When the Minnesota Timberwolves agreed to a five-year, maximum contract extension with Andrew Wiggins in the fall of 2017, he was expected to deliver a multitude of talents and, subsequently, meaningful value. But he’s struggled mightily to live up to those expectations; after a relatively promising start to his career, the 24-year-old has hardly been an effective option for his team over the last couple of seasons.
During his 2018-19 campaign, Wiggins posted personal lows by nearly every measure of offensive efficiency en route to becoming just the 18th player in the NBA’s 70-year history to produce fewer than one win share (a cumulative advanced metric) in more than 2,500 minutes of action. What’s more, Wiggins was a drag on Karl-Anthony Towns’ ability to influence success for the first time in the duo’s tenure as teammates. Said differently, Towns’ net rating (+1.9) was better when playing without Wiggins than it was when the pair shared the floor (+0.7).
In the past, it often appeared that Wiggins’ ability to take pressure off of Towns by creating on the offensive end (or at least heaving inefficient late-shot-clock attempts) was an important trait. Today, though, that no longer appears to be a statistically viable defense.
But despite the piles of evidence that point to Wiggins’ pitfalls, he finished last season ranked first on his team and 12th in the league by minutes per game. Even while Josh Okogie proved to be a useful defensive factor and Luol Deng made his case as a more effective two-way cog, Wiggins’ leash maintained its length.
And that is a failure of both parties involved.
If the goal is to win basketball games, it’s a mistake for an executive or coach to lean on a player that tends to be harmful on both ends of the floor when there are more capable alternatives. Sure, if a player is very young, it makes some sense to let them work through their mistakes. And yes, for a tanking team, all of this logic is moot. But Wiggins is no longer young — his 14,384 career minutes played are almost 50% more than his teammate, Robert Covington, has logged — and, frankly, Towns makes the Wolves too talented to tank.
So, if nothing changes about his performance, it should no longer be acceptable for this franchise to keep the same energy around the way it treats Wiggins’ role.
Gersson Rosas, the Wolves’ new president of basketball operations, was asked about the Wiggins conundrum during a sit down at the Minnesota State Fair in August: “In order for us to have the success we want to have, [Wiggins has] got to be a main contributor,” he opined, “To be fair to him, he needs some continuity — in terms of coaching, philosophy, strategy and style of play. And we feel he is going to be one of the bigger beneficiaries of this style of play.”
For a plethora of reasons, the first sentence of Rosas’ quote is worth digging into. First off, it reads like an executive playing politics in front of a crowd — obviously, Wiggins deserving a large role on this team would be beneficial. But as things stand, he doesn’t. And that makes this feel like a regurgitated line from a front office of old — the kind of vague euphemism that has tended to translate to nonexistent repercussions for Wiggins’ lackluster play.
The Wolves would have very likely been better off giving Wiggins’ minutes to Okogie and Deng in 2018-19. And after five disappointing preseason games during which Wiggins shot 33% from the field while amassing six total rebounds and seven total assists, it appears increasingly likely that Okogie, Jarrett Culver and even the likes of Jake Layman or Treveon Graham will be better options than Wiggins for the 2019-20 Wolves.
But that same sentiment has been true for a couple of years and it’s never affected this roster’s pecking order — regardless of whether he’s been in-tune and energetic, Wiggins has received his 36 minutes per game; regardless of whether he’s cut down on his mid-range attempts, coaching staffs have offered him a steady slew of isolation opportunities; regardless of whether he’s been tantalizingly flashy or excruciatingly bad, nothing has changed. With the benefit of hindsight, this trend of turning a blind eye to his flailing execution behind a stringent belief in his untapped potential has been as detrimental to the Wolves’ status in the standings as anything Wiggins has (or hasn’t) done.
That’s why it’s worth monitoring the way that Rosas frames the discussion in public. This is a highly-regarded basketball-mind — the decision-maker that will influence the Wolves’ path forward for the foreseeable future. Given his background as a scout within an analytically-driven front office in Houston, it seems a little bit outlandish to imagine that Rosas would envision massive improvement from Wiggins (the sixth-year pro) as being in any-way likely.
And Rosas isn’t beholden to Wiggins’ past struggles, either — he didn’t draft the Canadian prospect, he hasn’t played a role in his stalled development and he certainly didn’t offer him the lucrative contract extension that’s keeping him in town. What’s more, Rosas elected to hire Ryan Saunders as his head coach in large part because of the organizational “alignment” he felt they could achieve. Rosas and Saunders, in theory, should be able to evaluate Wiggins’ past with a more-or-less non-biased lens.
