Just weeks after pulling off the biggest acquisition in franchise history (landing Jimmy Butler) the Minnesota Timberwolves could be at it again. Kyrie Irving naming Minnesota as a preferred trade destination reinforces a shift in perception of the team. Even with prime Kevin Garnett, the team was an afterthought for the game’s biggest names. If anything, the team has a history of shipping out its biggest stars rather than acquiring them.
The Timberwolves will open the season with a new logo, new uniforms, and a remodeled arena. They have an established coach to pair with Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns to add to their new aesthetic. It’s easy to see why players are beginning to look more seriously than ever at Minnesota.
Another intriguing piece is Andrew Wiggins, who was, of course, acquired from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade as the reigning number one overall pick. His career hasn’t gone as many predicted. Many experts felt that he would be a strong defender out-of-the-box while his offensive game catches up. The opposite has held true as he is a 20.4 points per game scorer who averaged a career-high 23.6 points per game last season.
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While Wiggins is a talented scorer, there are many questions about his game headed into Year 4. Despite having all of the physical tools to be a good defender, he hasn’t really been one. Wiggins has admitted himself that someone with his size and athleticism should be averaging more than four rebounds per contest. And his paltry passing numbers offer more reason for concern.
The good news is that Wiggins is just 22-years-old and is developing into one of the best scorers in the league. This is despite a propensity for the mid-range shot and playing on teams with poor spacing. His steadily increasing efficiency from beyond the arc is further reason for optimism. He may not be Kevin Durant but he may not quite be Rudy Gay. If he winds up somewhere in the middle, he’ll be a fine NBA player.
This makes it easy to see why the Cavaliers would want him in a Kyrie Irving trade. For the Timberwolves, there are pros and cons to dealing Wiggins for Irving. Let’s take a look.
Trading for Irving accomplishes Thibodeau’s goal: to win
Tom Thibodeau is a basketball machine. He lives and breathes film study and pushes his players to be great. This can be both a negative and positive. One thing is clear and that he wants to win. After a season of evaluation and little roster turnover, Thibodeau has razed the status quo. Gone are team fixtures Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine; enter Butler and Jeff Teague. Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford have replaced Jordan Hill and Brandon Rush as the team’s resident veterans.
Among the biggest questions the team will have to answer to determine how far they will go in 2018 is how good can Wiggins be this season? He likely improves but does he replace the immediate impact of a Kyrie Irving? Probably not. If the goal is to win and pair Butler with his friend, Irving, then this move would accomplish this.
Thibodeau also doesn’t have the same attachment to Wiggins that Flip Saunders did. It seems that Thibodeau likes Wiggins but his name isn’t on that trade. He’s not a “Thibodeau player” in that sense. This may make it easier to move Wiggins for a more established player like Irving.
Move him before the rest of the league finds out what you already know
There is some risk involved in hanging on to Wiggins, just as there is in moving him. If Minnesota doesn’t believe he will develop into a star, the reported extension Wiggins is seekin, in the neighborhood of five years, $148 million, may be hard to swallow. The team really doesn’t have a choice if he’s on the roster but moving him for two years of Irving would alleviate that concern.
If Thibodeau doesn’t see Wiggins being a $30 million per year player, moving him makes sense. Otherwise, trying to move him once that extension kicks in will be difficult if he hasn’t improved enough to the team’s liking and they want to go another direction.
By acquiring Irving, the Timberwolves would be getting a 25-year old all-star who is still young enough to build together with Towns and Butler.
But what if Wiggins does become a $30 million per year player?
This is the catch with these things, isn’t it? If Wiggins develops into a star, then you have him under team control for the next 4-5 years. Irving could be gone in two years as well. Additionally, this would shift the Wolves’ current plan.
The team has been signing players to short term, team-friendly deals the last two summers. Gibson, Butler, Crawford, and Teague (player option for the third year) could all be off of the books in two years, leaving them with the ability to retool around Towns and Wiggins entering their prime. Switching out Wiggins for Irving makes this even dicier as many of their key contributors would all be due for new contracts.
Should Wiggins blossom in Cleveland, he would be under contract while the Timberwolves figure out how to re-sign Butler and Irving. The Timberwolves could very well be left with Towns and scrambling to keep a competitive roster around him as he enters his prime. These are the risks you have to look at in making a move like this.
Without Wiggins, the Wolves would have no help on the wing.
Currently, Butler and Wiggins are the starters on the perimeter. Anthony Brown and Jamal Crawford are the only backups. Are they comfortable starting a 37-year old Jamal Crawford next to Butler? What about Brown, a player who has yet to establish himself in the NBA? It’s hard to see this being a playoff team or a threatening playoff team with this kind of depth.
Some have suggested Jeff Teague sliding over to shooting guard this season but Teague has only played seven percent of his career minutes there. That may work in spurts against certain lineups but seems like an unviable long-term plan. At 6-foot-2, Teague doesn’t have the size to defend many NBA two-guards.
Would Kyrie be happy with his role in Minnesota?
This is the other issue. Butler and Towns are going to command their share of touches, as they should. We’ve seen in just two seasons how Towns has developed into a player who can be effective from all areas of the floor with the ability to develop the hot hand. His ability to get high percentage looks at the rim and stretch the floor make him a threat at all times.
Butler himself is no slouch in the scoring department. He, too, is a 20-point-per-game player who can capably knock down 3-pointers. Having the ability to create his own shot also has value.
Then there’s Irving, a flame-throwing 40-percent 3-point shooter who averaged 25 points per game last season. Irving also led the Cavaliers in field goal attempts last season and accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team’s assists. Irving rightfully wants to ensure a large role in a team’s offense.
But if he was unhappy playing next to LeBron James despite leading the team in field goals and usage rate, who’s to say he won’t be unhappy sharing duties with Towns and Butler? It seems that anywhere he goes that he’s successful, he’s going to be splitting touches with other great players. Is that the real issue or is it sharing the spotlight with a player of James’ gravity? It’s not cut and dry that Irving would be the number one option in Minnesota.