The Golden State Warriors have a decision to make with Andrew Wiggins. Will they keep him, hoping that he’s capable of change, or send him on his way?
Remember when NBA teams were purposely losing games for the right to draft Andrew Wiggins? That was fun.
Once upon a time, Wiggins could credibly claim the Most Polarizing Player in the League title. Squint hard enough and you could envision everything that Wiggins could be: a 6-foot-8 prodigiously talented athletic freak who offered glimpses, however brief, of offensive and defensive brilliance. Sadly, that version of Wiggins rarely saw the light of day.
The other Wiggins, the one Minnesota Timberwolves fans begrudgingly grew accustomed to over the last five-and-a-half years, often teases onlookers with spectacular feats of athleticism before settling into his familiar pattern, one that includes several contested long 2’s, dribbling exhibitions that lead nowhere, and prolonged stretches of indifference, ineffectiveness and general lackadaisical play on both ends.
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Does that sound like a prototypical Golden State Warrior to you? You’re right, me neither. But, strangely enough, that’s where Wiggins finds himself these days. None of this really makes much sense, but then again neither did the extremely short-lived D’Angelo Russell era.
In so many ways, Wiggins is the antithesis of Warriors basketball. The arrival of Steve Kerr, before the 2014-15 season, coincided with the adoption of a legitimately fun, egalitarian, selfless style of play. Kerr’s first team, specifically, thrived on ball movement, player movement and a dizzying array of cuts and passes. It does help when everything orbits around the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game, but that’s more of an added perk, rather than the entire backbone of the system. This season is living proof of the Warriors’ ethos.
Even with a roster full of G-Leaguers, they’re first in the league by a comfortable margin in the number of passes they make every game, with 332.5. The New Orleans Pelicans, coached by former Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry, check-in right behind them, but with a relatively meager 313.9 per game. The founding fathers of this era of Warriors basketball – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – may be on the sidelines this year, but the system remains.
Trying to figure out how exactly Andrew Wiggins fits into that system is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. If you spend enough time and crunch enough numbers, you could reach a conclusion that makes at least a little bit of sense, but it will take a lot of effort to get there. Many have harkened back to the Harrison Barnes experience, in an attempt to justify this deal and to possibly find a role for Wiggins within this basketball ecosystem.
“If Harrison Barnes could succeed here, Wiggins can too” has been a common refrain in the aftermath of this puzzling trade. But strip away the basketball fit for a second. The Warriors also acquired a highly coveted protected first-round pick from the Timberwolves in this trade. (The pick is top-3 protected for next year’s draft before becoming unprotected after that). But who really, truly thinks that the Timberwolves are charting a course back to the playoffs as soon as next season?
Even with Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps the best offensive big man in the NBA, and Russell, his new sidekick, the Wolves will likely struggle to reach .500 next year, making that pick one of the more attractive assets in the league.
Over the years, the Warriors have proven to be one of the best teams when it comes to finding talent near the top of the draft and nurturing these players within their system. That’s really how this whole dynasty got started last decade. They picked both Curry and Barnes with the seventh pick in their respective drafts and lucked out when Thompson fell to them at the 11th pick in 2011.
Come to think of it, that’s probably a good range for this Wolves pick. Barring an injury to Towns or Russell, they’re probably not going to be shield-your-eyes awful. Rather, they’ll probably just be one of the regular bad teams that miss out on the playoffs due to a talent-rich Western Conference.
With their sterling pedigree, the Warriors could just as easily keep this pick, in hopes of drafting the next Curry or Thompson. But their two stars, along with Draymond Green, aren’t getting any younger. Their championship contention window may be nearing its natural conclusion. Then there’s the ever-present Wiggins question.
We’ll find out soon enough if they really believe in him as a tertiary contributor for a fully healthy Warriors outfit. I’d bet against it. Since he became the Warriors GM in 2011, Bob Myers hasn’t populated his roster with many ball-stoppers. He and Kerr are keenly aware of the type of basketball they want to play; the move-the-ball, move-yourself style that has worked spectacularly so far.
If Myers and the Warriors brain trust emerge from these last 27 games believing that Wiggins isn’t a good fit, it injects a dose of intrigue into a summer that badly needs it.
The NBA teaches you to never say never. Too many crazy, they-did-what things happen for anyone to be so confidently assertive about anything. But we’re unlikely to see anything like the 2019 free agent bonanza again. Two Finals MVPs changed teams, Oklahoma City swapped out what felt like their entire roster and the balance of power shifted in ways we hadn’t seen since LeBron left Miami for Cleveland way back in 2014.
This summer will be comparatively tame, with many would-be free agents already signed to long-term extensions with their incumbent teams. The Warriors could change that calculus. Purely as a player, Wiggins wouldn’t gin up any excitement on the trade market, but he’s set to make $29.5 million next season, making him a unique asset in that he can be aggregated with tasty first-round picks to bring back a household name.