It’s true that catch-all statistics like Real Plus-Minus and Win-Shares are flawed, and they’ve certainly become tired when discussed in concert with Wiggins. But for the last handful of years, these analytics — along with the eye test — have spoken a crescendoing truth: assuming more of the same, it’s time to start plotting a plan-B to the Wiggins-as-a-main-contributor assumption.
And despite public statements that have lacked in substance, that may be what Rosas is doing in private. Maybe that’s why he traded up in the draft and selected a player (Jarrett Culver) who could take over some secondary ball-handler duties. Maybe that’s why he offered a multi-year deal to Jake Layman, another wing, and said that he “is going to be a guy who makes our offense go.”
It also stands to reason that, given the opportunity, Rosas would amend that first sentence from his State Fair interview to include the qualifier, ‘vastly improved.’ In order for us to have the success we want to have, a vastly improved Wiggins has got to be a main contributor.
And that kind of sentiment could carry more water for onlookers and analysts. After all, Wiggins’ salary for the 2019-20 season will represent almost exactly 25% of the Wolves’ budget below the NBA’s salary cap. Without unearthing any constructive contributions from him (or finding a way to offload his contract), it will be extremely difficult for Rosas to deliver many victories while Wiggins is in the fold.
Historically speaking, there’s just not a track record of successful teams allocating so many of their resources toward a player who can’t be counted on in a game.
After six straight playoff appearances from 2010-11 to 2015-16, the Memphis Grizzlies agreed to terms on a max contract with Chandler Parsons. And then, injuries ensued: Parsons has played 34, 36 and 25 games during each of his three seasons with Grizzlies, respectively. In part because of that fact, the Grit-and-Grind Grizz are enduring a rapid decline; they snuck into the playoffs during that first season with Parsons, only to lose 60 games and begin an organizational rebuild just one year later.
The Washington Wizards’ situation with John Wall is somewhat similar as well. It seemed like good business for the Wizards to give their All Star a super-max contract when he was eligible in 2017. But a slew of increasingly severe ailments have taken him off of the court and turned the once-stout Wizards into a lottery team.
The point of drawing these parallels is to highlight the difficulty of building around an overpaid, undependable piece. But Wiggins, to his credit, has always been healthy, and it feels fair for Rosas to evaluate his future without being completely beholden to his past performance. Rosas may agree that Wiggins is not going to transform into an All-Star-caliber player, but feel that his pathway to becoming a league-average-caliber starter is both feasible and crucial.
After all, that kind of transformation wouldn’t take an exorbitant amount of growth on the floor. Wiggins could show more success from beyond the three-point line in terms of both volume and efficiency. He could demonstrate an improved proclivity to make plays for others or more consistent defensive wherewithal and intensity. Just one of these traits becoming a feather in his cap would, in all likelihood, make Wiggins a player that’s almost always worth deploying over the backups this roster has to offer. And not only would that help the Wolves rack up wins in the short-term, but it could also make Wiggins’ contract more tradeable moving forward.
More than five years into his career, though, Wiggins has yet to show development in any of those categories. And watching this franchise skirt that fact in public while completely ignoring it when making schematic decisions has been a cause for concern. Rosas and Saunders, with all of their clout, have a chance to navigate these waters with impartiality, so it would have been encouraging to hear the new president respond to that question at the State Fair with a different directive.
Not, “In order for us to have the success we want to have, [Wiggins has] got to be a main contributor,” as Rosas actually said. And not even, In order for us to have the success we want to have, a vastly improved Wiggins has got to be a main contributor, as I suggested above. But instead, The only way that Wiggins will be a main contributor to this team is if he demonstrates vast improvements.
That would send a message, one that’s never been delivered in the past. Not just to the fans who have grown tired of platitudes, or analysts who read too much into public commentary. It would be a message to the locker room at large that establishing some sort of identity is actually this organization’s top priority. And, most importantly, it would be a message to Wiggins himself. For the first time in his career, he’d have a reason to question his stature and his future. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a last-ditch strategy worth pursuing at this point.
“You also have to have accountability,” Rosas said later-on during that interview this summer, “We’ve had a lot of hard conversations with all of our players.”
Hopefully, this is the tune that’s being sung during more intimate conversations. And as it relates to Wiggins, accountability has to be practiced, not just preached. He can’t be allowed to choose a turn-around jumper every time he’s fed the ball in the post; he can’t be allowed to dribble up to his chest whenever driving into traffic; he can’t be allowed to jog back in transition defense or watch as pick-and-rolls turn into alley-oops while he’s standing idly in the weak-side corner. Because if he’s able to do all of those things without the risk of his minutes being pinched, it won’t be Wiggins’ fault alone that his playstyle and presence limit the Wolves’ success.