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:
- Name specific trade targets.
- Consider how uncertain LaVine’s future is. He could become great, or something far below that.
- Pay attention to contracts, and appreciate how valuable LaVine’s is.
- Ask what happens to the Wolves with their new player. Do they have themselves a real contender?
- 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.