Losing streaks have a way of inspiring the need for change. After a second west coast losing streak that left the Wolves 0-11 versus Western Conference teams when on the road, here are three potential shakeups — A new starting lineup; a (specific) 10-man rotation; five potential trades
Just as some songs are best listened to in headphones, Andrew Wiggins’ game is best consumed in seclusion. You know, one of those things you like but is something probably best kept to yourself because, well, it’s not actually that good.
Those who are watching Wiggins, and have been for five years now, know that the aggregation of his numbers paint over real chords of brilliance. A balletic twist, his fastbreak crescendo or my personal favorite: the split-second downbeat of a second jump that leads to an offensive rebound. There is no player in the league who deserves the description of “pogo stick hops” more than Wiggins.
Still, the aggregation exists. And it’s real — the summation of Wiggins’ brilliance pales when juxtaposed upon the record scratches.
As it has always been, the question remains: Why? And the answer is the same: over-exposure. Initially, there was a justification in allowing Wiggins to steep in the role of offensive ace because there was the (fair) prognostication that one day he could become a superstar. The logic went: get him the reps so as to exponentiate the growth when his body and mind matures.
My question: How much longer can they wait?
Wiggins played in the 352nd game of his career on Saturday, a defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. With Devin Booker helming their youthful brigade and a brand new head coach, those Suns were reminiscent of Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota. An unfortunate remnant from that Wolves reality is that nothing has exponentiated for Wiggins. It’s just the same.
In conjunction with the coaching staff, Wiggins has forever taken on a role he has never proven worthy of. For years, when the Wolves needed a boost, they have asked Wiggins to go get it and he has obliged in an often fruitless manner. These days, that utilization can be described as sub-optimal usage.
In games the Wolves have lost, for the second-straight season, Wiggins has shot more shots, taken more free throws, turned the ball over with greater frequency and quite simply played with a higher holistic usage. It’s not that he is the cause of the loss specifically, instead, Wiggins’ performance just perpetuates it.
Perhaps the most jarring example is the unassisted shots he attempts in those losing efforts. Last season, 40.3 percent of Wiggins’ field goals were unassisted in wins while 52.7 percent of his attempts came without a pass in losses. That’s math screaming “hero ball!” And it’s happening again. This season, 38.8 percent of his shots are unassisted in wins and 44.8 percent in losses. Any eye test understanding of Wiggins pressing when the Wolves are losing matches the numbers.
It’s time for this to either stop or be repurposed. An agent for this change could be moving Wiggins to the bench. Allow a new (smaller) role to empower the flashes of brilliance while maintaining the out that comes with the opportunity to pivot. It’s been long enough, a shift needs to happen. With Wiggins, the Wolves need to have the power to say: Next, this isn’t working. New Song.
The last time the Wolves were swept on a west coast road trip, a big shakeup happened when Jimmy Butler was traded. Duh. However, and low-key, an important externality of this shift was a new rotation. Because Butler was admittedly not in game shape when he was in Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau used him as the first to sub out of games. Butler would then re-enter the game at the start of the second quarter with the four non-starters in the rotation.
When Robert Covington was acquired, what shifted in the rotation was actually quite simple, but a change nonetheless. Covington took Butler’s mantle of starter-holdover and inspired one of the brightest spots of this bizarro season: the second-unit-plus-Covington boon.
I think it’s important to note that the success of that group was justifying the nine-man rotation. The calls for sprinklings of four minutes for Josh Okogie in each half fell on the deaf ears of Thibodeau; not because there is some sort of pre-planned animus between Thibodeau and rookies but because he believed in having his second-unit playing together for an extended period of time. Had he mixed in Okogie, that groups’ identity would have changed. Okogie is great and fun but he is not Covington defensively and he is not Derrick Rose on offense.
A new rotation shakeup would require another shift. Again, that agent of change could be Andrew Wiggins coming off the bench. If the Wolves want to extend to a 10-man rotation, one way other teams do this is by having one of their lesser rotation pieces start. This could be Okogie.
There is a way the Wolves could bring Wiggins off the bench for 30 minutes a night, play Okogie, still empower Rose and Dario Saric, while still relying heavily on Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns. Here it is:
This structure could, of course, be tweaked slightly in the second half to close with that night’s best five. It would also likely self-adjust through the foul trouble propensities of Towns and Covington, boosting deserved additional run for Gorgui Dieng and Rose as situational replacements. Even on its face, these minute totals are normal, just rearranged.
Minute Totals of Hypothetical Rotation Shift
Trade season kicked off Saturday with the Trevor Ariza deal because December 15th was the date that freed trade eligibility for players who signed with a new team this summer, like Ariza. The Wolves have three such players: Anthony Tolliver, Luol Deng, and James Nunnally. With Deng and Nunnally essentially fringe NBA players, Tolliver is the name to start tracking.
For the Wolves, the idea of moving Tolliver makes a ton of sense — he’s a bonafide shooter and a vet that just about any team could use — but in practice moving him is tougher than it seems. As we have well-litigated, the Wolves have a real rotational logjam, and trading Tolliver for another player would be similarly difficult to find minutes for.
