'The Price Is the Issue': Can the Wolves Unload Andrew Wiggins' Awful Contract?January 15, 2019
LOS ANGELES — Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be a cornerstone piece in the Minnesota Timberwolves' rebuild, acquired as a rookie in 2014 from the Cleveland Cavaliers for All-Star Kevin Love. The Timberwolves were fortunate to land another No. 1 pick the following year in Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Wolves doubled-down on their hopes for Wiggins last year with a five-year, $147.7 million extension that kicked in this season. How's that working out?
"[Wiggins] always leaves me wanting more," one Eastern Conference scout said. "He doesn't rebound. He doesn't defend. He doesn't get assists. He doesn't shoot well. He'll score ... sometimes, but that's all he does."
As the February 7 trade deadline nears, it's clear Wiggins hasn't done enough to warrant his max extension. But are the Timberwolves ready to punt? Will they gauge the market for the 6'8", 23-year-old swingman over the next few weeks?
Both Towns and Wiggins received massive contract extensions under the leadership of former head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. Together they'll earn almost $55 million next season, about half of the league's projected $109 million salary cap. That's a significant commitment to two players who have yet to show they can win together consistently, outside of a brief, tumultuous run (and first-round exit) with Jimmy Butler.
Butler, who called the duo soft (per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports), eventually demanded a trade and was sent off to the Philadelphia 76ers. Two months later, Minnesota let Thibodeau go, leading to the feel-good story of interim head coach Ryan Saunders, son of late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders.
In Saunders' debut, Wiggins showed promise with a 40-point outburst in a 119-117 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he came back down to earth over the next two games with 17 and 18 points, shooting just 36.8 percent from the field.
Towns is the more impressive player, averaging 27.0 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game since the start of January. Minnesota has climbed to 21-22 with four wins in six tries. Wiggins has also improved this month—he scored 25.0 points per game over that same stretch to lift his season average to 17.9 points a night, along with 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Still, Wiggins has a long way to go to shake off the "soft" label.
A Western Conference executive questioned his motor, also noting: "I don't think he ever got better. He peaked young. He's a great athlete, but he lacks toughness game to game and he isn't always aggressive. He's not a great shooter, and he needs to attack the basket more."
Wiggins, flaws and all, might be an appealing risk for several teams if he was still on his rookie-scale contract. With his expensive contract, the Timberwolves may not find a workable solution.
"Is there a contending team that will take on his max salary? Does he sell tickets?" the scout asked. "And for rebuilding teams looking to add a young scorer, again, the price is the issue."
Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks would have interest in adding Wiggins to their talent pool with Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter. Atlanta doesn't have any significant salaries beyond 2019-20. The team also has Kent Bazemore, who appears likely to opt into his $19.3 million salary for next year. Jeremy Lin is in the last year of his deal at $13.8 million as are Dewayne Dedmon ($7.2 million) and Justin Anderson ($2.5 million).
The Hawks also have Miles Plumlee through 2019-20 (at $12.5 million next season) and Alex Len ($4.2 million), among others. The Timberwolves may be able to add veterans from Atlanta as long as the Hawks are sending out at least $14.5 million in player salaries. That might help Minnesota stay competitive, although the bigger and wiser goal may be simply getting out of Wiggins' contract.
The Brooklyn Nets have several expiring contracts that could do just that (Kenneth Faried, DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley), but Minnesota might want more of a return for Wiggins than a salary dump.
The New Orleans Pelicans are searching for talent to entice Anthony Davis to stick around beyond his current contract, but is Wiggins' salary one they want to have on the books if Davis walks after next season? Would Nikola Mirotic, Solomon Hill and draft considerations work for both teams?
If the Timberwolves can get out of Wiggins' contract, they should also see what other salaries they can shed from their books, especially the $33.5 million owed to Gorgui Dieng over the next two years. That was another regrettable extension from the Thibodeau era. Even after getting rid of Butler and Thibodeau, the "Timberbulls" still have a few Chicago Bulls holdovers in Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng on expiring contracts.
Veteran Jeff Teague may choose to stay for a final year at $19 million, given his spate of nagging injuries. Rose has had a resurgent season. Gibson would appeal to several playoff contenders if available.
The Timberwolves have Towns under contract through the 2023-24 season. Any long-term investments need to complement him, so they'd ideally be used on defensive-minded shooters. Perhaps a call to the Washington Wizards for Otto Porter Jr. is due.
Towns is far too talented a player to waste on a non-playoff contender. If Wiggins has indeed stagnated in Minnesota, the team needs to hope another franchise believes that Wiggins will be more productive in a new environment. Even if another franchise falls in love with his potential, that may still be a difficult sell given his salary.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.