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Thursday 27 February 2020 13:11, UK
Andrew Wiggins consistently underachieved as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Will a new start with the Golden State Warriors allow him to realise his potential?
From essentially first to unmistakably worst, the Golden State Warriors have plummeted down the NBA standings this season.
After five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including three championship wins, the Warriors now are as far away from that as it is possible to be. They have a lowly 12-46 record, losing almost four games for every one victory, and they have routinely rolled over and have their bellies tickled in many of those losses.
From the moment the injury to Kevin Durant occurred, and his subsequent departure to the Brooklyn Nets announced, it was known that the Warriors would be cascading. Combined with the ACL injury to Klay Thompson in last year's NBA Finals, the Warriors were losing a lot of talent from those glory days, even among the reserves; Shaun Livingston got old and retired, and Andre Iguodala got old and traded.
Half of the core of the championship team was no more, and although they did some decent summer business by picking up Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks and Willie Cauley-Stein for the minimum salary, after Stephen Curry broke his hand only a few games into this season, there was no longer any motivation to try and paper over the cracks.
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The Warriors decided to sell what they had (getting second-round picks for each of the Robinson/Burks/Cauley-Stein trio), try and find some pick-ups for the future in the seasons remaining games, and regroup next season with a healthy Curry, a healthy Thompson, at least one good draft pick and - hopefully - a rejuvenated Draymond Green.
But right now, in the final third of a season of transition and significant roster upheaval, the future of Andrew Wiggins on this team becomes of paramount importance.
Wiggins was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline in a deal for D'Angelo Russell, and Russell himself had only been acquired in the summertime double sign-and-trade for Durant.
Russell had become an All-Star the previous season with the Nets, yet it was never obvious how he would fit alongside Curry, and he was too good (and too expensive) to merely play behind the Splash Brothers. It always felt as though Russell was more of a best-we-can-get opportunistic acquisition than a targeted piece of the future, and so the fact that he did not even see out his inaugural season was not all that surprising.
But what was somewhat surprising is that the Warriors have chosen to take on Wiggins, and perhaps more pertinently, his contract.
Among everything this season, the Warriors have still spent plenty of money. They gave a maximum-value contract extension to Green, so as to not have him enter unrestricted free agency, and also re-signed Thompson to a maximum salary.
These are both potentially concerning, given that Thompson is yet to return from an injury that has written off the first year of the deal (and with it unclear how well he is going to last over the life of it), while Green continues to lose his effectiveness slightly with each passing year. If he has peaked, then he is about to be extremely overpaid; combined with the supermax contract to Curry (entirely worth it, yet also someone on the scary other side of 30 now), and the Warriors have committed huge expense to what they were, rather than perhaps what they will be.
After this season, Curry has two years and just short of $89m remaining. Thompson has just over $157m himself, and Green is a fraction short of an even $100m. The three of them combined are owed more outstanding salary for just their nine combined remaining seasons than 13 NBA franchises owe for every player in every future season.
It is an enormous commitment to a trio of players who have been outstanding Warriors, but who have also already all likely peaked, and who need to find their second winds if they are to be the core of a competitive team once again.
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To that, the Warriors have added Wiggins, one of the most egregious max-salary misspends of the last generation.
Going back to his days in college, Wiggins has long had a huge amount of expectation based on his perceived potential, yet he has always underperformed relative to it. Despite this, the Timberwolves gave him a maximum salary contract extension in the hopes that he would begin to play up to it one day. He still hasn't.
In spurts, he has. In 11 November games, Wiggins averaged 27.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists on a .566 true shooting percentage, casting up the three-pointers with greater regularity and efficiency than ever before, getting to the free throw line and passing on the move.
The man who had frustratingly lived in the mid-range areas for so many years and been a product of volume over efficiency, while never impressing as much as a player one of his physical prowess should do on the defensive end, looked to have finally figured it out.
But inevitably, it went away again. In 13 January games, Wiggins dropped down to only 19.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, falling back into all his previous bad habits. It did not sustain. It never does.
The Warriors will be hoping that Wiggins can tap into that potential in a way that he is yet to ever do. Perhaps drawing on the example of what happened to Victor Oladipo when he moved to Indiana, the hope will be that in Curry and Thompson's shadow Wiggins will be able to thrive as a driver, mid-range and post-up player (replicating the shots that Livingston once took, and filling in the uber role-playing role that Iguodala once did), in a way that has never been asked of him before.
Apart from five months in the company of Jimmy Butler, Wiggins has never played alongside a premium perimeter or wing player, and thus has always been asked to create more offense than one with his limited ball-handling really should. Perhaps, with proper spacing and the gravity of stars around him, he may find a new level, and stay at it this time.
Further to that, despite taking on the heavy salary, the Warriors gave up the almost-as-equally-heavy one of Russell. You could argue that Russell offered better value for money on his deal considering that he is the superior player, yet the deal also got Golden State underneath the luxury tax threshold, which will allow them to avoid the repeater tax (for going over the threshold in too many consecutive seasons).
This, in turn, opens up the full non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception for next season, which, when combined with the multitude of trade exceptions they have (and in particular the $17.2m one they still have from the Iguodala trade) gives them plenty of opportunities to make massive upgrades to the roster, if they can afford it.
Having a big payroll does not mean having a stuck payroll, if ownership is willing to spend the money to utilise the available assets. It remains to be seen whether they will do so, but if the team is deemed competitive once again, they could.
All of this, however, seems to be based more in hope than expectation. What we know for sure is that the Warriors now have a massive payroll and limited flexibility, committing to a team with three aged stars and one young pseudo-star who has developed little. They also seem to have few other players on their bench as constructed worth much, and although they will have a high pick in this year's draft, it is not a good draft.
As for Wiggins himself, the idea that he can be an excellent off-ball player and slasher is more theoretical than evidenced in practice. When he can get to the rim and use his combination of length, strength and athleticism, Wiggins is at his best, yet he has always been an extremely inefficient scorer from outside the paint, both in terms of his heavy diet of mid-range pull-ups/floaters, and also from the three-point line. Nor has he ever shown much affinity for moving off the ball and getting open for either rim cuts or jumpers in this way in the first place.
Looking at him purely as a physical specimen and imagining what he could become, you can see some great projectability in Andrew Wiggins. But if you look at the past and what he has done so far, both what he has produced and how he has produced it, it becomes much harder to see it. There are a lot of habits to break.
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For the cost only of Russell (a luxury who did not fit the team), the Warriors were able to balance their line-up when fully healthy, and also got a couple of draft assets thrown in. They saved some immediate money, and potentially bought low on a player considered extremely available even by the team that once saw so much in him, in the hope they will have the second Oladipo.
But they might just get Andrew Wiggins, the same one that Minnesota has always had.
Do not be fooled by the latest or any future short burst of games. Not again. We need to see this over at least a season.