Let’s not lose sight of what’s most important. To a man, the Golden State Warriors expressed unconditional support for Andrew Wiggins ever since his sudden leave of absence just before the All-Star break.
Just because his highly anticipated return is reportedly imminent hardly means Wiggins doesn’t need ongoing grace as his father—a six-year NBA veteran who began his career in the mid-1980s—deals with a serious health matter. All of Dub Nation should keep sparing thoughts for Mitchell Wiggins and his family.
As the final week of the regular season dawns, though, at least the Warriors’ on-court focus can turn to what Wiggins’ imminent availability means for their hopes of winning another title.
Here are three reasons why Wiggins’ return re-cements Golden State as legitimate contenders to come out of a wild, wide-open Western Conference playoff field—and even help the Dubs lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a remarkable fifth time in nine seasons.
Andrew Wiggins’ potential week-long re-acclimation
It’s still unclear when Wiggins will next suit up for the Warriors.
He’s set to attend Tuesday’s home finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chase Center, another game with major postseason implications. Golden State’s last two matchups with the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers will be played under high stakes, too, even if the Suns—likely locked into the four seed—follow the tanking Blazers’ lead by sitting stars.
Don’t expect Wiggins to play until the postseason. The Warriors always require a ramp-up process before players sidelined for extended periods re-take the floor, and Wiggins’ would likely consist of multiple practices and conditioning benchmarks even if the basketball wasn’t quite so high-leverage. It’d be foolish for Golden State to throw him back into the fire before the play-in tournament tips off on April 11th.
Most optimal, of course, would be the Warriors pushing Wiggins’ comeback another week later altogether by virtue of nabbing the fifth or sixth seed in the West. Keep close watch on the LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans over the next few days. The Dubs need some help from them to afford Wiggins that crucial extra acclimation period.
Remember when he returned from a month-long injury absence in early January, at that point the longest missed stretch of his career? It took Wiggins multiple weeks to re-emerge as a reliable impact player, let alone hit the sweet-shooting offensive peak he’d reached before going down with that adductor strain the first week of December.
He dropped 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists on efficient shooting in Golden State’s win over the Washington Wizards on February 13th, looking as comfortable as he has all season despite shouldering a heavier offensive burden with Steph Curry out. That was the last time Wiggins saw action.
Fully capable of playing up to his level of competition or increased personal motivations ever since being the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Wiggins proved last season he can flip the same switch for the playoffs. Once he gets his wind and catches up to the speed and intensity of spring basketball, there’s no reason to believe Wiggins can’t provide the indispensable two-way contributions he did during last season’s title run.
But it could be impossible unless he gets the time he needs to fully re-acclimate to the Warriors, yet another reason it’s so, so crucial for them to avoid the play-in tournament.
Warriors’ lineup and stylistic versatility
Golden State opened the fourth quarter of Sunday’s “mindless” loss to the Nuggets with Draymond Green, Gary Payton II and Anthony Lamb next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. That unit went 1-of-8 from the field and was outscored by five points until Steve Kerr pulled the plug on it with 9:12 left, more aware than ever that Denver’s commitment to keeping the Splash Brothers in check required consistent finishing and real shot-creation around them.
Those lineups and others like them won’t be seen again once Wiggins is up and running. He’s easily the Warriors’ most versatile scorer beyond Curry and Jordan Poole, a real threat from all three levels of the court whether ending the play via cuts and spot-ups or starting it himself in ball-screen action, wing isolations and left block post-ups.
Wiggins’ presence alone just makes Golden State much more dangerous on offense both collectively and individually.
Passers and screeners like Green, Payton and Kevon Looney have another dynamic release valve while playing with Wiggins. Even if smart teams continue daring Jonathan Kuminga to prove it from beyond the arc, they won’t be able to simultaneously sag off Wiggins, clogging up space Curry, Poole and Thompson need to find their own offense. He’s another transition engine bringing the ball up or filling the wing.
Wiggins’ return looms just as large on the other end, where Thompson’s been over-stretched as a primary defender with him out and Green—basketball’s most influential help defender—has occasionally been pressed into checking opposing star ball handlers. A full-strength Payton is probably better on the ball than Wiggins, but not Kuminga and Donte DiVincenzo, effective as they’ve been defensively this season.
Kuminga isn’t quite as quick laterally as Wiggins and is still prone to biting on even subtle fakes, drawing foul trouble. DiVincenzo just doesn’t have the physical tools of a top-tier defender. Don’t forget the strides Wiggins took last April, May and June as a defensive rebounder and help defender at the nail and on the back line, either, key when Kerr inevitably delves deep into small-ball.
Two-way wings with real role and positional flexibility are the master key to all NBA teams unlocking their best lineups. It’s no different for the Dubs, and Wiggins is the only player on the roster who’s earned that distinction under the postseason pressure cooker. At his peak, Wiggins changes everything for this team.
Matching superstar wings on both ends
The Warriors didn’t just become championship shoo-ins upon signing Kevin Durant in 2016 because the core of a 73-win team added one of the greatest players ever. Consecutive NBA Finals matchups with LeBron James laid bare Golden State needed a star wing to fulfill its potential of becoming a historic dynasty. Durant just happened to be the best one on the open market.
The Dubs tried to fill the massive void left by Durant after he bailed for the Brooklyn Nets by getting Wiggins at the 2020 trade deadline, a move many criticized at the time despite Bob Meyers and company also bringing in the lottery pick that became Kuminga. The relative risk of acquiring Wiggins only paid off in full during the playoffs two years later, when he went toe-to-toe with the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with trophies on the line.
Encouraging as Kuminga’s all-around development has been this season, he’s not ready to face a similar crucible of All-NBA wings by himself. DiVincenzo, like Payton, is a true role player.
Who else on this roster other than Wiggins could duplicate his 27-point, 11-rebound performance in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against Dallas? Or serve as an ultra-disruptive primary defender on Tatum throughout the NBA Finals while averaging 18.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on workable efficiency?
Wiggins had 27 points and 11 boards against the Boston Celtics in Game 5 despite missing all six of his triples and Curry trudging to 16 points on 22 shots. He can be the best player on the floor in a series-defining Finals game versus a team with two star wings and full of rangy, athletic defenders. That’s asking way too much of Kuminga at this early point in his career, and anyone else on this team but the reigning Finals MVP.
Let’s beat this dead horse one more time: Teams win titles with standout wing play.
Wiggins isn’t Durant, obviously, but cemented himself beginning this time last year as an elite role player capable of leveling up to stardom on basketball’s biggest stages. If he can scrape that ceiling once again, the Warriors won’t just be dangerous in the playoffs, but among a small handful of teams no one would be surprised to see hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.
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