Andrew Wiggins: Navigating a Max Contract in Minnesota Timberwolves Territory


As the off-season winds down, the Minnesota Timberwolves remain engaged in contract negotiations. Specifically, coming to terms on a rookie-scale extension with Andrew Wiggins. After firing his agent, Bill Duffy, last week, Wiggins is required by the CBA to wait at least two more weeks before signing his expected 5-year $148 million maximum contract. Additionally, owner Glen Taylor has requested a sit-down meeting before offering Wiggins the contract. As the AP’s Jon Krawczynski reports, “Nothing is easy in Wolves land, even a max deal on a rookie extension.”

Lay of the Land

The Wiggins situation is unexplored territory for the newest Timberwolves management. A player hasn’t received a contract of such stature since Kevin Garnett, and a max contract hasn’t been on the tables since Kevin Love. Suddenly, the organization is likely facing three straight years of max negotiations—Karl Anthony-Towns and Jimmy Butler are to follow.

Offering Wiggins a max contract teeters on controversial. He would be the first from his draft class to receive a max extension, and likely the only. While the 2014 class was reasonably deep, it lacked star power. Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker are both candidates, but injury issues will weaken their bargaining power in the immediate future. Additionally, Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood, and Marcus Smart are high-salary extension candidates but are all likely a step below a max contract.

Evaluating The Player

Wiggins has evolved into a workhorse. He has managed 36 minutes per game while missing just one game throughout his three-year career, all-the-while burdened with weak supporting casts. Consequently, Minnesota has demanded an extraordinary effort. His usage rate has steadily risen over his career: from 22.6% to 27.2% to 29%. For comparison sake, Indiana’s Paul George had a 28.9% usage rate while LeBron James and Steph Curry were both at 30% this past season.

Despite entering this fray as a nineteen-year-old, Wiggins has both performed and improved steadily, season-by-season. His career field-goal rate is 45% after a 43.7% performance his rookie year.  Wiggins three-point rate improved to 35.6% last season, after a 31% and 30% performance in his first and second years, respectively. He led the NBA in total minutes during his third season, scored 23 points per game at the age of 21, boasted an above-average PER (16.5) and managed to improve his effective field goal rate each season. These are all impressive accomplishments for a young player.

Breaking down the Numbers

Zoom in closer and Wiggins shows promise regarding efficiency despite that common knock on his playing style. Wiggins hit 42.9% of his catch-and-shoot three pointers, on 2.1 attempts per game. Moreover, his catch-and-shoot three-point percentage increased from 36% to 42%.

Expect those attempts to increase. With Towns, Teague, and Butler on the floor, defenses will be forced to let something slide. Considering Town’s emerging dominance and Butler’s superstar reputation, the typical defense will let Wiggins beat them before opening the lane for the others. This phenomenon should lead to an increase in open catch-and-shoot opportunities, as well as unclogged cutting lanes.

Furthermore, Wiggins is an adept off-ball cutter who can finish effectively at the rim. He ranks in the 83rd percentile as a cutter (via synergy) and completes 60% of his chances from within five feet (6.5 per game). He leverages his athleticism with sneaky-quick footwork to finish both over and around larger defenders.

Defense

Defensively, Wiggins struggles with the constant flow of an NBA offense. During the draft process, Wiggins had the potential to be a defensive star. Athletically, he lives in a realm above most, but at the highest level, athleticism can lose its luster. He vanishes on the weak side and suffers in the pick-and-roll, whether that entails dying on a screen or failing to zone properly.

However, at thirty-six minutes per night, with a demanding offensive workload and the nightly assignment of the opponent’s top wing, he should struggle. But still, there are signs of hope.

Wiggins has displayed the capacity to stymie players in one-on-one opportunities. While isolation offense is diminishing in style, getting stops in late shot-clock situations is often a game’s final determinant. He ranks in the 83rd percentile (via synergy) in isolation defense, and specifically succeeds in guarding opposing isolations that result in a drive (87th percentile). Between his length, athleticism, and footwork he can keep up with anybody in the open court. Wiggins needs to expand his abilities across all facets of defense, but there is an underappreciated value in his slowly emerging defensive impact.

The Overarching Decision

In many regards, hefty expectations create Wiggins’ most common criticisms. At this point, he is a top-three player from his draft class, who shows an ability to improve year after year. Moreover, he consistently handles the pressure of being a number one draft pick, further signaling his ability to handle the responsibilities of a max contract.

From the organization’s perspective, the Timberwolves needs to bet big. Whether or not Wiggins can be a championship contender’s second or third best player remains to be seen, but Minnesota cannot let such a valuable core member slip away. The organization was fortuitous to salvage Kevin Love, a poorly managed contract negotiation, into Wiggins, but it cannot depend on such luck again.

As Ben Falk notes in his article regarding average contract value, max contracts are often the most undervalued contracts. “Max contracts on one end and rookie scale contracts on the other both systematically limit the money that can be paid to some of the best players in the league and squeeze the extra money to the middle.” Note that these contracts are ‘systematic limitations.’ Rookies exist on a scaled contract, a value that Wiggins has outplayed during his career thus far. Similarly, max players have a price ceiling at a certain percent of a team’s salary. If Wiggins receives a max contract, initially, he will likely underperform his contract value. But a five-year extension off of a rookie scale bets on the back-end. In the long run, if Wiggins continues his development, his max contract will rapidly progress into an efficient and team-friendly contract.

Consequently, Thibodeau needs to reinvest in his ability.  Ownership needs to double down on his player development skills for the Wolves to reach its pinnacle. The Timberwolves are on a thirteen-year playoff drought, and while the end appears nearby, the organization cannot afford to ruin its recent efforts due to a botched negotiation. Wiggins has earned his contract, he can be a third-piece tomorrow, and a second or first-piece down the road. The history of the NBA’s championship contenders features many dominant trios. Towns and Butler have the makings of a necessary one-two punch, but Minnesota needs to retain its third fiddle.

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