The D’Angelo Russell trade was less about Andrew Wiggins for the Golden State Warriors than it was the gem of a first-round pick they received from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Golden State will enter next season with championship aspirations and a potential top-10 selection in either of the next two drafts may be the chip it needs to add another impact player before the 2021 trade deadline. Packaged with the young prospect they pluck from the lottery this summer, the Warriors’ extra pick from the Timberwolves could ultimately prove the difference between them falling in the first round of next year’s playoffs and playing into June.
Hanging on to both of those assets for the foreseeable future would certainly be beneficial for an aging team with limited financial flexibility, too. Ducking below the luxury tax to avoid being subject to the repeater next season also loomed large for Golden State.
Plus, it’s just hard to imagine Bob Myers doing better than a high-value first-rounder for a player whose influence on winning remains a question mark. The Warriors, as reported by The Athletic, quickly soured on Russell’s off-court persona once this season tipped off. No one ever pretended like he’d be a seamless fit next to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the perimeter, either. Russell, as has been obvious since Golden State so hastily acquired him in July, was brought in to be dealt.
What’s less obvious is whether the Warriors could have used his massive salary slot, first occupied by Kevin Durant, on a player superior to Wiggins. Myers and company clearly didn’t think so, at least if they hoped to accrue additional and meaningful draft assets while moving Russell. It’s not hard to see why on the surface.
The league has never prioritized wings to the extent it does right now and Golden State’s biggest hole before the deadline was indeed on the perimeter next to Curry and Thompson. Wiggins is 6-foot-8 with long arms, a surprisingly stout post defender when he puts his mind to it. He sometimes looks like one of the game’s fastest players in the open floor, a natural speed that more often manifests in the half-court as a cutter. He no longer rocks the rim with highlight-reel dunks, but still flashes his elite quick-twitch athleticism night in and night out.
Wiggins’ physical tools aren’t in question. But it’s safe to say that his size and athletic profile alone didn’t provide Golden State the confidence it needed to bring in a player whose mammoth contract and fleeting impact makes him among the league’s most overpaid players. What’s worth wondering is how Wiggins’ eye-popping early-season performance factored into the Warriors’ willingness to trade for him.
Of course, Wiggins’ play has tailed off significantly since an illness derailed by far the most promising stretch of his career. A shift in role played a major part in that development. Wiggins began the season by operating as the Timberwolves’ primary playmaker, playing so well that Jeff Teague requested to come off the bench in late November, freeing the former to serve as his team’s undisputed lead ball handler.
But head coach Ryan Saunders veered from that radical shift once Minnesota’s hot start cooled, inserting Shabazz Napier as a starter. The Timberwolves have been the worst team ever since — with Wiggins reverting back to the inconsistent, inefficient and listless player he was for the majority of his time in Minneapolis.
Those most familiar with Wiggins’ game know he’s at his best when pressed into proving he’s capable of reaching that level. It’s why he finally seemed to be shedding the “bust” label before Saunders moved him off the ball in November; why he routinely gets up for marquee games that pit him against All-Star wings; and why the two worst seasons of his career began with Jimmy Butler earmarked as Minnesota’s alpha dog. Every year, month, week, or even individual game that Wiggins has been tasked with playing a supporting role, he’s consistently disappointed, lacking the competitive fire and natural feel most non-stars rely on to thrive.
Don’t tell that to the Warriors.
After the trade, Steve Kerr expressed confidence that Wiggins would flourish with his new team because Golden State isn’t “asking him to be a star.” Zach LaVine, who the Timberwolves chose to include in the Butler trade instead of Wiggins, tweeted that his friend is a “great fit” with the Warriors and “about to thrive.” Tyus Jones, with the Timberwolves before joining the Memphis Grizzlies last summer, echoed LaVine’s comments, going so far as to say Wiggins is “gonna be scary” in San Francisco.
His new coach and former teammates undoubtedly know Wiggins’ game and personality better than most. Wiggins has always possessed the rough outlines of a title-worthy role player, while Kerr is already stressing that he must sprint the floor in transition and play with speed – the key to maximizing his utility in Golden State’s go-go, motion-heavy offensive attack. Perhaps Draymond Green connects with the notoriously mild-mannered Wiggins in a way Butler never could, coaxing his dormant defensive potential to the floor on a game-by-game basis.
But counting on Wiggins, over halfway through his sixth season in the NBA, to successfully re-invent his game is setting yourself up for disappointment. The Warriors surely understand as much. Given the need to jettison Russell and the draft capital it received from Minnesota, though, that’s a reality with which Golden State is now forced to feel comfortable.
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