It’s anyone’s guess who that could, or will, be, but there are a number of high-priced players around the association who more closely resemble the types of guys who have experienced success in Golden State.
(Also: the Warriors’ sabbatical this season has them well-positioned to land a pick that could climb as high as No. 1overall. If the standings look the same at the end of the year as they do right now, the worst pick they could possibly end up with would be No. 5).
Let’s start with Blake Griffin, one year removed from perhaps the best season of his career when he dragged a mostly mediocre Pistons team to the 8-seed. For that, the Pistons were rewarded handsomely. They got to play the Bucks! (It didn’t go well.) Since then, the wheels have fallen off for this once-proud franchise.
Griffin has missed most of the year with a knee issue that ultimately resulted in season-ending surgery. They also traded Griffin’s frontcourt mate Andre Drummond in a deal that netted them next to nothing, perhaps signaling that they’re ready to embark on a long-overdue, potentially painful rebuild. Griffin, sensing his own basketball mortality, probably doesn’t want to partake in that process. In light of the Pistons’ new direction, I wouldn’t be shocked if Griffin formally requested a trade this summer.
Griffin’s contract is also quite onerous – $75 million over the next two years after this one, with a player option on the last year – but, when healthy, he’s still capable of All-Star level play. I’m not even sure the Warriors would have to give up either of their prized draft picks, given Griffin’s contract status and subsequent decline. (Something like their own 2021 first-round pick, along with Wiggins, might be able to get the job done).
Playing with Curry and Thompson could help significantly ease that decline while providing Griffin an opportunity to win a ring before he calls it quits. While he came into the league as an athletic marvel known mostly for his rim-rattling dunks, Griffin has slowly expanded his game and has become one of the more balanced offensive players in the entire NBA. He’s an excellent passer, capable of serving as a point forward in most lineup configurations, and a much-improved shooter from long range. Pair him with Green and you instantly have the best passing big man duo in the league.
A Jrue Holiday-Wiggins swap is intriguing, provided Holiday picks up his player option for next year. Thompson and Holiday are two of the better on-ball guard defenders in the game. Being able to throw both of them at the likes of Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Devin Booker would be a luxury.
Speaking of Booker, the Warriors could try to use both their own first-round pick this year and the protected first from Minnesota to pry Booker away from the Suns. It’s highly unlikely, but with the ways things are going down in Phoenix, Booker may be the next high-profile star to decide that he wants to explore greener pastures.
The unlikeliest of all scenarios is perhaps the most fun. Everyone’s been monitoring Joel Embiid’s topsy-turvy year, with some suggesting that splitting up the Ben Simmons-Embiid pairing is the only true way forward for the out-of-sorts Sixers. It’s a fool’s errand to guess who they would ultimately choose if it came to that. But let’s get crazy anyway.
Even when they were winning titles, the Warriors routinely trotted out centers that were replacement-level, at best. Andrew Bogut was fine. Kevon Looney too. Green’s presence as a small-ball 5 in their most ferocious lineups meant that they could afford to fill this position with journeymen and effective role players, not to mention Kevin Durant’s emergence as a do-everything defensive menace during the latter half of their run.
But Green is getting older. The thought of banging down low with the behemoths in the West probably seems a lot less attractive now. The problem with this trade construction is that the Sixers have little-to-no use for Wiggins. They want to win now. Their acquisition of Al Horford in the offseason signaled as much. So let’s get just a tad crazier.
If we turn this into a 3-teamer, by involving the Washington Wizards, we can re-route Wiggins to the nation’s capital, along with the Warriors’ first-rounder this year, the Wolves protected first and some seconds for good measure. Would the Wizards agree to this? Would the Sixers? Who knows.
What we do kind of know is that the Wizards are fooling themselves if they think they’re going to jump back into contention over the life of Beal’s new extension. (There will be dark days in Washington before another good-to-great team emerges). John Wall’s mega, super-max extension has severely hamstrung this team, and will likely continue to do so until it comes off their books. I almost can’t believe I’m typing this but that won’t happen until 2023. 2023!!
Wiggins’ deal actually lines up perfectly with Wall’s, so the Wizards can wipe the slate clean when those two contracts expire, while routinely picking in the top five of the draft in the years when those two are still on the team, hoping to snag the next face of D.C. basketball.
As for Beal, he might be the cure for what currently ails the Sixers. He could become their go-to guy in crunch time, while also spotting up around Simmons drives and serving as maybe the most overqualified secondary playmaker in the league. I also have a hard time believing Embiid wouldn’t thrive out west with the Warriors, with the boatloads of space he would have access to as a result of Curry and Thompson’s transcendent shooting ability.
Will this trade happen? Almost certainly not. But it’s fun to dream up the possibilities.