With new pieces in place, Wolves turn focus to the future

With Kevin Love headed for Cleveland, Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders is focused on the team's future stars.

With Kevin Love headed for Cleveland, Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders is focused on the team's future stars.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Upon hanging up the phone after a conference call with the NBA office Saturday afternoon, Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders shot a blank, sapped expression his right-hand man's direction.

"What do we do now?" Saunders asked general manager Milt Newton.

Four months of tense phone discussions with other NBA personnel chiefs, hot-and-heavy speculation and long hours inside the same Target Center offices concluded Saturday, at long last. Minnesota is officially the latest NBA organization to deal away a discontent superstar, sending Kevin Love to Cleveland in a three-team deal that brings Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and 76ers power forward Thaddeus Young to the Twin Cities.

It could've happened before the draft, but Saunders waited diligently until an irresistible offer came his way. It could've happened last month, but Wiggins signed his rookie contract, and NBA rules stipulate a player can't be traded within 30 days of putting pen to paper. It could've happened any time before the league's January trade deadline, but snagging the last two No. 1 overall draft picks and a proven power forward to take Love's spot was too good to refuse.

The process, which began when Love's agent Jeff Schwartz informed the Wolves his client planned to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, was a demanding and arduous one.

"It's almost like when the season ends," Saunders said at a press conference officially announcing the transaction. "You have all these practices and these games and the season ends, and then you say 'what am I gonna do now?"

There's an answer to that question, for all parties involved.

Move on.

With six frustrating, playoff-less years behind him, Love is now a Cavalier. He'll wear No. 0. Share a frontcourt with LeBron James. Serve as the tertiary addition to the NBA's next "Big 3."

Saunders can find a pontoon somewhere. Relish what's so far the marquee decision of his executive career.

Though the man who once coached Minnesota to eight straight playoff appearances -- its only playoff appearances -- doesn't view it in that light.

"I never thought about it that way," Saunders said. "The way we looked at it is 'What do we have to do to make our organization better?' To make our organization better is not to just compete, but to put together a team that can be a championship-caliber team."

The focus instead is now establishing an identity centered on Wiggins' upside, team speed and defensive improvement. The 19-year-old from Kansas has yet to play an NBA game but is tabbed a potential superstar based on his frame, athleticism and ball skills.

"When Andrew is turned up," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said, "he can do things athletically that nobody else can do."

He's expected to run the floor alongside point guard Ricky Rubio and fellow first-rounder Zach LaVine, whom Saunders drafted 13th overall in June. Wiggins is already an above-average defender, draft experts say, simply because of his 7-foot wingspan and sheer aggression.

And there will be dunks. Lots and lots of dunks.

"It will be very dynamic and very exciting and high-flying and a lot of those things," Saunders said. "There definitely will be some excitement in Target Center. We're gonna have to try to let those guys know the difference between excitement and substance."

Having played in the league seven years and put up 17.9 points per game last season, the 26-year-old Young has figured that out by now. Behind him, Saunders said, is a potential stud power forward in Bennett, the 2013 draft's top pick, provided he can overcome the health issues and malperformance that derailed his rookie season.

"AB's biggest trouble last year was he never really had the opportunity to play enough, because he was either hurt or not in good physical shape," Cavs coach David Blatt said of Bennett, who appeared in 52 games, averaging 4.2 points and three rebounds. "He worked very hard at that (this offseason). It's a good first step."

This was originally a two-team accord between Minnesota and Cleveland, with Bennett being dealt for Young in a separate trade. But Newton, who served as the point man for acquiring Young's services, spent enough time on the phone to convince 76ers president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie to offer the 6-8 four-man in a three-team deal. In return, Philadelphia received Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved and Miami's 2015 first-round draft pick -- which had belonged to Cleveland but was part of the Love compensation package -- in return.

"Minnesota #twolvefans I'm ready to work and bring my hardworking attitude Philly gave me to #wolfnation," Young tweeted Saturday. "#howl ... see you soon."

Despite pressure from Schwartz, Saunders maintained Saturday a notion he'd carried throughout the summer: he would've been just fine entering training camp in October with Love on the roster. This despite a tumultuous two seasons -- first a contract extension Love deemed disrespectful, a 2012-13 campaign lost to injury, and last year when Love performed brilliantly but his team finished 40-42.

Saunders said Love never told him directly he wanted out. But Schwartz made it clear enough that Minnesota began pursuing a blockbuster trade.

"One thing you can't do in this business as coaches, general managers, presidents, you can't fall in love with players because the dynamics change," Saunders said. "What happens is you make decisions based on the personality and not based on the facts."

The facts hit home Saturday.

Gone is Love's face from the Target Center skyway, replaced with a graphic featuring Wiggins, Bennett, Young and LaVine. "It's feeding time," reads the wall that used to feature Love in a Wolves jersey.

He'll be introduced at Cleveland on Tuesday, the same day Minnesota welcomes its three new faces at the Minnesota State Fair.

Before that, Newton said he'll be hitting the driving range for the first time in weeks. Saunders stepped out of the Target Center immediately after Saturday's presser to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise ALS awareness. Wiggins, who's watched his outlook change from developing behind LeBron to helping erase the Wolves' 10-year playoff drought, worked out twice Saturday in preparation for the load set to be placed on his shoulders.

"He's not afraid of a challenge," Newton said.

And this soap opera's entire cast, at long last, can forge ahead.

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