After a somewhat disappointing first season under new head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made major changes this summer in pursuit of the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2004. Thibs pulled off a draft-night heist to import his former Chicago Bulls workhorse, All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, and give the team an experienced, versatile leader on both ends of the court. He switched things up at the point, moving Ricky Rubio, a playmaking savant and defensive stalwart who’s long struggled with his shot, to the Utah Jazz before signing free-agent Jeff Teague, a clear step down from the Spaniard in the first two departments but a superior shooter and scorer whose game might mesh better with the other Wolves’ talents.
Add in Taj Gibson to fortify Minnesota’s defense and Jamal Crawford to provide an offensive jolt off the bench, and the Wolves have the look of a team ready to climb from the bottom of the West up to the ranks of the conference’s playoff contenders. They could still use some more depth on the wing — in today’s NBA, who couldn’t? — but by and large, there’s just one big piece of business left on the Wolves’ agenda: an extension for 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins is entering the final season of his rookie contract, and is eligible for a long-term extension. If the two sides don’t come to an agreement before the start of the 2017-18 season, Wiggins can reach restricted free agency next summer. It sounds like the Wolves would prefer avoiding that.
“We’re working on it right now,” Thibodeau said Wednesday.
To hear Wiggins tell it, though, the task should be pretty simple. Offer a full-freight, maximum-salaried contract and we’ll talk. Propose something less than the max, and I’ll see you at training camp.
While Wiggins said that he is taking a “day by day” approach to the contract discussions, he didn’t waver when asked whether he was worthy of a max contract, which could reach $148 million over five years with a starting salary of $25.5 million. “I definitely do,” Wiggins told The Crossover. “Nothing less.”
On one hand, an annual average of nearly $29.6 million through June of 2023 seems like an awful lot of money to commit to pay to a player who has proven very capable as an individual scorer through three NBA seasons, but who has yet to consistently show he can contribute at an elite level in other facets of the game. On the other, Wiggins has taken real steps forward in each of his three pro campaigns — in the efficiency with which he scores, in his ball-handling, in his jump-shooting, in his comfort at running the pick-and-roll, and as an on-ball defender.
Wiggins still isn’t a great playmaker, or a great team defender, or as effective a rebounder as you’d like a 6-foot-8 wing with his kind of athleticism to be. But he did log more assists than turnovers this season, and he did average more potential assists and points per game created by assist last year than in his first two seasons, and at age 22, with another year of Thibs on the sideline and new teammate Butler in his ear, there’s reason for optimism on his defensive development. He’s durable, he’s flexible, he’s better now than he was when he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, and he’s still something like a prototype for the kind of player great modern teams need — and one capable of popping for damn near 50 when he’s feeling it, too.
A full five-year max offer would represent a bet that, as he approaches and reaches his athletic prime, Wiggins can take advantage of the reduced responsibility that comes with slotting in alongside Butler and rising superstar Karl-Anthony Towns to develop the other aspects of his game to the point that he’s a top-shelf perimeter player capable of both carrying the scoring load and impacting the game without dominating the ball. But while going that route would not preclude the Wolves from making the same offer to Towns — the new collective bargaining agreement allows teams to have up to two “designated” post-rookie-deal max-salaried players on the roster — it would put Minnesota in position to be paying out three max salaries (Wiggins, Towns and Butler, should he elect to stay and re-up in two years’ time) that would put the Wolves over the cap and within hailing distance of the luxury tax in 2019-20 with more than half the roster still needing to be filled out.
If Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden are not supremely confident that Wiggins is going to make that leap — the kind that could make him the second- or third-best player on a legitimate championship contender — then going all the way on a designated-rookie max might be a bridge too far for the Minnesota brass. We’ve already seen Thibs and Layden choose to flip a restricted-free-agent-to-be for an established star with a couple of years left on his deal rather than deciding to pay him. Could the Zach LaVine-and-friends for Butler deal serve as a precursor to another major trade for a young, established star?
It’s entirely reasonable for Wiggins to call for nothing less than the absolute top dollar he can make; he’s one of 13 dudes ever to average better than 23 points per game before his age-22 season, and he’s still got so much runway for improvement in just about all areas of the game. Ultimately, the Wolves have to decide which path they think Wiggins’ development is most likely to take — where on the “young Tracy McGrady/Paul George-to-Rudy Gay” spectrum he’s most likely to fall. Three years after he was the top pick in the draft, we’re still asking a lot of the same questions about Andrew Wiggins. How the Wolves proceed in contract negotiations should tell us a lot about what they think the answers are.
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