MINNEAPOLIS — This week, two former college teammates who were both selected at the top of the 2014 NBA Draft signed similar contracts that will make their families rich for generations. At the same time, their teams’ fan bases took deep breaths, knowing that while these two max-level contract extensions were things the teams had to do, they came with a large amount of risk.
The 76ers are banking their future on a transcendent but brittle 23-year-old big man who has played a total of 31 games in three seasons. The Timberwolves are hanging their future on a talented 22-year-old wing who has become an elite scorer while falling far short in measures of efficiency.
Not all enormous contracts come with such enormous amounts of risk. It was not risky when the Milwaukee Bucks gave Giannis Antetokounmpo a four-year, $100 million contract extension before last season. It will not be risky when the Timberwolves give Karl-Anthony Towns a max contract extension after this season. Both of these young players have already proven themselves as superstars who are capable of winning MVP awards.
It is incredibly risky — yet also close to unavoidable — for the 76ers and Timberwolves to sign Embiid and Wiggins to these contracts.
Here’s what 76ers coach Brett Brown said about Embiid shortly before his contract extension was announced: Embiid changes the way the 76ers play with “his physical presence. He does it with a defensive mindset, and he does it with an offensive target that is different than anything else that we have.”
And then Brown said this: “When he has been able to practice with us, he has changed the gym.”
When he has been able to practice with us.
Since his one season at Kansas with Wiggins came to an abrupt halt, Embiid has faced these injury issues. The talent was never a question; anyone who watched him in his sublime 31 games last year saw why the Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons that were attached to him out of college were so apt.
But he has played in only 12.6 percent of his team’s games over his first three seasons. This massive talent could someday be thought of in the same breath as the player selected right after Olajuwon in the 1984 draft: injury-riddled Sam Bowie. Or, worse, this massive talent could someday be thought of in the same breath as another obscenely talented big man whose injury questions derailed his career on a bigger scale than Bowie: Greg Oden.
You do not want to commit $148 million to a Sam Bowie. And you certainly do not want to commit $148 million to a Greg Oden.
Here’s what Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said about Wiggins at Wednesday’s press conference announcing his extension: “We think he’s only scratching the surface. When you look at players, I think we all tend to forget the steps they take along the way, and we tend to measure people by the standard of someone who has been in the league eight or nine years. When you dig deep on them, you see there’s a hunger to improve, the drive, the intelligence. Those characteristics embody winners. Andrew wants to be a more complete player. He is focusing in on defense.”
Thibs will tell you about how Wiggins, during a season in which he turned 22, became the 16th leading scorer in the league. He averaged nearly 24 points per game, landing between Paul George and Kemba Walker, and he continued improving from 3-point range, shooting nearly 36 percent. Look only at those numbers, and $148 million seems like a great deal for the team.
But what Thibodeau won’t tell you is how advanced stats folks do not like Wiggins’ game. As much as he scores in bunches, his box scores are nearly devoid of rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. FiveThirtyEight.com named him the NBA‘s “least defensive player” last season, citing as the root cause a simple lack of effort. His WARP last season — that’s wins above replacement player — was 0.9. That’s … not good. His real plus-minus last season was minus-1.6, sandwiched between Andrew Harrison and Kenneth Faried. That’s … not good. A recent analysis compared Wiggins’ latest season not to a budding NBA All-Star but to Michael Beasley. That’s … not good.
You certainly do not want to commit $148 million to a Michael Beasley.
Wiggins hears this type of criticism a lot. He says he tunes it out. That’s what Thibs tells him to do.
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” the coach said. “It really doesn’t matter what other people think. It really only matters what we think. When you look at what he’s done at his age … the progression he’s already made, he’ll continue to grow.”
That’s the deal in today’s NBA and with today’s collective bargaining agreement: When a player is this filled with potential, teams must bet on the come. Betting on a 22-year-old who may turn into a franchise player is always a risk. You can win titles on those sorts of bets. Or you can send your franchise into a spiral of mediocrity.
You can question the timing of these deals. Why not wait until after this season, and give yourself a larger sample size? It’s not like the teams would have to pay them more than the max if they wait. But perhaps the Sixers thought giving Embiid this unique type of deal, with all the injury insurance, may not have been available in restricted free agency, when other teams could have bid on Embiid and forced the 76ers’ hand. And one of the things Wiggins pointed out at his press conference was how much he appreciated the loyalty from the franchise and the fan base, especially after the Cleveland Cavaliers disrespected him by trading him immediately after drafting him. Perhaps the Wolves didn’t want to wait and jeopardize any feelings of mutual loyalty between the team and Wiggins, like they did in the soured relationship with Kevin Love years ago.
Five years is a long time. The 76ers have an insurance policy on Embiid in the form of some injury-specific clauses in his contract that will offer the team some salary cap protection in the case of significant injuries. The Timberwolves have an insurance policy on Wiggins in the form of soon-to-be-All-Star Towns. Both of these contracts can turn out fine for both of these teams, but that will depend on a healthy Embiid and a commitment from Wiggins to focus on defense.
The teams did exactly what they had to do: They bet a lot on the future. That’s the only way you can win in this league.
But that also can end up as a franchise-wrecking recipe for disaster.