Who is the Wolves’ Number One Option?

“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.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. Tinker says:

    Great perspective. Wiggins doesn’t come across as someone who will impose his will to be “the” number one option in a selfish manner, just like he said. I’m curious to see how this plays out over the season, though.

  2. Tom says:

    Interesting problem for the wolves. Getting the ball during crunch time means only one option for me and that is Jimmy Butler. He has more experience in that situation, and is therefore a much better decision-maker than either KAT or Wiggins. As for shot distribution, you forgot that Teague will take more shots than Rubio, so finding two more shots for Jimmy will not come easy. I think Thibs will slow the pace of play with his guys vs Rubio ball so everyone’s shots may suffer in the Thibs offense. So who will get their points and who won’t? I think KAT, as the primary pick and roll option and his talent as the best low post option, means that those shots will probably stay with him. Jimmy will get his, because he rebounds, creates steals and Thibs will run the offense through him. The PG is a scorer and will get shots on pick and roll that last year Rubio gave to others. I see Wiggins getting possibly five to eight less shots per game in this new offense, so to keep up his scoring average, he has to be more efficient and drain threes. He also has to do what Jimmy does and that is create more opportunities for himself by rebounding, running out for fast breaks ala Zack last year and creating steals. If he doesn’t, he may be like KLove was the first year with the Cavs. A non all-star and guy people blame for not playing to his billing. I wonder what Canadian Jordan will think of that? It takes a special person to be the third banana and still keep your superstar status and motivation high. Ask KG, Bosh, KLove how it was for them and Klay and Carmelo this year. If Wiggins can handle it and be the professional he is paid to be, he is the key to how far this team goes. If the Wolves win, no one will be unhappy. But if we hit a dry patch early, will Wiggins be patient to get an open shot or will he just shoot?

  3. jmndodge says:

    Let’s try this another way. When the Bulls and Lakers played for the championship – during a time out late in the 4th quarter – Phil Jackson can be hear asking “Michael who’s open” … :”Michael who’s open”, I haven’t watched a clip for many years but remember watching Michael Jordan pass the ball to Paxton several times in a row – 2’s and 3’s. This concept works the whole game – who is open, if the double team Butler – it is likely Wiggins or KAT- if they double KAT and are chasing both Wiggins and Butler – Teague/Gibson or Dieng are likely wide open. Butler has more experience getting open – KAT has some good moves – Wiggins last year was best at creating his own shot, one on one, let Thibs make the call during the timeout – but trust every one of these players if/when they are left wide open. Do it all game, the final minute will take care of itself.

  4. pyrrol says:

    Taking the most shots? Not Wiggins (hopefully). Most shots with the game on the line? Not Wiggins (with Butler on the team). Best offensive player? Not Wiggins.

    Going back in history on this topic is a bit pointless as the roster is completely different. I would argue that if we look at how Wiggins was used so far, one could question it. I would call if forcing. I get that we have been a very young team trying to develop our players and forcing them to grow into what you want is part of the plan, or ‘development’. But why has it seemed that Wiggins’ development has been treated as more important than Towns’? Why has Towns not received more attention as the crunch time option? I know he doesn’t fit the crunch time cliché of guard-forward, but the few times he was given a chance as a closer it seems to have gone well, and he’s been our most consistent and hard to stop offensive player. It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to see this and try him in that role more, but instead we were force fed a diet of Wiggins as closer. More generally, things have happened (example: Point Wiggins) to force Wiggins’ development that clearly hurt the team and winning (theoretically this would pay off at a later date, I guess) while no such sacrifices were made for KAT’s development. Is this because KAT didn’t need the force and Wiggins did in his development? I have a hard time buying that. Zoom to the present: None of this really matters! Except maybe, perhaps, Thibs learned that favoritism based on development needs time is over, and KAT is simply the better player. If this happens, I would guess a fairly spread out usage across Butler, Towns and Wiggins, with Teague taking quite a few shots too, and a few will go to Gibson. But the key in that is plenty to KAT. He might be the most unstoppable source for points we have.

    I don’t think Wiggins’ comments are controversial at all. Players talk like that all the time. It’s white noise. But I’m not sure he does have the talent or mentality to be the ‘#1 option’ on a playoff team. I most question his mentality (and simply saying you think you are a number 1 and a competitive guy doesn’t make you one or even show REAL desire to be these things). But also I question the talent level. It isn’t that I don’t think he’s very talented, but how elite is he in that regard? This is a relative question as there is so much high level talent around the league right now (esp in the West). I don’t realistically see him emerging into the cream of the elite talent of the league, ever. That’s OK. He’s good. He’s useful. He’s not a bust. He will get better. We have good players on our team. He’s one of them.

    Go to guy stuff bores me, and I do hope, based on situation, we use different guys to help us close all the time instead of having one guy for that role. I think that’s what really good teams these days do (see Spurs and Warriors). I worry, though. A seeming strength of our new roster and its talent spread creates the easy chance for creativity. But Thibs hasn’t looked like a very creative (or flexible) coach so far. Gone is our elite, creative playmaker. I’m hoping this will be a dynamic, unpredictable team to face, but that’s not a complete given at this point. I’m waiting and hoping.

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