Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's Time to Trade Andrew Wiggins

It's no secret the Minnesota Timberwolves underachieved this past season, winning just 31 games in a season they were expected to compete for a playoff berth. With Tom Thibodeau getting his first full season out of the way and a very young core, the expectation seems to be that next year will be the year the team finally competes for a playoff spot again. For Wolves fans, next year is basically the only hope we ever have. Winning in this state just seems difficult for whatever reason.

The Timberwolves biggest problem this past season was defensively. While Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine were capable of lighting up the scoreboard on a nightly basis, they were all porous defenders this past season. Towns has a habit of leaving his man to chase rebounds, sometimes even before the shot is taken. Most of his blocked shots go out of bounds, meaning the opposing team simply scores a few seconds later because the Timberwolves can't stop anyone. Zach Lavine tries as hard as anyone, but he's always a step or two behind his man running off screens, he rarely sees things before they happen and he's one of the worst help defenders in the league at this point.

To be fair, neither Towns nor Lavine was expected to be a great defender, and both are NBA players because of their elite offensive talents. Towns is one of the most skilled big men to ever come into the league, and Lavine's combination of athleticism and deep shooting range make him a matchup nightmare. Both players will need to become better defenders, however, if the Wolves want to return to the playoffs.

Andrew Wiggins, on the other hand, was drafted with the expectation he would develop into one of the league's premier defenders on the wing. Instead, he's become a volume shooter who can't do much else, and has been a black hole defensively. Wiggins basketball instincts simply don't exist; he's a great athlete who has always used his athletic gifts to outplay less talented but smarter players.

As a 21-year-old entering his third full season in the league, Wiggins was expected to improve considerably this season. He led the league in minutes, which isn't surprising with career-ruining Tom Thibodeau running the ship. (Towns was 2nd in minutes. Keep running them into the ground,
Thibs!) Because of the increased workload, Wiggins per game stats look slightly better than a year ago.

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He averaged 23.6 PPG, 4 rebounds and 2.3 assists while playing in all 82 games. Last season, he averaged 20.7 PPG, 3.6 rebounds and 2 assists while playing in 81 games. 3 points per game seems like a considerable improvement at first glance, but again, he was playing more minutes so he should score more.

If we look at his per-36 minute stats, we can see he was basically the same player in year 3 as he was in year 2, with only one real improvement.

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As you can see, his rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, free throw percentage and 2 point shooting percentage all stayed the same. The only real improvement came from his 3-point shooting, which admittedly is a very important skill. He was able to improve from a 30% shooter beyond the arc last season to over 35% this season while being a focal point of opposing defenses. There's hope that he could develop into a very good three point shooter, if he can continue to improve his shot next season.

Unfortunately for someone like Wiggins, scoring the basketball is the only skill he really does better than most NBA players. He's not a good rebounder for his size, despite other worldly athleticism. He's not a good passer, and he's not a great ball handler (although that has improved considerably since his rookie season).

To be clear, plenty of NBA players only do one or two things well, and they are still very useful. Wiggins scoring ability is very good and continues to improve. The issue is that his defense has been brutal on an almost nightly basis, and because of his reputation as a future defensive stopper, the Wolves would almost always put Wiggins on the opposing teams best offensive player. Wiggins got torched night after night, and his help defense was non-existent.

In the Wolves defense, they didn't exactly have other options. The only good defender they have is Ricky Rubio, but he's not strong enough to guard players like Kawhi Leonard so the task fell to Wiggins. He struggled, to put it mildly.

Wiggins defensive rating, which attempts to estimate how many points a player would allow over 100 possessions, was awful. He finished the season with a 110.4 rating, meaning he's expected to give up 110 points per 100 possessions, one of the worst rates in the league.

For comparison's sake, the Los Angeles Lakers were the worst defensive team in the league this past season, and they had a defensive rating of 110.6. In other words, if you had a team full of Andrew Wiggins' playing defense, they would've been the league's third worst defensive team. That oversimplifies it, but the point remains the same: Wiggins was a bad defender.

Defensive ratings, especially individual ones, aren't perfect. They have their flaws like all stats do, but the odds of Wiggins being rated this poorly and somehow actually being an elite defender are very low. At this point, all the evidence points to Wiggins being a very poor defensive player rather than an elite one, which makes him an extremely overrated prospect.

As a 21-year-old former #1 overall pick, there's always a chance Andrew Wiggins could continue to improve his game and become a player worthy of his draft slot. However, because he hasn't improved certain aspects of his game at all in three full seasons, I don't think it's crazy to suggest he's never going to be a player worthy of a maximum salary contract although I do think he will get one.

