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NBA Sunday: The West’s Top Five Stories

The top five stories in the Western Conference’s free agency frenzy … Is Kevin Love really worth what the Timberwolves are asking?

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NBA free agency may have gotten off to something of a slow start, but once LeBron James committed to the Cleveland Cavaliers, all of the other dominoes started falling into place. The landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed dramatically, but that doesn’t mean the Western Conference won’t still be the vastly better conference next season. With so much more at stake, here’s look at the West’s biggest free agency stories.

1) The Los Angeles Lakers Strike Out – It had almost become expected that the Los Angeles Lakers will target and land any major free agent they go after, but things have changed in L.A. Last year, Dwight Howard bolted to the Houston Rockets, leaving money on the table to do so, and this summer wasn’t much better for the Lakers. LeBron James never gave them serious consideration, Carmelo Anthony didn’t like what he saw and even Pau Gasol decided to take less money to join a potential contender in Chicago. Rather than landing one of the big names they targeted, the Lakers had to settle for cast of players that looks very much like last year’s, which won’t get them anywhere close to the playoffs.

2) The Houston Rockets Strike Out – Much like the Lakers, the Houston Rockets had high aspirations heading into the offseason following a successful free agency run in 2013. Adding James, Anthony or Chris Bosh would have been a strong follow-up for GM Daryl Morey. Unfortunately, not only did the Rockets fail to land a big name, they were even outbid for their own key free agent, Chandler Parsons. They did land Trevor Ariza, but he’s hardly as good as Parsons, not to mention they gave up quality rotation players like Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in their effort to clear cap space, which will really hurt their depth. Barring some huge trade between now and the start of next season, the Rockets won’t be as good as they were in 2014, when they lost in the first round of the playoffs.

3) The Dallas Mavericks Are On the Rebound – It would be hard to view the moves made by the Dallas Mavericks since their 2011 NBA championship as anything but dreadfully disappointing. They were hoping to lure a variety of big names, including Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and even LeBron James, yet they missed out time and time again after liquidating their championship team for cap space. This summer, the Mavericks got back on track. They acquired Tyson Chandler, signed Chandler Parsons to an offer sheet so large that Houston declined to match and, most importantly, got Dirk Nowitzki to take far less than market value to enable them to improve the team across the board. The Mavs aren’t completely finished dealing, having added Richard Jefferson, Devin Harris and Rashard Lewis in recent days, but as they stand they are arguably a top team in the Western Conference.

4) The San Antonio Spurs Stand Pat – The defending NBA champs know how to build a winner, and one of the biggest keys to their sustained success has been continuity. They don’t trade away big names and they don’t try to take short cuts by adding them, either. After expressing some interest in Pau Gasol, the Spurs were content to re-sign Patty Mills and Boris Diaw and look forward to another season with the same group of players who hung championship banner number five in the rafters of AT&T Center. It’s worked for the Spurs for years, so expect them to be contenders yet again without any roster moves needed.

5) The Dark Horse Move – With a nod to the Los Angeles Clippers, who added depth in both the front court and back court, and the New Orleans Pelicans, who have positioned Anthony Davis to break out with Omer Asik playing next to him, the understated move that may put a team over the top is the signing of Vince Carter by the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were beset by injuries last season, but by the end of the year they were playing like one of the best teams in the league and were as tough an out as any team in the NBA. The one thing they lacked was a clutch offensive player off the bench who could help them get the one or two critical baskets when they mattered most. Carter may be toward the end of his prime, but he was incredibly clutch for the Dallas Mavericks last season and delivered win after win in their unlikely return to the playoffs. Carter might just be the key to Memphis making a deep postseason run and possibly advancing to the NBA Finals.

The Kevin Love/Andrew Wiggins Question

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the big winners this summer, bringing home LeBron James after landing the top player in the 2014 draft in Andrew Wiggins. LeBron said all of the right things about it taking time for the Cavaliers to grow together, develop Wiggins and make their way back to the playoffs and contention. All the while, his new front office team was working to greatly shorten the amount of time expected to pass before LeBron is back in the NBA Finals with his new and former team.

Wiggins is one of the best young prospects to come along in years, the top prospect in a draft class that promises to shift the balance of power in the NBA as a new cast of franchise-changing players grow into All-Stars. The question for the Cavaliers, then, is whether to wait for Wiggins to grow into the star most everyone believes him to be, or to try to cut corners by sending him to Minnesota in an effort to land All-Star power forward Kevin Love. The addition of Love would seem to make the Cavaliers Finals-ready immediately, assuming Love is ready to play like a champion.

The question being pondered by the Cavaliers right now – whether or not to swap Wiggins in a package for Love – is arguably the biggest decision the franchise has ever faced, keeping in mind that both drafting and then re-signing LeBron was a no-brainer. The thought of Wiggins growing into a Hall of Fame type player alongside James and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving is positively irresistible, and yet the possibility of adding Love undoubtedly has Cavaliers GM David Griffin up nights.

Love is an impressive player, no question. He is one of the best rebounders in the NBA and can score in volumes from anywhere on the court. Despite those positives, Love has yet to make the playoffs or sniff postseason success, and that is something that should concern Griffin and his staff. Love doesn’t play much defense, and his lack of playoff experience is despite having a solid group of players around him and a great coach in Rick Adelman. Can Love evolve into a champion playing alongside James, or are the Cavaliers better off developing Wiggins into a champion from the start?

If Wiggins turns out to be as good as everyone projects him to be, the Cavaliers would be silly to cash him (as well as other assets) in on Love. Yes, Love is already in his prime and could conceivably accelerate Cleveland’s contention plan, but is it worth skipping a year or two if you give up a franchise player in the process?

It all comes down to how confident the Cavaliers are in Wiggins’ potential. If they are supremely confident, they should pass on Love, especially since the Timberwolves are asking for other assets in addition to Wiggins.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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