Basketball’s present and future collided Tuesday night as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves, 125-104.
Over the summer, Cleveland and Minnesota inked one of the NBA’s biggest blockbuster trades in years, with the Timberwolves shipping frustrated superstar Kevin Love to the Cavs for Wiggins and fellow former No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett as part of a three-team trade. The trade helped Cleveland build a core of stars featuring James, Love and point guard Kyrie Irving, and kicked off yet another rebuilding project in Minnesota.
Wiggins is the centerpiece of that undertaking. He was regarded as the best prospect in this past summer’s draft. As a young player growing up in Canada, Wiggins was even thought by some in the hoops cognoscenti to be the second coming of James or Kobe Bryant, placing him in the company of the two best high school perimeter-player prospects of the last 20 years. (There’s a reason my colleague Bill Simmons coined the phrase “Riggin’ for Wiggins” to describe teams that began tanking several seasons in advance for a shot at 2014’s No. 1 overall pick.)
Wiggins had one of the best games of his young career on Tuesday against the team that drafted him (notably, he posterized Love midway through the third quarter), and scouting assessments still say he has the potential to be in James’s class of all-timers. But there’s also no denying that Wiggins has struggled thus far as a rookie. In no measurable area of the game, save for long-distance shooting and (maybe) defense, is he anywhere near as polished as James was at the same age a decade ago.
In fact, Wiggins has been one of the worst players in basketball this season — period. Among players logging as many minutes as he has, nobody has a lower Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) or Box Plus/Minus (BPM) or fewer Win Shares per 48 minutes. And only Channing Frye has a lower Player Efficiency Rating. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus is slightly kinder to Wiggins, but not by much.
Maybe it’s time to forget James as the potential ceiling for Wiggins and to simply wonder what the best-case scenario is for a player who starts off his career this badly.
Since SPM can be computed going back to the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, we can use history as a guide here. Wiggins currently has a dreadful -4.8 SPM in 834 minutes, but he’s unlikely to continue to be quite so bad, due to regression to the mean. So how do we account for that? According to a formula by the inventor of BPM, Daniel Myers, the standard error around a box score plus/minus estimate in 834 minutes is about +/- 2.5 rating points. We also have a prior for Wiggins based on his draft position: namely, that 19-year old former No. 1 overall picks tend to have an SPM of +0.2 as rookies, with a standard error of +/- 2.1 points. Combining those four pieces of information using Bayes’ theorem, our best guess at Wiggins’s true talent level is a -1.9 SPM.
That means we can project him to play at a -1.9 SPM level over the remainder of the season. And if we expect him to play about 93 percent of the Timberwolves’ 55 remaining games (using an old rule of thumb from Houston Rockets analyst Ed Kupfer about predicting games missed) at his current rate of 31 minutes per game, that gives him about 1,580 minutes at -1.9 SPM to go with the 834 minutes of -4.8 SPM he’s already banked.
At the end of the season, then, our best guess is that Wiggins will have posted a -2.9 SPM in about 2,400 minutes.
While that means Wiggins is no longer in Adam Morrison territory, not many players with a -2.9 SPM their rookie season end up having great careers. A sampling of players in that range as rookies includes Ben McLemore, Anthony Johnson, Gordan Giricek, Kevin Edwards and Vernon Maxwell, with Glen Rice and Rex Chapman representing the absolute best-case scenarios. But Wiggins is also much younger than those players were when they were rookies, so we need to adjust the rookie SPM numbers using an aging curve.
Doing that — putting everyone on equal footing using what their equivalent rookie SPM would be at age 22 (the average age of an NBA rookie going back to the merger) — paints a rosier picture for Wiggins. His projected age-22-equivalent rookie SPM of +0.2 ranks 14th out of the 43 wing players in the historical sample who played between 2,000 and 2,500 minutes as rookies and are currently 30 or older — giving us a chance to see how their careers panned out according to peak wins above replacement (WAR):
Based on the relationship between age-equivalent rookie SPM and peak WAR for that group, Wiggins looks to be on track for about 6 WAR in the best season of his career. That’d be a major disappointment if the comparison point is James (who tallied nearly 26 WAR in his best year), but then again, it’s better than you might expect based on Wiggins’s horrid statistical production as an NBA rookie thus far.