Jan. 14—Another Golden State vs. Minnesota game on Sunday provides another chance to dissect the latest of the Timberwolves’ franchise-altering trades, as D’Angelo Russell and Andrew Wiggins will again share the floor.
We’re now two years removed from the day in which the Timberwolves’ now-former basketball boss Gersson Rosas put an exclamation point on his first trade deadline by sending Andrew Wiggins and a first-round draft pick to the Bay area in exchange for Russell and some salary cap filler.
In the moment, the move generated some needed excitement in Minnesota for a downtrodden NBA franchise that appeared to be heading nowhere fast. Russell was fresh off an all-star appearance. Wiggins was in the midst of yet another underwhelming season. In the days that followed, Rosas painted the picture that he finally had acquired the point guard he desired.
A large segment of Timberwolves fans couldn’t believe the heist their team had just pulled off. But two years later, as the paths the franchises have charted since come into clearer vision, it’s become obvious the Warriors did not lose that trade.
But did the Timberwolves?
Golden State (30-11 ahead of its game Friday in Chicago) sports the NBA’s second-best record. This with Klay Thompson only recently returning after missing two and a half years with leg injuries. Until now, it’s been Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Jordan Poole and Wiggins spearheading the efforts for one of the NBA’s top teams.
Wiggins has proven to be exactly what Golden State hoped — a talented wing who can defend and score. He has rounded out the Warriors lineup and plugged a glaring hole that hadn’t been filled since Kevin Durant bolted for Brooklyn. Is Wiggins worth the $31 million he’s making in salary this season? No. But the same was always going to be true of Russell, too.
Wiggins is one of the best players on one of the best teams in the NBA. He’s sporting career-high numbers in advanced metrics such as win shares per 48 minutes (.137), box plus-minus (1.4) and value over replacement player (1.0). Averaging 18.6 points a game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, Wiggins is in a strong position to be selected for his first all-star game this winter.
Russell’s advanced metrics grade similarly. In traditional stats, he’s averaging 19 points a game, and while the shooting numbers are lower this season, they’ve spiked over the past week as the point guard is starting to resemble the offensive player he’s been now for years.
The “big three” of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Russell combined for 84 points in the Timberwolves’ loss Thursday in Memphis. They have the scoring acumen to keep Minnesota fluttering around the .500 mark, at worst. The Timberwolves have has been significantly better with Russell on the floor than without.
The Timberwolves are better with Russell than they were with Wiggins. The same is true for Golden State and Wiggins. In that sense, the deal was a win-win for the two sides.
But that narrative could change quickly when both teams enter the postseason. Will Wiggins hold up as the same productive player deep into spring as the Warriors contend for a championship? Will Russell play a role in Minnesota achieving a surprising amount of postseason success?
The latter is important, because the Timberwolves gave up a first-round draft pick on top of Wiggins to get Russell. That pick eventually turned into Jonathan Kuminga, who has lottery-ticket-type-player potential, which Golden State will see if he can realize. But had the Timberwolves not acquired Russell, it’s plausible they would have lost more games if incentivized to do so and attained a higher draft pick to select the likes of Cleveland forward Evan Mobley. Who knows how that alternative universe would have played out.
If Russell continues to play at the level he has shown the past week, and helps Minnesota win enough games to get into the playoff and makes the Timberwolves a tough postseason out, that might convince the front office to continue to roll forward with this current core and extend the guard’s contract this offseason.
If not, Minnesota could have some difficult decisions on the horizon — re: its starting point guard and his value at his current price point — the exact same boat it would have been in with Wiggins had the trade never taken place. In such an instance, the Timberwolves wouldn’t be a winner, or a loser. They would be stuck in neutral, and hoping Golden State’s lottery ticket never cashes.