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To Become the Next Spurs, the Warriors Need Andrew Wiggins

Golden State can keep competing for titles for years to come—if its decision to trade D’Angelo Russell for Wiggins and more proves to be the right move

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It seems like just yesterday that Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were lovable rising stars on the new best team in the NBA. But it’s been almost five years since the Golden State Warriors won their first title. On opening night of the 2020-21 season, Steph will be 32 years old, and Klay and Draymond will be 30. They’re getting old now. Warriors owner Joe Lacob told The Athletic in 2018 that he wants his franchise to have a “Spurs-like 20-year run” competing for championships. To have any chance of becoming the new San Antonio Spurs, it’s nearing the point when the Warriors need to find their Kawhi Leonard to Steph’s Tim Duncan.

The Spurs’ Big Three was also aging when San Antonio made a hard decision on draft night in 2011, trading a promising 25-year-old guard in George Hill to the Pacers for an unproven prospect in Kawhi Leonard. Duncan was 35, Manu Ginobili was 34, and Tony Parker was 29. It turned out well for the Spurs—they made it to four Western Conference finals and two NBA Finals, and won another championship as Leonard won a Finals MVP and blossomed into superstardom. The Warriors made a tough choice of their own on Thursday, sending D’Angelo Russell along with Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans to the Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins, a protected 2021 first-round draft pick, and a 2021 second-round pick. In doing so, the Warriors are gambling that Wiggins will finally find success playing with the best teammates of his career and that Minnesota will fail with Russell. If both happen, Golden State will be in position to contend for many years to come.

The Spurs never had an injury-riddled, playoff-less season in the Duncan era like the Warriors are having now, but Golden State will be Finals contenders next season no matter how the trade pans out. Once Curry, Thompson, and Green are back together on the floor, we’ll all be reminded of how historically dominant they are. But they’ll need to win this trade to achieve the sustainable success that Lacob wants for his franchise.

Golden State is fortunate to even be in this position considering Kevin Durant could have walked for nothing last summer. But the Nets wanted to sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant so they could open enough cap space to sign his buddy DeAndre Jordan, which was a blessing for Golden State. A double sign-and-trade was orchestrated, exchanging Durant and a 2025 second-round pick for Russell, to whom the Warriors gave a max contract. To execute the deal, the Warriors dumped Andre Iguodala on the Grizzlies with a top-four-protected first-round pick in 2024. So in the big picture, the Warriors traded away a star who was leaving anyway, a mid-30s wing, and a distant draft pick for a 24-year-old wing and a first-rounder from a franchise that has made the playoffs once since 2004.

The Warriors gave it a shot with Russell, but during the seven months he was on their roster, they concluded he couldn’t help them win. One of the most memorable moments from his short tenure with the Warriors was when he infuriated Green with his abhorrent effort in the pivotal moment of a close game:

With two minutes remaining and the Warriors holding a four-point lead over the Nuggets, Russell got blocked by Mason Plumlee, then lollygagged back on defense as Plumlee beat him up the floor for a dunk. Draymond punched the air and shouted because he was so furious with Russell. Golden State ended up losing in overtime. The Warriors have won so many games over the past half-decade because they haven’t had holes on defense. To ensure that they won’t in the half-decade to come, they traded for Wiggins, a long and agile wing defender who has flashed the ability to lock down speedy guards and skilled forwards. Though his consistency and focus have been problems, Wiggins is undoubtedly a more impactful defender than Russell, and a flat-out better positional fit as a wing next to Steph and Klay. “It’s great to have a player who we could put on LeBron, and at least match up physically. It’s the hardest position to guard these days in the NBA,” Steve Kerr said on Saturday. “It’s a huge addition for us to add Andrew on the wing. It’s a position we had to fill and we feel really good about it.”

Meanwhile, Russell’s turnstile defense will be a frustration for the Wolves, just like it was from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Ohio State to Montverde Academy. Karl-Anthony Towns will need to become a more consistently dominant rim protector. But Minnesota got what it wanted here. Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas had to make this move to keep Towns happy. Russell and Towns are close friends off the court, and on the court, they could be a dream offensive duo. Russell is a versatile scorer and a playmaker who complements KAT’s premier offensive talent. Their pick-and-roll could be deadly; Russell’s deep-shooting ability should create easier shots than ever for Towns, who can pop, roll, or bully mismatches. Their other additions should also help. Spellman looks the part of a stretch big, and in separate deals, they acquired wing Malik Beasley, forward Juancho Hernangómez, and forward James Johnson, who should bolster their rotation with better shooting and more versatile defense. It seems like the Timberwolves have a direction again, but they barely sneaked into the postseason when they were led by Jimmy Butler, and the West is even stronger now. It’ll be tough to make another big move to help the team, because the 2020 free agent and draft classes are shallow and they’re lacking assets for trades. Their new additions have to pan out and they must ace the coming offseason, in which they’ll have their own lottery pick and the midlevel exception at their disposal; otherwise, the offensive potency of Russell and Towns might not be enough.

