Making sense of the Warriors tumultuous trade dealings

There’s a misconception of what “tanking” looks like. A lot of people equate it with players and coaches throwing games, but at the core tanking is really about de-prioritizing winning in the near term in order to be better able to succeed later on. The Golden State Warriors, with a flurry of moves at the trade deadline, have sent a clear signal to the league that they will be spending the rest of this season tanking.

While the Warriors have dumped talent and salary in the past, we have not seen such profligate actions along these lines since Joe Lacob purchased the team. The front office has certainly earned our trust that there will be a plan to improve this roster over the offseason, but in the meantime, the tank is in full effect for the remainder of the 2019-2020 NBA season.

Making sense of the trade moves

The Warriors traded six of their fourteen players, Wiley Cauley-Stein, Alec Bruks, Glenn Robinson; and then today’s big move of D’Angelo Russell, Omari Spellman, and Jacob Evans. In return? Andrew Wiggins, and his hugely negative-value contract are now attached to the Warriors.

But back to tanking. This move was not about any of the current players, this trade deadline was all about dropping the team out of the luxury tax line this season, and grabbing as many draft picks as possible. Under those criteria, this was a fairly successful trade season for Golden State. Wiggins comes with a 2021 top-3 protected first-round draft pick and a 2021 second-round draft pick; all the other trades brought them a bevy of second round picks (Utah and Dallas in 2020, Denver in 2021, Toronto 2022, and then oddly, Golden State re-acquired their own 2022 second-round pick).

If this was a renovation project for a house, you could say the the Warriors took it down to the studs - which actually makes sense if you think that the team needed to be rebuilt more than retooled.

Before we get to Wiggins, let’s just consider the roster moves that the Warriors have made and how thoroughly the team has cleared the proverbial deck for a run at another big-name free agent in the upcoming offseason:

This was a pretty bold “pardon our dust” sort of trade deadline for Golden State. They jettisoned Cauley-Stein’s guaranteed deal, as well as Jacob Evans (who was struggling mightily), and Omari Spellman. My guess is that the Warriors are planning on using some combination of those newly acquired draft picks, one of the above players [cough*WIGGINS*cough], as well as their $17 million dollar trade exception to chase someone significant.

The trade exceptions is tricky in that it can only be applied to single-player trades - situations where one player is traded for a draft pick (which the Warriors now have plenty of). On top of if it all, Golden State is now pretty well assured to finish with the worst record in the league and the resultant strongest chance for a top-3 pick in the upcoming draft.

The general framework could look like this:

  • Wiggins and one or two first-rounders for a malcontent star player - let's say Joel Embiid (since both players make exactly $29.5 million next season).

  • Then use more picks and the trade exception to land a major player - let's say for example that the Warriors use this to lift Andre Iguodala back out of Miami.

That's a roster that can chase a championship ring. Both of those trades are wild, but Bob Myers and the Warriors have pulled of greater miracles.

Making sense of Wiggins

We have come full circle.

Back in 2014, the last time the Warriors tanked, there was a catchy pithy phrase: “riggin’ for Wiggins". Though his career hasn’t exactly panned out, Wiggins was the number one pick in that draft and it is a lovely symmetry to imagine him stepping into the role of the player that the Warriors drafted that year, Harrison Barnes.

But can he? One of the main reasons why Wiggins is so highly touted was his size. He’s 6' 8" in shoes with a healthy 7' 0" wingspan, and 8" 11" standing reach. But from Anthony Randolph to Brandon Wright, the NBA landscape is littered with the corpses of failed careers of promising young athletes.

The Warriors organization will certainly tell us that they believe in Wiggins, but they’ve also said that they really wanted to see Russell play alongside Curry and Klay Thompson.

So, can we believe in Wiggins too?

It’s going to take some convincing.

Offensively it’s no better, as per Cleaning the Glass, Wiggins consistently rates as a below average player. These are his shooting splits, remember that the most recent years are on the bottom, white percentage is the raw statistic, the highlighted colors are percentile rank (where higher is better) - blue highlights are bad.

So he is (on paper) tremendously bad on defense, and just plain bad on offense.

Or is he?

This is going to be the part the Warriors want to sell right now: Wiggins can be pretty dominant. Here are his season highs in all major statistical categories over the course of his career; again, the most recent years are the bottom of this table:

Per game this year, Wiggins is putting up a solid stat line: 23.3 points (on a reasonable efficiency of .535 TS%), 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 0.9 blocks. That’s not bad. Is it worth a maximum dollar contract? Probably not, but Wiggins is not, as the kids like to say “trash;” there are some redeeming qualities to his game.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Wiggins has recently developed a more facilitator role on offense, assisting on 18.2% of his teammates made shots while on the floor - good enough to land him in the 87% percentile among players at his position.

The hope here - assuming the Warriors hang on to him - is that Wiggins will fill the void at small forward for this team and in so doing will find all the best parts of his game. If his scoring efficiency improved playing in Kerr’s system with Curry and Thompson (likely) and he can emphasize the facilitation rather than scoring aspects of his game, he could fit in here.

Grade the trades

I’m sorry, but I have to back out and give the Warriors’ trade deadline activities a resounding “incomplete” grade. This is not a functional roster, and will certainly go through a major overhaul before the start of next season. Golden State has been doing a lot of shuffling and gaming with their limited assets, but it will take another blockbuster trade or two for these moves to make sense.

In the meantime, the Warriors are in full tank mode, which will be hard on the eyeballs, but should absolutely cement Golden State’s position at the bottom of the standings as they pursue a top draft pick. And freeing the team from the punitive repeater tax may make it easier to rebuild next year.

But that doesn’t help us much this season.