Despite his contract, Andrew Wiggins’ name has been bantered about in the ethers as a potential player to be traded this offseason. Given the price tag of that contract — approximately $147 million over five years — and its relative vitality, this is a true indictment on the former first overall pick’s performance through his first four seasons.
But that is a well-rehearsed conversation.
Trading Wiggins will be difficult not only because of his production but arguably more so for the economic factors that exist, in ways, unrelated to those productivity forecasts.
Recognition As A Positive Asset
While “dumping” Wiggins’ contract is a cute — and somewhat logical — conversation, it makes very little sense for a franchise fast approaching a win-now window. This is true because dumping does not necessarily mean excising to create salary cap space.
A salary dump would more realistically look something like Jeremy Lin (one year, $12.5 million) and DeMarre Carroll (one year, $15.4 million) for Wiggins. Lin and Carroll are on deals that are partially sunk and trading them for Wiggins would be the acknowledgment that he too isn’t worth anywhere near the nearly $30 million per season he will average on his deal through 2022-23.
Even if Lin and Carroll — or other similar options on other teams — were net-neutral assets, they are less palatable deals to inherit given the rest of the Wolves financial landscape.
A year from now, even without Wiggins, the Wolves will have approximately $100 million tied up in Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng — assuming both Butler and Towns are signed to maximum deals. Bringing in any sort of net-neutral asset to the team has very little financial upside given this financial reality as retaining Lin or Carroll beyond this season would steer the team beyond the salary cap and directly into the luxury tax.
Which is all to say, the Wolves have to operate under the structure that every asset obtained (or retained) possess upward mobility in their valuation. Despite Wiggins’ flaws, he still could be that type of asset given the rare set of skills that present a potentially lofty ceiling.
To ignore that Wiggins ceiling or to simply deem it unlikely is okay but then the search — via trade — has to be seeking a positive asset collection.
The case study here is the Blake Griffin trade to the Detroit Pistons at this season’s trade deadline. Griffin was traded away from Los Angeles not six months after sign a gargantuan five-year, $171 million deal. Due to Griffin’s production level, injury history, and age, that contract was widely regarded as, at best, net-neutral when the trade deadline rolled around.
However, all it took was one team with an appetite for risk to see Griffin as a positive asset and swing a deal.
The Pistons gave up Tobias Harris (a positive asset with one year and $14.8 million remaining), Avery Bradley (a neutral asset entering free agency), Boban Marjanovic (a slightly negative asset with one year and $7 million remaining), the 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft (a very positive asset) and a 2019 second-round pick (a positive asset) for Griffin’s services through 2021-22.
That’s a lot of value.
Particularly so for a Clippers team up against the luxury tax line.
For the Wolves, also up against a financial wall, trading Wiggins would similarly require finding a team that would bet on the 23-year-old’s upside potential in the way that Detroit bet on Griffin’s athleticism and skill.
How Many Wiggins Believers Remain?
The perception of Wiggins in the eyes of many front offices around the league likely does not mirror the belief in many crevices of the internet that see Maple Jordan to forever be an inefficient scorer with a questionable work-ethic. Teams are, very likely, out there that believe in Wiggins.
However, belief and acting on that belief are two very different things. Even if there are ten general managers out there who crave Wiggins at $147 million, the infrastructure of implementing a trade is difficult.
Poison Pill Provision
Because Wiggins signed a rookie contract extension last summer — prior to his rookie deal ending — his contract has a stipulation that is referred to what is unofficially known as the “poison pill provision.”
The poison pill is put in place to hinder a team’s ability to trade a player until the extension kicks in.
Even if the Wolves’ brass greatly desired to trade Wiggins at any point of the last nine months, the process would have been almost impossible given the fact that his salary was a mere $7.5 million for 2017-18 but would force trade partners to recognize his incoming salary at the average annual salary of the extension ($29.5 million), given the provision.
Poison pills almost always require a third team — with cap space — being involved to absorb salary. With only a small handful of teams currently possessing cap space, the logistics of trading Wiggins in the immediate future (e.g. draft night) are very slim.
The pill remains on Wiggins’s contract through the end of the free agency moratorium (July 6). While a deal could be agreed to in principle — through back channels — before July 6, this would be quite the commitment from a team as it would limit their mobility to make other moves during the free agency period.
Matching Salaries With Needs
Even if a team is willing to wait until after the draft and after free agency to officially ink a deal for Wiggins, the more typical barriers to trades are still present. Working deals is just very difficult. Wolves general manager Scott Layden touched on this at the team’s end-of-season press conference.
“I think you’ll see more of that aggressive nature as we get into the trade deadline and around the draft. That’s a very active time,” said Layden. “The thing is, you need two teams to participate. Sometimes you can be very aggressive and not necessarily able to make moves.”
A team that has been thrown out there as a potential trade partner is the Toronto Raptors, who appear to be a candidate for aggression when it comes to roster reconstruction. But even assuming a desire — and the whole Wiggins is a Canadian thing — trade logistics between Minnesota and Toronto would be difficult for financial and structural purposes.
While DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have contracts that could be paired with Wiggins in a trade, the Raptors assets that they would have the greatest appetite to move — given salary figures — are big men. Serge Ibaka has two years and $45 million remaining on his contract and Jonas Valanciunas has two years and $34 million.
The issue is that the Wolves already have a ton of bigs. Of the eight Minnesota players with guaranteed salaries for next season, three are pure centers (Towns, Dieng, Justin Patton) and a fourth is Taj Gibson who functions as a center in the Wolves offense. Cole Aldrich — also a pure center — has a partially guaranteed deal for next season and the 6-foot-10 Nemanja Bjelica is a restricted free agent that the team is at least somewhat likely to bring back.
Working a deal with Toronto for Wiggins would be tough to massage without including either Ibaka or Valanciunas. Sure, the Wolves could potentially include Dieng in the deal — to come out with a full cup of bigs but not further overflowing — but his contract is even longer and arguably more sunk than both Ibaka and Valanciunas’s are.
Also at the end-of-season press conference, Tom Thibodeau made it clear that his team is looking for anything but bigs.
“The big thing is versatility. We’re looking to add wings. I think the 3-point shooting, the ability to play more than one position, the ability to guard your own position, that’s become even more important in today’s NBA,” said Thibodeau.
Toronto has players that fit this mold. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam would be excellent additions to the Wolves roster given not only their skill set as defensive power wings but their annual salaries of under $2 million per season. But… Thibodeau is not alone in desiring this type of player — a sentiment he almost alludes to in that quote.
Structuring a deal with Toronto that both does not include returning a big man and brings in one of the young, affordable Toronto wings would require some wizardry by the front office. And quite frankly, some ignorance from Toronto’s general manager Masai Ujiri. (Highly unlikely given Ujiri’s track record.)
Further, Toronto is but one example of teams with structural issues that make a trade difficult for Minnesota. Going down the list of teams that mind you is limited by their questionable — to non-existent — appetite for Wiggins is a difficult task when seeking a logical trade. The Wolves quite simply have their own roster structure issues that could prevent a deal from culminating if Thibodeau desires to stay competitive for next season.
The Luxury Tax
Another wrinkle the Wolves would need to navigate in a potential move is their current salary total for 2018-19. In just those eight fully-guaranteed contracts for next season, the Wolves have $107 million committed. That is before adding the salary of their rookie draft pick (20th overall), making a decision on Bjelica, and factoring in the $2 million that is still guaranteed on Aldrich’s deal.
With the luxury tax line estimated to be $123 million, the Wolves are in no place to add additional salary, particularly if they have hopes of pursuing a player with the mid-level exception for nearly $9 million more.
This luxury tax situation is complicating for a myriad of reasons that I went into here and here but is additionally muddling in the workings of a Wiggins trade. If the Wolves are operating under a relative mandate that the tax should not be breached in 2018-19 (likely), then taking back more salary than is sent out in a Wiggins deal is also unlikely.
Legally, the Wolves are allowed to receive 125 percent of the salary they send out in a theoretical trade.
With Wiggins’s $25.3 million in salary for next season, Minnesota could take back (up to) $31.6 million in salary. If more players are added to the Wolves outgoing total, that differential could swell beyond $6 million. Having this type of flexibility can be crucial in making the infrastructure of a trade work. If the Wolves have a mandate to not touch the tax line, their trade optionality is inherently hindered when it comes to moving Wiggins.
Anecdotally, and using the Toronto example, let’s say that Ujiri is willing to trade Ibaka, Norman Powell, Anunoby and a future first for Wiggins and Aldrich — a deal that works legally and passes the positive asset valuation test. In this example, the Wolves would be taking back an additional $5.7 million in guaranteed salary than they currently have on the books.
While this deal may pass the eye test to some — dependent on one’s subjective Wiggins-threshold — the deal would almost certainly bump the Wolves into the tax or force them to perform other cost-cutting moves to duck the tax.
Even a seemingly dreamy trade can come with cumbersome baggage that exists outside of the trade itself.
Operating In Fantasy Versus Reality
There really are an enumeration of possibilities for the Timberwolves offseason. In the much maligned but certainly clicked on Zach Lowe podcast from this past week, those possibilities took on a life of their own with seemingly no limitation. Much of that was out of control but one part that got lost in translation was pure:
“I just have a gut feeling something crazy is gonna happen there (Minnesota) this summer,” said Lowe.
Those feelings are fine, but they definitively lie in fantasy versus reality. Sure, anything is possible in the NBA. Each and every offseason and trade deadline something happens that was not previously conceived as possible — which is saying something given the plethora of things that are conceived in this modern NBA media landscape.
But trades are hard. They require two franchises seeing eye-to-eye on something that theoretically leads to a win-win — like the Butler for Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine deal. For the Wolves specifically and related to Andrew Wiggins, finding that is tough even once removing the wildly polarizing nature of Wiggins’s perceived value.
The fantasy — which is somewhat plausible — is that something crazy does happen in Minnesota this summer but a more objective reality is that the Wolves roll out a roster that looks pretty similar to this past season. Whether that is right or wrong lies in the eye of the beholder, which in this case is one Mr. Thibodeau.
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