Around this time last year, the Minnesota Timberwolves started to generate some early playoff buzz. It made some degree of sense. The Wolves featured an intriguing young nucleus led by one of the game's brightest future stars (Karl-Anthony Towns) and they had recently hired defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau as their coach. Project some internal improvement from supporting players like Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad, throw rookie point guard Kris Dunn into the mix, Thibs-ify the defense, and presto—you've got yourself a postseason dark horse.
Alas, things did not work out that way. Instead of pushing for the playoffs, the Wolves lurched their way to just 31 wins—a mere two-win improvement over the prior season—playing inconsistent defense and falling victim to many of the potential pitfalls those skeptical of the T-Pups thought might prevent their rapid ascension in the league's hierarchy.
There should be no worries about the team succumbing to such pitfalls next season. Now armed with a top-10-to-15 player in Jimmy Butler, the question for the Wolves is no longer whether they will make the playoffs, but exactly how good they can be—both next year and in the years beyond. Because of the team's construction, the key to unlocking that mystery lies in the development of Andrew Wiggins, on whom the Wolves reportedly plan to bestow a five-year, $148 million maximum contract extension sometime between now and the start of the 2017-18 season.
It seems fair to say that Wiggins's reputation outstrips his production to this point in his career. There are still people that try to make a controversy out of the Cavaliers dealing him to the Wolves for Kevin Love, even though that trade contributed to the Cavs making three straight trips to the Finals and winning the city of Cleveland's first championship in 52 years.
He has been a high-volume scorer during his first three years in the league, but has yet to register a true shooting percentage at or above the league average in his career. He's done precious little creating for others and has considerably below-average rebounding numbers for a player his size. There were 63 players 6-foot-8 or shorter that used at least 20 percent of the team's possessions last season—Wiggins ranked 50th in assist rate. And out of the 111 players that stood between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 and qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard, Wiggins ranked 83rd in rebound rate.
With his long arms, elite athleticism, and rangy quickness, it's no surprise that Wiggins also carries a reputation as an impact defender, but nearly every statistical measure paints him as a negative defensive player. He's been rated negatively by Basketball-Reference's Defensive BPM, FiveThirtyEight's Defensive Plus-Minus, and ESPN's Defensive RPM during each of his three NBA seasons, and ranked 92nd out of 94 shooting guards in ESPN's stat last season. (Wiggins played mostly small forward last year but the wing positions are largely interchangeable in today's NBA and his -3.16 Defensive RPM still would have ranked 70th out of 72 at the three.)
None of this is to say that Wiggins is just bad, nor that he cannot become the kind of impact player a segment of the NBA-watching population seems to think he already is. The ability to score with near-average efficiency (his TS percentage has been only one percent below-average in each of the last two seasons) on incredibly high volume (he's been among the league leaders in usage rate as well) is a useful skill, and Wiggins does have both the tools to be an elite defender and Thibodeau barking in his ear to make sure he becomes one eventually.
But Wiggins cannot just continue along the same path his career has started on, because from now on he'll be playing next Butler. The two are remarkably similar offensive players, with Wiggins as essentially a slightly poorer man's version of his new teammate. Both players operate from largely the same areas of the floor. They both like to catch the ball, wait a beat, survey the defense, and then barrel their way to the rim, if possible. (They do it in different ways, with Butler using sheer strength and Wiggins using lithe agility, but they have the same goal when attacking off the dribble.) Neither is a particularly high-volume or high-percentage outside shooter, so both instead use their ability to get to the free-throw line as an efficiency booster. Butler just does all of those things a bit better than Wiggins does.
Given that Butler's the better, more established player, it seems likely that Wiggins will be the one who is forced into adapting his game. What might that mean? More spot-up shooting, for sure, and more cutting action as well. Wiggins should actually do fine there—he came into the league with the knock that he was a broken shooter, but he knocked down 40 percent of 175 catch-and-shoot threes last season and is at 37.8 percent for his career, with his volume rising each season. Playing off Towns and Butler should yield easier looks than he's gotten in the past, so he could even see another slight bump in his percentages. He's also shown the ability to make the instinctual cut when the heart of the defense opens as a reaction to penetration or a Towns post-up. He should be able to take advantage of additional cracks in the foundation of defenses to find opportunities for easy baskets.
The difficult part will be finding other ways to contribute. Given that Wiggins has generated almost all of his value as a player during his first three NBA seasons through his scoring and that you cannot score without touching the ball, any adjustment that takes the ball out of his hands more often will lead to a decrease in his value as a player. That means Wiggins will have to make up for it by doing things he's not done well in the past.
Hitting the glass harder than he ever has before is a key. A 6'8"player with Wiggins's athleticism can't have a rebound rate that is basically half that of Wesley Johnson's. Getting the ball directly off the boards will also let Wiggins get himself out in transition quicker, giving him more opportunities to score to make up for those that he figures to lose in the half-court. Now playing on a team with two superior scorers and with a point guard that can actually shoot (Jeff Teague), it will also be important for Wiggins to show an increased willingness to give up the ball rather than try to fight his way through the thickets of the defense. He's lithe and acrobatic enough to do it with regularity, but there should be better, less-covered shots available. Reading multiple layers of defense and making the correct pass has not exactly come naturally to him so far, and could still prove a challenge next year and beyond.
The one silver lining of his being less of an offensive focal point is that it should free Wiggins to devote more energy—physically and mentally—to defense. That was actually his primary selling point coming out of Kansas, and he's disappointed on that end in his young career thus far. He now has Butler next to him as a role model for what a true wing stopper should look like, and all of Thibodeau's yelling and screaming can have an extra "look at him" edge to it as well. And the thing is: Wiggins really should be able to turn himself into an elite defender. Every single tool you'd want is there; it's just about harnessing them in the correct way. Wiggins took strides in Year 2 before backsliding last year, but that could have been more about the adjustment to Thibodeau's strict principles than a true show of his defensive competence. The whole team backslid for a lot of the season, after all.
Wiggins's ability to max out the non-scoring parts of his game is important not just from an on-court standpoint, but also from a financial one. His max extension will actually hit the books in 2019, while Towns's will follow a year later. That's already 55 percent of the cap devoted to two players. The Wolves will surely try to lock Butler down when he opts out of his contract the same summer that Wiggins's extension kicks in, and they already have Teague and Dieng on the books for a combined $35.2 million that season, assuming Teague picks up his $19 million player option. (A safe bet, considering the market factors.) That means the Wolves team we see now is basically the Wolves team we're going to see for the foreseeable future, unless Thibs figures out a way to shove off Dieng's salary between now and this time next year. Butler's already a star and Towns is well on his way. The Wolves need Wiggins to fulfill his potential as the third amigo if they want to get where they want to go.