The fortunes of the Timberwolves and Warriors have been linked since June 2009, when in one fateful sequence the Wolves and GM David Kahn drafted Ricky Rubio No. 5 and Jonny Flynn No. 6, then watched Golden State take Steph Curry at No. 7.
The Rubio pick was a no-brainer at the time and remains defensible more than 11 years later. While he hasn't had the career many envisioned, Rubio has been a solid pro. The Flynn pick was questioned at the time and became an unmitigated disaster when he was hurt and Curry turned into one of the NBA's best players, winning two MVPs and three NBA titles.
More than a decade later, the residue of that decision lingers — perhaps even more so after Rubio's return to Minnesota and Curry's return from injury, which brought them onto the same court this week for two lopsided Golden State victories.
But now there's this: Owing to a mega-trade almost a year ago and the NBA Draft just a couple months ago, the fates of these two franchises have become linked again in multiple ways.
And the early returns — and it's still early, to be sure — suggest the Wolves now have three emerging Golden State problems (and Curry isn't even one).
The first: Andrew Wiggins has outplayed D'Angelo Russell since the swap, particularly this season.
The Wolves were desperate to get out from Wiggins' max contract. They coveted Russell for months. Trading Wiggins as part of a deal for Russell a year ago was almost too good to be true. It still might work out to be the boon Wolves fans envisioned. Hitting reset on the Wiggins era was necessary regardless.
But still: Wiggins has been a more efficient, better defending version of himself in Golden State. That was evident in a pair of breezy Warriors victories over the Wolves on Monday and Wednesday — games that, unfortunately for the sake of comparison, Russell missed with a contusion.
Wiggins is often tasked with guarding an opposing team's best player and he has done a credible job of it. He will probably never live up to his max contract, but if he settles in as an 18 points per game scorer who plays good defense, he will have value on a good team.
Russell has shot the ball well (40% on threes), but his defense has been abysmal (second-worst defensive rating on the Wolves, an unsightly 119.5 points per 100 possessions). Stylistically, he doesn't quite seem suited to play with the sort of pace the Wolves want — a notion that shows up in his subpar 102.4 offensive rating, which makes for a net rating of minus-17.1, worst among Wolves players who consistently play regular minutes.
The caveat is that he and Karl-Anthony Towns have still never played more than two consecutive games together, and that when they are both back healthy we hopefully will finally see a vision realized. That's why I label these as "emerging" problems. But if you are concerned about the player-for-player part of that big trade, at least as it pertains to what has happened on the court so far, it is justified.
The second: Warriors No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman has outplayed Wolves No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards. This is, to be sure, the least of my three concerns. Edwards has a LONG time to develop, and both players showed the ceiling of their potential on Wednesday when each scored 25 points in Golden State's 123-111 win.
Wiseman has had the much better consistent box score lines and advanced stats this season, but he probably should. He's a big man and his shots are closer to the rim. He's playing with better teammates, including an all-world point guard in Curry.
Edwards has shown enough flashes of athleticism — plus command of his dribble — to think that he has a chance to be very good and maybe even a star in 2-3 years. And the draft was, what, 70 days ago? In a normal offseason he would have had Summer League and months to integrate into the Wolves system. This year's condensed calendar did him no favors.
But because the Wolves could have had any player they wanted and chose Edwards, while the Warriors scooped up Wiseman right after that, these two players inevitably will be compared for years.
The third: The Wiggins/Russell trade was not merely a one-for-one swap. The Wolves also included a top-3 protected 2021 draft pick, which becomes unprotected in 2022 if the Wolves end up getting a top-3 pick this year. They also traded their 2021 second-round pick to Golden State in the deal — a lesser commodity, but still possibly a pick in the low-to-mid-30s that could leave Minnesota without any of its own picks in the next draft.
Players don't really care about that piece of it. Chris Hine has some good quotes from Draymond Green to that effect. But it matters in the big picture.
The optimistic but still realistic view at the time of the swap was probably something like this: The Wolves might not be great in the 2020-21 season, but with Towns, Russell, a high pick in 2020 and other complementary pieces added, the Wolves could flirt with .500 and the fringes of playoff contention. With their resulting record, the 2021 first rounder owed to Golden State would probably fall somewhere in the 9-15 range — a nice chip for the Warriors, but probably not a swing at a great player and not a huge loss for the Wolves.
But the Wolves, at 4-13 so far this season, have the NBA's third-worst record. Even if the Wolves continue down an extreme losing path this season, the teams with the first-third worst records have just a 40% chance of getting a top-3 pick. There's a 60% chance it falls between 4 and 7. So the notion of tanking, or even being unintentionally bad, is more likely to not pay off than pay off in the form of keeping the pick and adding another exciting young player.
If the Wolves improve a little bit, the likelihood that the pick falls out of the top three and is owed to the Warriors and continues to grow.
Playing out this dystopian scenario even further, having a really bad record this year — particularly if and when Towns and Russell return to the active roster and have a chance to show what they can do together — would call into question the entire path the organization is on right now and could hasten more big trades plus another rebuild.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves there. The more likely scenario is that the Wolves — who remember, did start 2-0 before Towns was injured and were regaining some momentum before he was forced out with COVID — look better as the season progresses and finish with somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-27 wins in this 72-game season. That wouldn't be "good" per se, but it would give the Wolves a shot at a top 3 pick while being more likely that the pick they gave up wasn't quite as damaging to lose.
All that said, you can clearly see there is plenty riding on the rest of this season for the Wolves. They clearly thought they would be better than they have been so far. And if things don't improve, they could get ugly — and Golden State could again be a reminder on multiple fronts of how various decisions influenced that trajectory.