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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Warriors’ genius trade for Andrew Wiggins following Kevin Durant’s departure sets the stage for NBA Finals return

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The Golden State Warriors are one win away from returning to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years.

After a brief two-year hiatus from the Finals stage, the Warriors dynasty has proven it was never truly overthrown, on the brink of sweeping the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.

While the core group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are still the key components of the dynasty, the Warriors have some new pieces in place who are making a major impact in this deep postseason run.

Players like Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney have stepped up in a big way, but it’s worth explicitly highlighting the two-way impact of Andrew Wiggins in this series as Luka Doncic’s primary defender.

MORE: Vinsanity Meter: Rating Wiggins’ gravity-defying dunk on Doncic

Wiggins has done a tremendous job making life difficult for Doncic – something that feels funny to type when speaking on a player who is averaging 34.0 points per game in the Conference Finals and has reached the 40-point mark in back-to-back games.

But as we’ve seen in the past – looking at Warriors’ 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala – when you can prevent an unstoppable player from having their gaudy numbers turn into wins, it’s fair to be considered as a job well done.

Without Wiggins’ fingerprints all over this series, the Conference Finals could look significantly different.

How did Wiggins end up on Golden State in the first place? It all started with the sign-and-trade that sent Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets.

Take a look at the deal that has the Warriors on the doorstep of getting back to the NBA Finals.

Why did Kevin Durant leave the Warriors?

Durant has previously said he made his decision to leave the Warriors because it was time for something new.

“I felt like it was time for a change. I wanted to play for a new team,” Durant said at the Nets’ 2019 media day. “Simply put, I just did it. I didn’t really think about what I was leaving behind or what we accomplished. I put that up on the shelf already. When it was time to make a decision on my future, I just thought solely about me.”

Durant also told The Wall Street Journal that, despite feeling accepted by the Warriors, he know he would never really be “one of those guys.”

“Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there,” Durant said. “And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there. So me? S—, how you going to rehabilitate me? What you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles.

“As time went on, I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys. It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could [give] a full acceptance of me there.”

On top of that, Durant has admitted a certain spat with Green played a role, among other details as well, which The Sporting News’ Jordan Greer has detailed in the past.

D’Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins trade

When Durant decided the Nets were going to be his next destination, the two sides were able to agree on a sign-and-trade that was mutually beneficial.

The Warriors sent Durant and a top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick (which was never conveyed) to the Nets in exchange for one-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell and role players Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham.

There were immediate questions as to how the Warriors would make a three-guard backcourt between Curry, Thompson and Russell work, but Russell was traded before there was even a chance to find an answer.

Russell never took the floor with Thompson – who missed the entire 2019-20 season rehabbing an ACL injury – and he only played four games with Curry, who missed most of the season with a wrist injury.

After 33 games, the Warriors sent Russell, Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 first-round pick (which became Jonathan Kuminga at pick No. 7) and a 2021 second-round pick.

Andrew Wiggins’ impact on Warriors

Luka Doncic Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins’ two-way impact this postseason cannot be overstated. The first-time All-Star was really starting to plateau toward the back end of the season but he elevated his game as soon as the Warriors hit the NBA Playoffs stage.

In the first round against the Nuggets, he only averaged 14.0 points but he knocked down 53.8 percent of his 3-pointers, making Denver’s defense pay every time it helped off of him. In the second round against the Grizzlies, Wiggins was a wild card on defense as the Warriors used his versatility to guard everyone from Ja Morant to Jaren Jackson Jr. to Dillon Brooks.

His impact is shining the brightest in the Western Conference Finals, where Wiggins has been tasked with the near-impossible challenge of containing Doncic. The Canadian forward has done a great job of making Doncic work for every bucket, even if he has gone for back-to-back 40-point games.

When you see the matchup data that shows Doncic has still scored 52 points while shooting 53.1 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3 in 134.4 partial possessions with Wiggins as the primary defender, it would be easy to assume Wiggins doesn’t deserve the credit he has received.

But as I mentioned in the intro, it has a similar feel to Iguodala winning Finals MVP in 2015 for “containing” LeBron James to averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in that series. With players as great as James and Doncic, you aren’t going to stop them from posting monster averages. The best you can do is try and keep them in check and hope it’s enough to prevent those averages from turning into wins.

Wiggins has done exactly that as the Warriors sit with a comfortable 3-0 lead in the Conference Finals, large in part to his efforts on the defensive end.

After his strong showing in Game 3 where he continued to play energetic defense while also tallying 27 points, 11 rebounds and one poster dunk on Doncic, Curry heaped praise on Wiggins’ fit with the Warriors’ core. 

“I’ve said it since the time that the trade happened – that was the idea that (Wiggins) could impact the game defensively with his athleticism,” Curry told the media.

“…We’ve been preaching that since he joined the team two years ago and it’s amazing to see it under the bright lights. You don’t know how guys are going to respond when you’re asked to do what we’re asking him to do in the playoffs,” Curry continued.

“We had the highest hopes and he’s stepping up. And that’s only because of his approach, his attitude and him just being a gamer. What we’re asking him to do is guard the best guy on the other side, make it difficult on him.

“Be aggressive offensively and take what you see. What he’s doing rebounding the ball has been awesome. Even just his comfort level to put pressure on the rim – we don’t have that much vertical threat. He can provide that. When driving lanes are there, you see him attack the rim, get to the foul line. The dunk he had, the putback he had. All that stuff matters.”

On what is by far the brightest stage of Wiggins’ career, the 27-year-old is thriving in the opportunity and has the Warriors one win away from returning to the NBA Finals.

Andrew Wiggins’ contract

Wiggins signed a five-year, $147.7 million contract with the Timberwolves in 2017, which runs through the 2022-23 season.

This season, the Warriors are paying Wiggins $31.6 million. Next season, in 2022-23, the Warriors will pay Wiggins $33.6 million.

Wiggins will become an unrestricted free agent in 2023, at the conclusion of next season.

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