BY: DANE MOORE
When Andrew Wiggins signed his five-year, $147.7 million contract last summer, the trajectory of the Minnesota Timberwolves was altered. But his financial impact transcends Minnesota.
With a new collective bargaining agreement ratified between the NBA and the player’s union kicking in for the 2017 summer, Wiggins became the first player to ever sign what is called a maximum rookie contract extension — a provision put in place, with new adjustments, to help teams lock-in their young talents.
Wiggins was an interesting beta, given who he has been four years into his career. And in turn, by signing, Wiggins set a precedent: Players can earn maximum dollars before maximizing themselves as a producer.
As the first round of contracts are being signed since Wiggins signed his extension a year ago and the dollar values are bizarre as they have been, it can be gleaned that Wiggins may have really been a $150 million cannonball with a ripple effect felt league-wide.
The clearest line to draw with the precedent is illustrated by the contracts that Wiggins’ 2014 draft class contemporaries have signed this summer. To put it plainly: that group is responsible for the majority of the most eye-popping and peculiar deals in an otherwise conservative free agency summer of 2018.
“Those guys have Wiggins to thank for that,” a league executive told me in Vegas last week during summer league. “[Joel] Embiid to some extent but mostly Wiggins.”
Embiid did also sign a maximum rookie contract extension, as did Nikola Jokic — functionally. But while Embiid and Jokic may be from the same class and making the same money, they are different: both have already produced at or near a maximum’s level. Sure, there is some risk in both of those deals — notably, Embiid’s given his injury track record — but the deals both receive the nod that says, yeah, that makes sense.
Wiggins’ also did and still does make some sense but his contract is inarguably more of a gamble for Minnesota. Again, due to what Wiggins has comparatively produced thus far in his career.
Devin Booker falls more in line with Wiggins than either of the big men. Making the suggestion that his new contract (five years, $158 million) was affected by the Wiggins precedent.
Drafted one year after Wiggins, Booker was eligible this summer to sign a maximum rookie contract extension. And Phoenix obliged. A product of the precedent because Booker also is nowhere near a finished product. In fact, he also is currently a flawed product.
Didn't realize how close these two are.
D. Booker: 29.6 PTS, 5.2 AST, 4.9 REB, 2.8 3P, 1.6 STL/BLK per 100 poss, .542 TS%, -1.8 BPM, .045 WS/48, 14.7 PER
A. Wiggins thru 3 yrs: 28.6 PTS, 3 AST, 5.7 REB, 1.1 3P, 2.1 STL/BLK per 100 poss, .532 TS%, -2.4 BPM, .056 WS/48, 15.7 PER https://t.co/unkvPDBXog
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) July 9, 2018
There’s no doubt that when Booker and his agent, Leon Rose, sat down to the negotiation table with Phoenix brass that they came fully-equipped with Wiggins’ statistical profile so as to negate any suggestion that Booker may not be worth the max.
Now, it’s not all on the Wiggins deal for the comparatively heightened prices. The entire list of players is, of course, young and because of that comes packaged with upside potential. No one would suggest Nurkic is, right now, better than DeMarcus Cousins (1 year, $5.3 million) or that Zach LaVine is a better shooter than J.J. Redick (1 year, $12 million) or Wayne Ellington (1 year, $6.3 million). But Nurkic and LaVine could still grow and become values because they were locked up long-term — similar to the Wiggins logic.
The long-term element of those deals probably has the most Wiggins special sauce in it. Informative is the notion that other than LeBron James, Paul George, Chris Paul, and (randomly) Will Barton, every other four-year deal signed this summer comes from Wiggins’ draft class. The vast majority of the other free agent contracts have been signed for only one guaranteed season.
It’s almost as if the Wolves gambling on Wiggins future gave the general managers who signed these other young players justified conviction to do so. Either that or their hands were forced by the Wiggins precedent. One way or another, an inflation.
All these young players but most notably Wiggins and Booker now come with a bizarre asset valuation. In specific relation to the Timberwolves, paying a player who is certainly not worth a max deal today greatly limits their ability to do anything else with the roster.
This lack of flexibility is evidenced by cap restrictions that created an extremely underwhelming free agency. Minnesota lost Jamal Crawford and Nemanja Bjelica while re-signing Derrick Rose and bringing in Antony Tolliver. Rose and Tolliver combined will make just over a quarter ($7.3 million) of what Wiggins will make this season ($25.3 million). So, in ways, Wiggins is a negative asset. He hurts the roster because if he were to magically disappear — amnesty-style — Minnesota could do a lot more with that money.
But that is not the complete story.
In every conversation I had with a league executive while at summer league, Wiggins and his contract came up. Every executive said his deal could be traded for positive value — just as Blake Griffin’s $172 million deal was traded to Detroit at the trade deadline.
One executive brought up an interesting hypothetical move as a parallel for Wiggins that, ironically, had to do with Devin Booker’s team. On draft night, the Suns parted ways with the 16th overall pick (Zhaire Smith) and an unprotected 2021 first round pick via Miami for the soon-to-be 22-year-old Mikal Bridges.