Golden State must not think highly of Minnesota’s future. As I reported last Tuesday, Minnesota offered Golden State its own first in 2020, which currently has the fifth-best lottery odds, and the 2020 first from Brooklyn it acquired from Atlanta in the Robert Covington trade. But the Warriors had no interest in taking on 2020 firsts because of how weak the class is; NBA scouts compare it to the 2000 or 2013 drafts, both of which were littered with lottery busts. Golden State and Minnesota found common ground with a top-three-protected first in 2021, a draft class loaded with potential stars across positions—two-way bigs like Evan Mobley, scoring wings like Jalen Green, and playmaking forwards like Cade Cunningham. If the Wolves end up in the top three next season, the pick becomes unprotected in 2022. We’re too far away to know how strong the 2022 class is, but it has long been rumored that could be the year of the “double draft”—i.e., when the change to the NBA’s age limit could kick in, allowing high school graduates to bypass college and join the class before them in the same draft. It could be loaded.

The most natural way for Golden State to find a star to take the torch from Steph, Klay, and Draymond like Kawhi once did from Duncan is through the draft. With their own first-round pick in 2020 (which currently has the top lottery odds), plus Minnesota’s future first in 2021 or 2022, they’ll have two swings at hitting another home run like they did with three of their past four lottery picks—Harrison Barnes in 2012, Thompson in 2011, and Curry in 2009.

But it’s a different league today than it was when that trio was drafted. Golden State found that out when Durant left Oklahoma City and San Antonio did when Kawhi demanded a trade. Stars change teams more than ever before. Golden State’s next big acquisition could realistically come from outside the draft. The Warriors escaped being subject to the repeater tax by including Evans and Spellman in Thursday’s trade, but they are still capped out for the foreseeable future; they won’t be able to acquire a star by outright signing them in free agency. But they could use their two potential lottery picks to trade for them. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo to the Bay Area if he hits free agency in 2021 might be a pipe dream, but at some point a superstar will want out. By 2022 or 2023, could Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons be looking for a breakup with the Sixers? Will Bradley Beal be ready to bounce from Washington? Will Devin Booker have even made the playoffs yet? Who knows which star it will be, but having young players, draft picks, and near-expiring contracts will put the Warriors in position to pounce.

In the meantime, Wiggins must complement Golden State’s core. He has been notoriously underwhelming since being drafted with the first pick in 2014, but he won’t even turn 25 for another two weeks and he’s about to fall into a dream role playing with the best teammates of his life. “Minnesota needed him to be a star. And we’re not asking him to be a star. We’re asking him to play a role on a team that already has some star players,” Kerr said of Wiggins on Friday. “He’s been in a tough spot and people have talked about him underachieving the last few years, so let’s see what we can do and let’s see what he can do next to a group of players who have been wildly successful.”

Wiggins will see his role change in Golden State just like Russell did: with more off-ball usage. In Minnesota, Wiggins played primarily on the ball, running tons of pick-and-roll. But Golden State runs pick-and-roll sparingly, preferring instead to generate offense through movement, cutting, and spacing—the Warriors rank first in possessions finished using cuts and last in pick-and-roll since 2014-15, per Synergy. To get an idea of how Wiggins could be utilized, let’s look at how the Warriors used Barnes and Iguodala.

Andrew Wiggins Play Type Differential

Synergy Play Type Andrew Wiggins, 2014-20 Andre Iguodala, 2014-19 Harrison Barnes, 2014-16
Synergy Play Type Andrew Wiggins, 2014-20 Andre Iguodala, 2014-19 Harrison Barnes, 2014-16
Cut 7% 15% 14%
Handoff 9% 5% 3%
Isolation 13% 9% 12%
Off Screen 8% 6% 6%
P&R Ball Handler 30% 11% 6%
P&R Roll Man 2% 2% 5%
Post Up 14% 5% 13%
Spot Up 18% 47% 42%
Half-court possession data via Synergy Sports. Offensive rebounds excluded. Wiggins’s stats include his entire career; Barnes’s and Iguodala’s are from seasons in which they played on Golden State teams that made the Finals.

The ex-Warriors used cuts and spot-ups more than twice as often as Wiggins, and ran pick-and-roll less than half as much. Wiggins is a better scorer than Barnes and Iguodala, so he’ll get more shots and touches than they did. But as the third scoring option behind Curry and Thompson, his primary scoring responsibilities will be cutting, spot-up shooting, and attacking closeouts. Wiggins should adapt well to the system because ever since he was a Kansas freshman, he’s shown the skills of a player who could thrive in a lower-usage role.

