Eighteen months ago, the Golden State Warriors had just captured their third title in four years, and the Minnesota Timberwolves were fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2004. Champagne popped, optimism was in the air and then came the fall from grace.
The two franchises now languish at the very cellar of the Western Conference. In a bid to break back into contention, they swapped one overpaid young player for another. Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell is headed to Minneapolis on Thursday, along with Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans, in exchange for forward Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota’s 2021 first-rounder and 2021 second-rounder.
If they were ever going to trade for Russell, the Wolves were going to have to part with Wiggins and the remaining three-plus years on his toxic 5-year, $148 million contract. Aside from big man Gorgui Dieng—whose contract is less of a laughingstock but nearly as ugly—the Canadian was the only trade chip Minnesota could use to match salaries.
But a direct Wiggins-for-Russell swap always looked unlikely. Wiggins has been a bust. He’s a former No. 1 overall pick, a livewire athlete, plays an in-demand position and boasts an intriguing blend of size and perimeter skill. Smart teams pay for production, though, and Warriors GM Bob Myers didn’t create a dynasty by betting on players who are all foam, no beer.
Why’d he bite on Wiggins, then?
You need to go back to last summer to answer that question. Golden State made a poor decision to pursue Russell, essentially constructing a complicated sign-and-trade with Kevin Durant and surrendering future first-rounder in the process. D’Lo seemed an awkward fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and a massive $117 million gamble.
Yeah, he was an All-Star, but he built his All-Star case mostly on the back of unsustainable late-game heroics and weak Eastern Conference competition. Good player? Sure. Floor general for an elite offense? Show me the receipts because I can’t find any.
At the same time, the Warriors didn’t want to lose Durant in free agency for nothing, so gaining Russell was an asset to be used later, even if his true market value was a little sketchy.
If we view Russell as a sunk cost, it becomes more palatable for Dubs fans.
Wiggins is the better on-court fit for a healthy Golden State. D’Lo is a pure pick-and-roll point guard who plays calculated, methodical basketball. He doesn’t cut, he’s too sluggish to fly off screens and he loves pull-up elbow jumpers. The heyday Curry-Klay Warriors cut like hell, screened endlessly and lived for assisted J’s and layups.
It’s not like Wiggins does those things well, either. He’s at least a more malleable piece, though. He’s a career 33 percent three-point shooter, but that number spikes to 40 percent in the corners. He’s not some kind of genius off-ball mover, but he finishes 1.3 possessions off cuts per game compared to Russell’s…um…0.5.
My TBW colleague Kelly Scaletta wrote more on how Wiggins will be deployed by Golden State:
The forward is, at the very least, three inches taller than D’Lo on defense. In their 129-88 demolition at the hands of Brooklyn on Wednesday (just prior to the trade), the Dubs started 245-pound power forward Eric Paschall at the three. They had zero healthy wings on the roster.
Wiggins may fall asleep off the ball. His effort levels may fluctuate between “apathetic” and “comatose.” But he’s 6’8” and athletic, and Draymond Green will be light years ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns as a free safety behind him.
The Warriors still lost to the Lakers 125-120, but the debut looked pretty good Saturday night, as Wiggins had 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting and looked productively energetic:
Whether that’s all sustainable the rest of the season and especially once Golden State is back to full strength is the big question, of course.
Shortly after the trade, “Harrison Barnes” trended on Twitter.
Wiggins carrying on the legacy of Harrison Barnes in Golden State is not something I foresaw.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) February 5, 2020
I don’t get the joke. The Warriors won 73 games with Barnes as the fourth banana in their starting lineup. They may be older and shallower now, but 73 wins is also one very unrealistic standard. If Wiggins can humble (and improve) himself and be “#SkinnyHarrisonBarnes”, the Dubs are in luck. If he eventually keeps doing Andrew Wiggins things—missing rotations, jacking midrangers, hogging the ball—this trade still gives Golden State the ability to move in a different direction.
In addition to getting Wiggins (or, more precisely, because of having to take Wiggins), the team narrowly ducked the luxury tax and snagged a great pick. I’m confident in saying Minnesota will not surprise people next year. Towns and Russell are a disastrous defensive combo at the point of attack, and even a top 10 offense may not carry the Wolves to 45 wins in a stacked West.
That 2021 pick is now trade ammo the Warriors can use to fill in gaps around the Curry-Thompson-Green core. And ducking the tax makes it much less costly for them to use it.
Side note to this blockbuster: By also shedding the Evans/Spellman contracts, Warriors are in line to duck the luxury tax, which will get them out of the repeater next season, freeing them from a large financial burden, particularly if they use the Iguodala trade exception.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 6, 2020
Golden State will no longer face the dreaded repeater tax next season, making any added salary easier on Joe Lacob’s checkbooks. Combine that with the massive trade exception the Dubs still have from the Andre Iguodala deal—which was ancillary to the making the Russell / Durant swap happen—and suddenly you can justify rocketing over the tax line for an impact starter (or two) making up to $17.2 million. Myers could also deal the Warriors’ own first-rounder this year, which well may be the first pick in the draft.
Let me be clear: These scenarios are all quite rosy. It’s possible Wiggins is an irredeemable player whose flaws get even clearer with actual adult teammates. If his contract becomes totally immovable, those picks go from trade assets to the cost of dumping the dude onto another franchise’s payroll.
The Warriors didn’t have to take that risk. They could’ve held out for a Russell deal that returned a player they actually, like, wanted. Rebuilding teams in need of the Minnesota pick—say, Orlando or Detroit—could’ve taken Wiggins themselves and re-routed a solid youngster like Aaron Gordon or Luke Kennard to the Dubs. Maybe that kind of deal just wasn’t on the table.
This trade is understandable, however, probably even logical. But, like all trades, declaring the Warriors a winner or a loser depends on everything that comes next.
If Wiggins turns out to be productive and helps expedite the Warriors’ rebuild? We won’t be questioning this trade in hindsight.
Nate Wolf is an NBA writer with bylines at The Basketball Writers, NBA Math, and BBall Index, among other places. He is also a Marcus Smart devotee who’s never seen a flop he didn’t respect. Follow him on Twittter at @NateWolfNBA.