Said the executive: “‘You don’t think Phoenix, who had cap space, would have traded that for Wiggins?'”
It’s an interesting point and purely speculation but it does suggest that some teams — particularly those with financial wiggle room and a young core, like Phoenix — may not only be willing to give up positive assets for Wiggins but further some teams may crave “negatively-positive” assets.
Being “bad” for the next few years is fine. The Golden State Warriors. If a team knows they can not compete with the Warriors these next few years, then that negative burden — of the negatively-positive asset — decreases in its relevance.
To further the Phoenix example (which I am, in full disclosure, not totally sold on), there is some theoretical logic behind bringing in another young, high-end talent who will have the worst years of his deal behind him by the time the Warriors eventually lose a step.
A core of Booker, Wiggins, DeAndre Ayton, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, and even Elie Okobo is pretty appealing two years from now. All of those guys will be 26-or-younger in 2020; sure, Wiggins, Booker, and Warren will be making a combined $70 million but Ayton, Jackson and Okobo will all still be on affordable rookie deals. That’s not the next dynasty but with some strides, particularly from Wiggins and Booker, that’s a franchise moving in the right direction.
(Side note: That group is pretty similar to the Wolves if they never made the Jimmy Butler trade. Wiggins, LaVine, Lauri Markannen, Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, and cap space. Food for thought.)
The bigger point here, spinning back to the actual Timberwolves, is that Wiggins’ deal isn’t awful because they too are waiting out the Warriors. Which brings us to another maximum rookie contract extension.
Karl-Anthony Towns is from the same draft class as Devin Booker. Meaning he is also eligible to sign a deal for that same five years, $158 million. The better news is that even at $158 million — or $190 million if Towns makes an All-NBA team next season (there are bonuses for that) — Towns is definitively not a negatively-positive asset. He’s a full-blown plus — already elite on one side of the ball and development halting at age 22 only happens through catastrophic injuries (like Derrick Rose).
What if, a few years from now, none of those LaVines, Nurkics, Exums find the production that exceeds their lofty salaries? Or Jokic plateaus. Or Embiid gets hurt. Yes, those things aren’t all going to happen but Towns is far and away the most likely player from the 2014 or 2015 class (throw Porzingis in there who also tore up his knee) to produce far more than his max deal asks for.
For the record, it is my personal belief that much of this “reporting” on the Butler and Towns situation is out of control. It has not been my experience in any time I have been around the two that Butler is “fed up” with Towns. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it’s a work relationship that grew more this season than it fell apart.
After losing in Milwaukee (after blowing a 20-pt lead), Butler blew up on Towns in locker room.
2 months later, the Wolves lost in OT to the Cavs (LeBron buzzer beater) and Butler was consoling Towns. "We got this, big fella," he said.
Their relationship is growing; not over.
— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) July 3, 2018
But maybe things have gotten worse. Maybe Towns is not Butler’s ideal colleague. And if that is the case, it is Butler’s prerogative to move on when he can opt out of his contract next summer.
If that happens, that is not Armageddon. The catastrophe would be trading Towns. But so long as Glen Taylor owns this team, that won’t happen.
If Butler bounces, okay, that is less than hoped for, sure. But still, the Wolves wouldn’t be on a bad square. Gibson’s contract also ends next year, as does Rose’s. Teague has a $19 million player option that extends him a year longer but that’s moveable being as it will be an expiring deal.
So, your square is Towns on a great, long-term deal and Wiggins on a bizarro deal that sounds like it could probably be moved if you want to tear things down to build back up around Towns. Again, not the end of the world.
With no Butler, Gibson and Teague, the Wolves would have cap space to bring in someone Towns wants to play with — and maybe even fits better. Towns will be so good that his clout will overshadow the thunder clouds of Minneapolis winters.
Unmentioned in all of this is the name Tom Thibodeau and that is unwise on my part. Thibs is the chief decision-maker of the franchise and thus a major factor. His affinity to Butler (and Gibson and Teague and Rose) is well-documented. What he will do when big decisions need to be made is extremely difficult to speculate on.
Would Thibs pull the cord on a Wiggins deal in what would be somewhat of admittance of fault?
Would he dump the Timberbull contingent if it was best for Towns?
Regardless, the solace for Wolves followers comes from the notion that the less speculative variables (the contracts on the roster) are not in a terrible spot. If Wiggins is a negatively positive asset, he’s still a positive asset. And that is critically important.
No move has to happen now. The Warriors still exist. In fact, they’re growing. For the Wolves, it’s about getting through this first Timberbull window unscathed and then recalibrate. For the Wolves and the rest of the league, greener pastures theoretically lie in the 2020s. That’s window two. Towns needs to be in that window. Everything else is up in the air but it is not on fire.
Dane Moore is an NBA writer covering the Minnesota Timberwolves for 1500ESPN.com. His work can also be found at ZoneCoverage.com, where he covers the Timberwolves as a staff writer.