In the play above from his Warriors debut on Saturday, Wiggins used a fake to gain space from his defender before exploding into the lane to glide athletically past two rim protectors. Wiggins’s instincts and timing as a cutter have always been there, but the Wolves never ran a system to fully activate them. The Warriors will, and they have the shooting talent to unleash his athleticism. “My best thing is attacking the basket. It’s gonna be kind of hard to help if you have Steph and Klay,” Wiggins said after scoring 24 points for the Warriors in a loss to the Lakers. “Losing is never fun. Just being here, you can tell by everyone’s approach and attitude, they’re winners. It’s something I’ve wanted to be my whole career.”

Winning requires sacrifice. Wiggins will cut, and sometimes he’ll need to just spot up and shoot 3s, which he’s hit at a 36 percent clip over his career. That’s worse percentage-wise than the 40 percent that Barnes hit on catch-and-shoot 3s, and better than Iguodala’s 35 percent. But Wiggins has hit 40 percent of his corner 3s, compared to 43 percent for Barnes during those seasons. Could Wiggins close the gap with more open shots and corner 3s?

Andrew Wiggins 3-Point Shooting Differential

Shot Type Andrew Wiggins, 2014-20 Andre Iguodala, 2014-19 Harrison Barnes, 2014-16
Shot Type Andrew Wiggins, 2014-20 Andre Iguodala, 2014-19 Harrison Barnes, 2014-16
Above The Break 3s 32% 34% 36%
Corner 3s 40% 36% 43%

An astounding 84 percent of Wiggins’s 3-point attempts have come from above the break with Minnesota—compared to 61 percent for Iguodala and 50 percent for Barnes during their seasons in Golden State. The Warriors will make better use of Wiggins’s talent by simply moving him to the corner. Wiggins won’t just be stuck in the corner ball watching, though. The Warriors will still use him as an on-ball scorer, just with more streamlined opportunities rather than force-feeding him touches like the Wolves had to. Wiggins won’t score as much as Durant, but he’ll have more on his plate than Barnes and Iguodala; he’ll take on a hybrid version of the roles they’ve all occupied.

Golden State is getting Wiggins at the right time in his development. After years of launching long 2s early in the shot clock, Wiggins has finally learned to pass rather than chuck. He’s passing the ball more—41 passes per game this season, up from only 24 before this season, per NBA Advanced Stats—and he’s trimmed his deep midrange attempts from 26 percent in prior seasons to only 11 percent of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

These dramatic shifts in playing style are indicative of a player open to change and willing to adapt to his environment. Over his career, Wiggins has shared the ball with Embiid in college, willingly taken a backseat behind Butler in Minnesota, and changed to a more analytics-friendly playing style under Rosas and Ryan Saunders in the past year. Now, he’ll need to play as more of a role player in a new offensive system and grind on defense. It is reasonable to expect that he’ll continue to adapt with the Warriors. Much like the Spurs’ former Big Three, Curry, Thompson, and Green bring out the best in players. For years, the Spurs consistently turned one team’s cast-off into their own contributor, whether it was replacing Bruce Bowen with Danny Green, or revitalizing older players like Boris Diaw. The Warriors have had similar success in sapping every ounce of remaining talent out of the aging Shaun Livingston while changing JaVale McGee’s former reputation as a laughingstock into that of a two-time champion. “The similarity is the internal culture, the internal stability. Having been in San Antonio for all those years, I felt it through Tim Duncan, David Robinson, the core guys who were there who provided that foundation,” Kerr said during the 2019 NBA Finals. Culture means more than having a respected voice in the locker room or continuity on the court. The Spurs may have changed their basketball system over the years, from a post offense to a motion offense, but there was always clarity and consistency in each player’s role and the hierarchy on the team.

Will Wiggins be worth the $95 million he’s owed through the 2022-23 season playing this type of role? Maybe not. Barnes and Iguodala made significantly less money during the early years in Golden State, which allowed the team to invest in more depth. With Wiggins making so much, it’s critical that Golden State role players like Alen Smailagic and Eric Paschall keep getting better. But if Wiggins does find success with the Warriors, his expensive contract will merely be the high price they paid to extend their dynasty.

Golden State is on a bye year from the championship race, but it won’t last for long. The Warriors will once again be a playoff team when Steph and Klay rejoin Draymond on the floor. And if Wiggins pans out, and if the Timberwolves lose enough to convey a high draft pick, the Warriors will be positioned to remain in Finals contention deep into the 2020s and beyond.