Still, moving Tolliver needs to be considered. While AT did get some run in Taj Gibson’s absence due to personal reasons Saturday, really, Tolliver is very buried on the Wolves bench. Because of this, finding a way to repurpose Tolliver into a wing piece is logical. If Tolliver were a wing, he could be plugged into the rotation when any of Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins or Robert Covington miss time because there is a greater positional versatility amongst that group. As a big, it’s simply a wait on Gibson or Saric proposition.
The issue in straight up trading Tolliver for a wing is that his salary is relatively small ($5.75 million) and that most meaningful wings cost over $10 million. The magical cap filler bandage here is Jerryd Bayless, who has a salary of $8.6 million. Package Tolliver and Bayless together and you can go wing shopping.
(Bayless cannot be used in a trade with another player until January 11th due to a rule that prevents him from being traded for two months following the consummation of the trade with the Sixers.)
Here are five potential deals that use Bayless as a trade chip:
Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver for Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic)
There’s little downside here for either team. Both teams would remain below the luxury tax threshold ($123.7 million) — very important — by making this deal. Also, all three players are on expiring deals, so there’s no future cap burden. Ross is one of many bench wings in Orlando and it could be argued that Tolliver presents a better offensive weapon as he would play a position of greater need for the Magic. (Orlando could also jettison Tolliver in a 3-team trade for a point guard. Maybe Ish Smith?)
The Wolves would have another potential blockade for Josh Okogie getting run by doing this trade, but that already exists. Ross, a volume 3-pt shooter, would be the shine to Okogie’s brawn as a situational wing sub.
Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Los Angeles Lakers)
I’m sure the Lakers have their eyes set on something more than Tolliver in what appears to be an eventual move of the 25-year-old Caldwell-Pope. That said, they’ve already missed out on Ariza, and trades aren’t like free agency where L.A. gets whatever they want. There aren’t always greener pastures, Tolliver would help them. He’s, like, a normal bench guy. Maybe Magic Johnson has taken note after acquiring Tyson Chandler that normalcy > meme.
Caldwell-Pope is also on an expiring deal, so the salary burden is arbitrary for the Wolves. Unlike Ross, KCP is similar to Okogie. Still, it’s easy to imagine Thibodeau drooling over the defensive potential of Covington and Caldwell-Pope as a wing duo.
Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver for Courtney Lee (New York Knicks)
This deal is a little different for the Wolves because Lee is not on an expiring contract, the 11-year vet is due $12.8 million next season. That’s less than ideal for the Wolves. But New York really doesn’t want that money on their books next year when they go hunting for Kevin Durant. This makes Bayless and Tolliver’s expiring contracts very attractive. The Knicks’ brass has said they won’t move first round picks anytime soon, but this nearly $13 million cap space gift card might change their mind.
That should be the line in the sand for the Wolves because Lee’s presence not only conflates those rotation issues but muddies the books going forward. Having Lee under contract next season could be preventative in acquiring anything meaningful this summer without going into the luxury tax. Between just Towns, Wiggins, Teague, Dieng and Covington the Wolves have 93 percent of next year’s salary cap ($101.3 million) already accounted for. Add Lee and you’re over the $109 million cap line before factoring in any of the guys on rookie deals (Okogie, Saric, Bates-Diop), not to mention the impending free agencies of Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson.
Because of this, Thibodeau and Scott Layden would probably demand the first, pointing out that Tolliver carries part of that value on his own.
Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver for Tony Snell and Thon Maker (Milwaukee Bucks)
This would be the RC Cola equivalent of the return they got from the Butler trade — an experienced defensive stalwart (Snell) and a young, promising big (Maker). Not the best thing in the world, but there’s still sugar.
As in any deal, Snell and Maker would have trouble getting run, but they’re barely playing in Milwaukee as is. Snell is under contract for another two years ($12 million per), so there would probably need to be more moves to come. If some sort of Wiggins Deal Mulligan happens this summer, Covington-Snell-Okogie is an attractive wing future. Those three combine to make less than Wiggins does annually.
Milwaukee would consider a structure close to this; they have just as much of an impending cap crunch. By snagging the Bayless and Tolliver expirings, $15 million in cap space would be created for this summer. And they need it with Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon due major raises that they cannot currently afford. Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez — you know, two starters on one of the best teams in the East — are also free agents this summer. Tolliver would help them this year, as a consistently functional approximation of Maker, and the space could be a long-term game-changer.
Jerryd Bayless and Gorgui Dieng for Chandler Parsons (Memphis Grizzlies)
The only way the Wolves are able to get off of Dieng’s deal is to find a more onerous contract. I present you with Sir Chandler of Memphis. Somehow, Parsons who has only played 73 (bad) games for the Grizzlies in the past three years still has $25 million left on his deal for next season. Zoinks!
By swapping Parsons for Dieng, the Grizzlies would get an extra $8.9 million in cap space next summer. The penance they would pay is the $17.3 million Dieng is owed in 2020-21 (a year after Parsons deal would have come off the books). Between the cap space and the fact that Dieng can, like, play basketball, Memphis would maybe even sweeten the pot.
Being as this would be taking a big ol’ bullet, the Wolves should demand pick compensation in this deal. Memphis can’t trade a first until 2022 — because Boston owns them. Still, getting any first back — not attaching one — to move Dieng would be a coup. Even if it is just a second round pick, how much does not having Dieng for twelve minutes a night really hurt the Wolves these next two seasons?
Shake it up!