wolves have in him.

    This team is three to four years away from contending if this team’s core becomes what we believe it can. A trade for a veteran player might elevate their record for a few years, but it likely isn’t going to bring the Wolves closer to a championship. Lavine’s continued development however, may bring them closer to a championship in the long run.

    Let’s also remember that Lavine is a player who has continued to improve offensively each year in the league. No, his defense has not improved but let’s look at some of the factors/circumstances in that lack of defensive improvement:

    -Lavine is not alone in not improving defensively on this team. Most of the players on this team have not improved defensively.
    -Flip Saunders was a good offensive mind and had an eye for talent evaluation, but was a poor defensive mind.
    -I have a couple of connections to people that work in the NBA. Andy, I’m sure you have far more. It’s a poorly kept secret that Sam Mitchell is regarded as one of the worst coaches in the league last year. While he’s a fine man, he’s a poor teacher and has no discernible defensive philosophy to imprint on these young players.
    -Are we really expecting Tom Thibodeau in the course of a summer and 21 games to dig a 21 year old Zack Lavine out of the enormous defensive hole that’s been dug for him??? (Or dig the rest of the team out of that defensive hole, for that matter.)

    Any trade that involves Lavine is a blind trade. You don’t know what you’re sending away and consequently, it’s impossible to know if you’re receiving adequate value for him. And more importantly, what’s the point? Feeling better because we finished a couple of seasons with 40 wins instead of 35?

    We’ve waited a long, long time for a good Wolves team. We can wait a bit longer. Let’s not screw it up by getting impatient. Still expecting the Wolves to be a great 2nd half of the season team.

  7. LaVine is wasted with Towns and Wiggins in the starting lineup. But with Dunn, Bjelica, Muhammad and Aldrich, the Wolves seem to do okay. From his start, I’ve envision LaVine to be the second coming of Ray Allan. Trade LaVine if you like. Always more room in Minnesota for the “lose ’em and love it” club.

  8. Tom says:

    I see the value of a big three, but the three we have aren’t complementary at this point in time. Add that G and Rubio may not fit either with Thibs “my way or the highway” style of play and you have a bad mix. Last year with Prince and KG on the floor the defense was significantly better. So we may need more defensive minded players to play with our three. I would love to see Cole and Dunn with them and move Ricky and G to the second unit to create with Baz, Belly and Hill or Payne. The second unit may run you out of some games, but I think Baz and Belly would benefit from Rubio running the offense and G would work well in p and roll with Rubio too. Against most second teams, they could run more up tempo and put some more scoring off the bench.

    Otherwise, you need to trade players and that poses a problem. Most of our guys have favorable contracts for their position, so you eat up a lot of cap space getting similar talent back. You have to be right or you end up in cap jail. Give them away to protect cap space and that doesn’t help either. I would tinker with the line ups and see if new roles help before looking to trade a young, potentially excellent player in the future for more wins now. Of course if LeBron or Kawhi are available …

  9. gjk says:

    The assumption for this should be that they’re making decisions on how to complement the current group with, along with who belongs in that group (Dieng in, Muhammad and Rubio likely out). Next summer, one would hope they’ll bring in rotation guys who complement their favored group (I’d argue Rubio should be in there, but that seems unlikely). From there, each of those 3 will probably get a max extension and some years with that group, which then gives them time to trade 1-2 of them if needed. After last summer, it should be assumed that there won’t be any rash decisions or rushes to judgment (except for Rubio, apparently).

    Once a young player figures out how to win, things start to take more shape. Continuity also can’t be overlooked because success is hard; everyone wants the Clippers to blow it up while ignoring the garbage they were before this group came together. Maybe there should be questions about whether these guys will figure out how to win, but that’s a conversation for next season. This season is disappointing because people tried comparing them to the Thunder despite significant differences (a coach with a simplified system, better top-3 talent, more veterans and high-quality role players), but now that it’s clear what they are, no trade is going to make them a playoff contender. Unlike other playoff-less seasons, at least this one provides some fun along the way.

  10. gia says:

    u dont touch LaVine

  11. FNorth says:

    Bill Simmons? lol I will never understand what people see in that guy… I will only and always remember him as the dude who threw a tantrum because for some reason he thought he should have been considered for the Wolves GM job. Then he threw a tantrum at ESPN and dared them to fire him, so they did. Then he was for some reason given his own HBO special… That lasted what?

    Yeah, Bill Simmons thinks the Wolves should trade Zach LaVine… Who cares.

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