The Timberwolves should dangle Andrew Wiggins to whichever teams land in the top 2 of the draft in order to land either Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz. Admittedly, teams tend to fall in love with their draft picks, so most teams would likely pass on an offer like that. For example, if Phoenix remains at #2, Wiggins is a better fit for that roster than another point guard, but they may fall in love with one of the point guards.With the draft order not even set yet, predicting trades is impossible, but let's make one up anyway:

For this trade, let's just assume the Lakers move up to #2 on lottery night:

Indiana Pacers Send: SF Paul George
Indiana Pacers Receive: SF Andrew Wiggins, PG Deangelo Russell

Los Angeles Lakers Send: PG Deangelo Russell, #2 overall pick
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: SF Paul George

Minnesota Timberwolves Send: SF Andrew Wiggins
Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: #2 overall pick

Depending on what the NBA salary cap comes in at, the Lakers would possibly need to include Nick Young and/or Tarik Black to match Paul George's salary coming in, but the outline of the deal would be as written above. 

If you think Andrew Wiggins is the next franchise cornerstone, you hate this trade for the Timberwolves. If you think Paul George is going to sign with the Lakers anyway as a free agent next summer, you hate this trade for the Lakers. And if you think Paul George is absolutely going to re-sign in Indiana this summer, you hate this deal for the Pacers. Every good trade makes everyone uneasy, regardless of what anyone says.

Paul George is more valuable than this, even if I pretend to like Wiggins as a player. However, if he makes it clear he's not going to sign an extension with the Pacers, this kind of a deal would allow Larry Bird to rebuild on the fly, because Wiggins and Russell are further along in their development than any draft pick will be, and because both players were drafted so high, public perception of the deal would likely be in Indiana's favor.

The Lakers could possibly stand pat, draft Lonzo Ball (or Fultz) at #2, and hope to sign George next summer if it's true he's already set on playing for the Lakers. So why give up Russell and the #2 pick? First, you never know how free agency is going to play out. If the public perception was always true, LeBron James never goes to Miami and Kevin Durant never goes to Golden State. Second, if they were to acquire George this summer, they could begin targeting top tier free agents again, although they'd have to get creative financially to get under the salary cap. And finally, the Boston Celtics are likely going to make a run at George as well in trade discussions with the Pacers. The Celtics would then be able to offer Paul George more money than every other team, by a fairly large margin. Even if he really wants to play for the Lakers, I don't think anyone is giving up between $30 and $100 million to go home.

For those reasons, the Lakers will almost certainly need to trade for George if they want to be the ones to give him that massive extension. If Larry Bird manages to get him to resign in Indiana, he's never getting traded.

For the Wolves, this would be a polarizing move. Trading a former #1 overall pick who the team has hyped as the next franchise cornerstone before his 22nd birthday would anger a lot of fans, especially since Wiggins athleticism makes him look like a superstar a handful of times a game.

However, the team clearly needs to find a true franchise point guard. I'm one of the biggest Ricky Rubio fans on the planet, and think he's the kind of point guard you need on your team. I also think because he's such a great teammate and truly just wants to win, he'd be best suited as a third guard who could play more or less depending on matchups. Adding Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz would allow the Wolves to use basically any combination of Rubio, Lavine and the rookie. Throwing in a productive second season from Tyus Jones, and the Wolves backcourt would be set for a long-time. A veteran defender like Tony Allen would be the only missing piece, and despite Kris Dunn's poor rookie season he showed potential as a defensive stopper who could be mentored by someone like Allen.

It also would allow the Wolves to "kick the can down the road" in terms of a max-salary extension. Karl-Anthony Towns is obviously going to get one, and should. With Lavine's knee injury, I truly have no idea what kind of extension he's worthy of or how many minutes he'll be able to play next season, but I am sure Wiggins trade value is leaps and bounds above Lavine's despite being similar players. A max salary seems a bit high, but it's not out of the question with spending increasing every season.

By trading Wiggins rather than paying him as well, the Wolves will be able to stagger their young talent which is a must if teams want to balance their salary cap well. As an example, the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in three straight seasons. Because they were all going to get maximum salary extensions, the Thunder simply couldn't make it work to keep all three and traded Harden. The Thunder ultimately made a bad trade because they chose to keep Serge Ibaka over Harden, and the Wolves can learn from that by trading Wiggins at the draft instead of prior to opening day.

Good organizations cash in their assets at their peak value, and by next summer, Wiggins value is going to be considerably lower as he gets closer to that maximum extension unless he takes a major step forward in his fourth season. A Towns-Ball or Towns-Fultz one-two punch could very well develop into this generation's Stockton and Malone. Let's just hope it's nothing like the last time that happened here.



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