February 7, 2020, 3:58 pm
The Warriors fought hard to push back on the idea that D’Angelo Russell was simply acquired to trade again. They insisted that he would be part of the core, that their new elite guard trio (when healthy) would form the foundation of the team’s success for years to come.
On Thursday, the Warriors traded Russell, Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick.
It was always a questionable match, both on paper and on the court. Russell thrived as a ball-handler, living in the pick-and-roll and methodically picking apart defenses from that position. When the Warriors were healthy, that would not be the case. The idea was to help Russell become more of an off-ball threat. He’d adapt to the Warriors’ preferred style of play, playing off Steph Curry, buzzing around the perimeter to space the floor and capitalizing on Curry’s (and Thompson’s) gravity by feasting on more open looks than he’s ever received.
That plan went out the window quickly. Curry got hurt four games into the year and Russell never shared the court with Thompson. Russell’s integration into the Warriors brand of basketball never happened, because the team around him was bereft of weapons. D’Lo was given the keys to the car and was able to shoot with abandon as there was never really a better offensive option sharing the floor with him.
Russell’s defensive problems were apparent and they figured to be the biggest stumbling block long-term, and there was really no incentive for him to try and improve on that end this season. Again, the team around him was awful, and it’s hard to empty the tank when you’re the worst in the league and getting blown out regularly.
That the Warriors moved Russell should not come as a shock since the fit was never right and relied entirely on Russell embracing off-ball responsibility. That the Warriors flipped him so quickly, after the sign-and-trade to bring him to the Bay forced the dismantling of a dynasty, is the stunner.
The Warriors could have waited until the offseason to see what Russell would get them, especially if they wanted to consider packaging him with their own first-round selection in the upcoming draft. They’re expected to get right back to competing next year around the core of Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, and whatever immediate help they could’ve gotten from Russell and that pick in the summer, when more teams have the space and time to construct such a huge trade, might’ve helped them more to that end.
They decided to spring for a deal now, perhaps because the market for Russell and that pick didn’t materialize as hoped. Maybe they realized that Russell just wouldn’t change enough to fit in. Maybe they sold themselves on Wiggins. Whatever the case, Russell is gone. His initial acquisition seemed like the Warriors trying to get something out of Kevin Durant’s decision, and they turned that something into something else just a few months after moving Andre Iguodala and a first-round pick to make room.
By also trading Evans and Spellman, all the Warriors’ deadline activity actually gets them $3.1 million under the luxury tax threshold, which was rumored to be a mission of the front office leading into the deadline.
The Warriors may have also decided that Minnesota’s 2021 first-round pick, top-3 protected, would be the best they could do in terms of futures. Any trade of Russell would necessitate the return of a huge salary, and the Warriors opted to go for the “quasi-useful player and futures” door rather than hunt for a more expensive impact player behind door number two. Given the expectations of their current roster core, it’s understandable reasoning.
The Wolves have the potential to score a ton, but they’re going to be liable to give it all back and then some on the defensive end. The West is a meat grinder, and Minnesota isn’t trying to jump from 10th to 8th – they’ve got a big climb ahead of them. There’s the potential for the Warriors to end up with top-10 picks in back to back years. If that’s the case, the second-round pick they received will be a top-40 selection. It’s a path with longer-term sustainability in mind.
The elephant in the room is the Warriors taking on Wiggins, who is widely considered to be on one of the league’s worst contracts. Golden State is now betting on Wiggins meeting his potential in a new environment, one that might be able to better provide the support and stability that he has always needed.
Wiggins’ career has been defined by instability, pretty much from the moment he was drafted by Cleveland and flipped to Minnesota. He’s gone through four coaches in six seasons, with a few who looked out of their depth or far behind the times. Steve Kerr is neither of those things, and the culture of accountability – the same thing Jimmy Butler blasted the Wolves for – is present in Golden State, albeit with softer messaging that might actually get through. The Warriors will not have patience for poor effort or mental lapses, but they also won’t be as abrasive about it as Butler. They have the leadership and infrastructure to encourage good habits with positive reinforcement. The bet is that Wiggins is salvageable in a place that can develop him competently.
It’s fair to argue that Wiggins is a better fit alongside Golden State’s core than Russell was. Rather than trying to shoehorn a volume shooter in, the Warriors will incorporate a natural small forward who has more defensive potential. How Wiggins adjusts to lower usage and less isolation play remains to be seen, but the Warriors are looking at a more talented, if less aware, version of Harrison Barnes.
His game hasn’t gone without growth – the progress has just been slow and bumpy. Partly out of necessity, Wiggins has posted a career-high 18.2 AST% this season, smashing his previous best of 10.8 set last season. He’s improved as a playmaker, which is a helpful tool to have in the box in a ball-movement offense.
He’s taken great strides in his shot selection, with the Wolves trying to modernize their game. This season Wiggins has taken just 13.3% of his shots from the mid-range, as opposed to 26.6% the season prior. The one concern here is that the Warriors take the third-most mid-range shots in the league, compared to the 27th-most in Minnesota. That’s not a blip either, as the Warriors were second in mid-range attempts in 2018-19 and seventh in 2017-18.
On the other hand, the Warriors (when healthy) will give Wiggins the best spacing he’s ever played with, and he should have to take fewer pull-up shots. Wiggins, who is shooting .331 from deep overall, is hitting a respectable .360 on his catch-and-shoot threes. He’s been north of 51% in terms of eFG% for each of the last three seasons on catch-and-shoot field goals. The Warriors were second in the league in catch-and-shoot shots last season, and this year’s bottom-10 standing gets a mulligan given the personnel they’ve been working with.
There are enough things in Wiggins’ profile to make you think that he can turn this around in this spot, but the Warriors are counting on their culture to make it happen. That’s been on big variable that Wiggins has yet to have on his side, and Golden State gets a little benefit of the doubt when it comes to working environment.
The salary is unavoidable – $94 million over three years is a crazy amount for Wiggins. But it’s also a sunk cost.
Wiggins may be paid like a franchise player but the Warriors won’t need him to be a star. He simply has to make the right reads, hit good shots when they’re there for him and work hard. The Warriors were set to pay D’Angelo Russell $90 million over these next three years anyway, and he was going to be a far more difficult fit than Wiggins (though there’s still a big leap of faith on Wiggins putting it all together). Golden State had already made a significant investment in a star-caliber player that would be asked to dial down a star-type playstyle. There’s hope that Wiggins has everything click with a more narrow, focused role. It’s already been established that taking responsibility away from Russell makes him less effective.
So for all the maneuvering Golden State did during the summer, they’re left with a potentially high pick and the league’s most expensive reclamation project. The Warriors have seen enough to bet on their methods righting this ship – whether that’s the faith in turning Wiggins around or their own internal perceptions of Russell’s place with the team. We’ll see if their culture can crack one of the league’s biggest enigmas.