Warriors' Andrew Wiggins Trade Paying off on NBA's Biggest Stage

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVJune 14, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 13: Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics during Game Five of the 2022 NBA Finals on June 13, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

By the end of last season, despite the Golden State Warriors' failure to make it out of the NBA's play-in tournament, there was hardly any doubt they had won the 2020 Andrew Wiggins trade. But that victory, at the time, had little to do with Wiggins himself and was more about the Minnesota Timberwolves' No. 7 pick in the 2021 draft, which the Dubs acquired as part of said deal and turned into Jonathan Kuminga—a young, hyper-athletic, ultra-versatile cornerstone-type around whom Golden State might fashion its next era of basketball.

Following the Warriors' Game 5 104-94 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night, though, the need to recalibrate perception of that blockbuster has never been greater: Golden State did not win the Andrew Wiggins trade because of Kuminga alone.

It won the Andrew Wiggins trade, in large part, because of Andrew Wiggins.

This is not an entirely novel sentiment. It has been making the rounds since the middle of this season, when Wiggins established himself as an integral three-and-D contributor for one of the NBA's best teams, a meaningful role that earned him a (still egregious) All-Star starter selection.

Yet, there's a stark difference between capitalizing on the optimization of your role and being the best player in an NBA Finals game. And on Monday night, in an NBA Finals Game 5 that featured Stephen Curry and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins was the best player on the floor.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

ANDREW WIGGINS.<br><br>GOODNIGHT.<br><br>(via <a href="https://twitter.com/warriors?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@warriors</a>)<a href="https://t.co/sp6l1pDWrJ">pic.twitter.com/sp6l1pDWrJ</a>

Think about that. Really think about it.

Think about how his NBA tenure, from the start, has been about what wasn't or what's next. Think about how he couldn't even go first overall in the 2014 draft without controversy, about how he went from jockeying for No. 1 status with Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid to immediate trade fodder for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Think about what his career devolved into with the Timberwolves, about the constant comparisons lamenting what he was supposed to become versus what he became. Think about how, in 2020, they were willing to give up what turned into the No. 7 pick of the 2021 draft just to jettison his contract and acquire D'Angelo Russell. Think about how the Warriors were generally panned or subject to intense skepticism for making the move.

Think about how this season, at the absolute pinnacle of his Golden State tenure, Wiggins was (deservedly) derided for his inconsistency, for his vanishing acts, for the vacillating force with which he played. Hell, think about how his status with the team was in question to open training camp, when he initially wouldn't receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (He later relented and elected to get it.)

Think about how, even during his highest highs with the Warriors, he is so often boiled down to a number—a $30-plus-million-per-year salary treated by onlookers only as an albatross or inevitable trade chip, never anything more.

And then, after all that, think about Game 5.

Think about Wiggins scoring 26 points and grabbing 13 boards while attacking the basket and without making a three (0-of-6). Think about how he did all this and soaked up ample reps on Tatum, not just shouldering the responsibility of a title contender's best wing defender but delivering like one, too:

Dieter Kurtenbach @dieter

Jayson Tatum's last made field goal against Andrew Wiggins came with 10:17 remaining in the third quarter. <br><br>He went 0-4 from that point on with Wiggins as his primary defender, with three straight air-balls at the end of that stretch.

Think about how, in many ways, this has become routine throughout the postseason—not the offensive explosion, necessarily, but the defensive presence and overall thrust with which Wiggins plays.

After averaging 5.0 rebounds per 36 minutes for the regular season, Wiggins is snagging 7.6 during the playoffs—and 8.8 in the Finals. His outside efficiency has dipped (25 percent from deep in the Finals), and he continues to be unreliable at the free-throw line. But he's downing 55 percent of his looks inside the arc for the postseason, up from 51.3 percent previously, and increasing the frequency with which he reaches the rim.

Wiggins' Finals performance is the peak of this uptick. He is hitting 56.4 percent of his twos and attempting 44.6 percent of his shots inside five feet. Just 36.5 percent of his looks came inside five feet during the regular season.

Once the unofficial billboard for "Does the Least with the Most" on defense, he is now the go-to wing defender for a potential championship team. It is a burden he has ferried all year, but watching him take on postseason possessions against Ja Morant (post-Gary Payton II injury), Luka Doncic and Tatum is just...different.

These stints versus alpha superstars aren't sunk costs the Warriors write off, by design, as lost causes. Doncic went boom-boom-pow for much of the semifinals, but Wiggins made life difficult, verging on hell, for him. Entering Game 5, the Celtics were averaging just 0.74 points per possession as a team when Wiggins registered as a defender on Tatum. The Memphis Grizzlies mustered just 0.86 points on possessions in which Wiggins logged time opposite Morant.

Michael Lee @MrMichaelLee

Andrew Wiggins has been everything the Warriors have needed him to be this postseason...&amp; a little bit more.

Trust him or not, it doesn't matter. The Warriors won the Andrew Wiggins trade long ago, mostly because of Kuminga's upside, but also because Wiggins became a helpful member of their team. Now they're extending that margin of victory on the back of his transformation.

This doesn't need to be something it's not. Wiggins is, right now, not the Finals MVP. That honor belongs to Stephen Curry, maybe even if the Dubs blow their 3-2 series lead. Inserting Wiggins into that discussion only undermines what he's done and continues to do by holding him to an unrealistic bar, invariably shifting focus onto everything he's not.

This version of Wiggins deserves better—to be mentioned independently of where he was drafted nearly a decade ago (No. 1), his max salary, his prospective trade value. This version of Wiggins even deserves to be free from the frustration inherent in his previous highs, those "Well, why didn't he play like this the whole damn time?!" inquiries that have followed every nightly notable, every poster dunk, every on-ball defensive play worth rewatching.

Similarly, this version of Wiggins needn't be the impetus to mythologize the past or future. Don't (overly) poeticize the "So and so knew Wiggins had this in him all along" dramatizations. And definitely don't start worrying about whether the Warriors should extend him this summer, potentially at a max rate, when there's still Finals basketball left to play.

Vincent Goodwill @VinceGoodwill

Draymond on Wiggins: “(Thibs) was telling us Jimmy (Butler) loved him. And we all know how Jimmy is, if you got any softness to you…”

There is a time to reflect or project and a time to live inside the moment.

This is the latter.

Andrew Wiggins was just the best player in an NBA Finals game. And he has been the second-best player, all series, for the likely champion. That is happening right now.

And for the first time in Wiggins' career, what's happening right now, at this very moment, is both enough and all that matters.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.