“Obviously I think I’m a great scorer and that I’m a great weapon. I think of myself as the number one option. We all think we’re the number one options. Not in a selfish way. It’s more that we just know what we can do.”
The above quote provided by Andrew Wiggins to 538’s Chris Herring has received some attention (and criticism) among those in the national media over the last few days, not only appearing in Herring’s piece, but also on an episode of ESPN’s The Jump, in which host Rachael Nichols, ESPN basketball reporter Ramona Shelbourne, and former NBA great Paul Pierce discussed the merits of Wiggins’ comments.
The crux of the criticism Wiggins has received is something like, “How can he say that he’s a number one option? Doesn’t he realize he’s now on a team with not only Karl-Anthony Towns but also Jimmy Butler?” While that may seem like a legitimate criticism at face value (Towns and Butler are undoubtedly the better players at this point), I’m not sure I totally agree.
What needs to be addressed right from the get-go when discussing what it means to be a “number one option” is, well, what does it actually mean to be a number one option? Does it mean taking the most shots? Or does it mean getting the most shots with the game on the line? Or perhaps it means being the best offensive player?
If we define it as the player who takes the most shots, Wiggins would have been considered the number one option on last year’s iteration of the Wolves, taking 25.3 FGA per 100 possessions. Towns finished second with 24.1 FGA per 100 possessions and Zach LaVine third with 20.2; Jimmy Butler, the newest member of the Wolves’ Big Three and who happened to be a member of the Chicago Bulls and, thus, a different system last season, hoisted 21.8 FGA per 100 possessions (an aside: boiled down, this essentially means that the Wolves need to find approximately 2 shots per 100 possession to give to Butler. That should be pretty accomplishable).
If we choose to define the team’s number one option as the player who takes the most shots in crunch time (defined as the last five minutes of a game in which the score is within five points or less), again, Wiggins would have been considered the man in 2016-17. Wiggins boasted a 35.7% usage percentage and averaged 2.0 FGA in crunch time situations. Towns had a usage percentage of 22.9% with 1.3 FGA and LaVine 17.4% and 1.0, respectively.
So, would it not make sense for Wiggins to view himself as a number one option? He’s been treated, and rightfully so, as such for his first three years in the NBA. Although it may not manifest until later this year or possibly beyond, treating Wiggins as the team’s number one option is likely to reap benefits akin to playing Zach LaVine at point guard. Much like the Wolves believing LaVine would become a better two-guard by playing the point, viewing Wiggins as an alpha has placed him in situations in which he has to learn how to perform at a high level (admittedly, something we witnessed on rare occasion last season) in a role unfamiliar and uncomfortable to him in order to guide his team to victory. Actively putting Wiggins in those situations will only benefit him and, ultimately, the Wolves in the long run. Also, is this not the mentality you want from your top-level players?
(Side note: let’s not ignore that Wiggins states in his last two sentences that he doesn’t view himself as a number one option “in a selfish way” and that it’s more a testament to the talent he, Towns, and Butler each possess. That seems to be lost in many of the conversations surrounding his comments. Wiggins isn’t necessarily saying he is the number one option, rather he has the talent and the mentality to be the number one option.)
However, if we choose to define the number one option as the best offensive player (which most people probably have in mind when having this discussion), then the Wolves’ alpha is no longer Andrew Wiggins. And it’s probably not even Jimmy Butler. Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most unstoppable offensive forces in the NBA, making him likely to be the main focus of opponent’s defensive schemes on a given night. He can do it all, from three-point shooting (36.7% on 3.4 attempts per game last year) to the pick-and-roll (1.23 PPP, 88.1 percentile) to banging in the post (1.03 PPP, 86.3 percentile).
However, limiting the Wolves’ offense to one number one option would be extremely reductive. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has spoken throughout the preseason as if all of Butler, Towns, and Wiggins will function as the team’s number one option and, while perhaps it is just gamesmanship on his part, there isn’t really much reason to doubt him. All three players have the ability and mindset to be “the man” on any given night and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the role of the “number one option” bounce between all three depending on specific matchups and situations. Pigeon-holing one player as the number one option brings forth the possibility of the offense becoming more rigid and predictable.
It will undoubtedly take time for the Wolves to figure out how to balance each player’s time as the primary threat on offense and the waters may get rocky at times, but treating all three as alphas (and not in a corny Three Alphas Chicago Bulls type of way) is ultimately in the best interest of the team.