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Kevin Durant’s exodus revitalized Warriors’ future, and that includes Andrew Wiggins

© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors never wanted D’Angelo Russell. And he didn’t really want the Warriors; at least, not the demented version he experienced.

That was all obvious from the beginning. The Warriors wanted to get something, anything, for Kevin Durant, and the Brooklyn Nets handed them Russell, in exchange for a first-, quickly turned-second-round-pick (it was a top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick turned 2025 second-round pick). That was a parting favor on Durant’s end — though he also reportedly demanded the Warriors trade that first-rounder — and appealed to Russell in providing him with the max contract that the Timberwolves couldn’t offer in the summer.

The trade also cost Golden State Andre Iguodala — who said he could see the trade coming — and a top-four protected 2024 first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for a $17 million traded player exception which they can and would have to use right at the start of free agency next summer.

This was all to acquire a player who was maybe the exact opposite of what the Warriors needed. Nothing about Russell’s game complemented the theoretical full-strength roster, and it certainly didn’t complement the patchwork unit that Golden State cobbled together this season.

There were many red flags, but maybe chief among them was that he had to be petitioned to play defense. You know, defense… half the game of basketball.

“Obviously, we’re going to ask him to defend. Yesterday, he was asked to defend, and he showed that he can,” said Draymond Green in October. “I told him that’ll be the expectation moving forward. Sorry, buddy, you showed it.”

But Russell went on to play in just 33 of the Warriors’ 58 games (fewer than Green’s 39) and his defense was less than enticing, or existent, for that matter. Steve Kerr, not the mightiest of Russell fans, was brutally honest on Thursday about how poor the fit was.

“To be blunt, the fit was questionable when we signed him, but nobody questioned that,” Kerr said. “When you already have Steph and Klay and you add a ball-dominant guard, you can rightfully question the fit. That was one of the reasons the trade rumors started before the season even began. And I think D’Angelo understood that when he signed the contract and our organization understood that as well. So the trade ended up happening.

I think we at least got a 50-game look at what it might look like. Of course that kind of went awry when Steph got injured. But you get a good enough look and a long enough look to picture how the positional fit goes and I think we have an idea that the other player [Wiggins] makes more sense, and in this case, I would say for both teams.”

What Kerr didn’t say was that in addition to being an offensive wasteland — the only side of the ball that Russell is selling — his defense was, at best, unreliable, at worst, untenable.

So, upon realizing the Russell experiment wouldn’t work (which happened much sooner than the trade deadline), the Warriors shipped him off to Minnesota, his only real suitor, whose move for him was probably as much about keeping happy Russell’s close friend, Karl-Anthony Towns, as much as it was about acquiring a quality young player.

In exchange for Russell, Jacob Evans III and Omari Spellman, the Warriors got the supposed albatross contract of Andrew Wiggins — who is still 24 (soon-to-be 25) years old, at least plays the right position, and is being asked to be the fourth-best, and not second-best player on his team — along with a 2021-first-round pick (top-three protected) and a 2021 second-round pick.

Crucially, they’re set to avoid the vaunted repeated tax, which, for as happy as Joe Lacob is to spend money — and all signs point to him being ready and willing to spend whatever he can next summer — it made no sense for the Warriors to pay in a season as the NBA’s worst team.

It couldn’t be any more transparent how little the Warriors appreciated Russell’s style of play. After Kerr made clear how poor of a fit Russell was, he issued an edict in practice along the lines of “now that that guy’s gone, let’s play the brand of basketball that won us three titles.”

“Steve had said yesterday he wanted to start playing faster, you know, how they have the past four-five years that led to them being successful,” said Marqueese Chriss on Saturday. “So I think that was what we were doing, just trying to push the ball up the sideline and play aggressive. I’m just running rim-to-rim. Ky throws lobs and I just go get them.”

Kerr told Wiggins one thing: “‘Sprint the floor both ways… No matter what happens, we need you to sprint the floor.'”

As Wiggins described it after Monday’s 113-101 loss to the Miami Heat, “This is easy basketball.”

Kerr pointed out after the loss that it will “take time” for this group to grasp that style of play, but he saw glimpses of that familiar “fast” basketball in Monday’s third quarter, when the Warriors, who trailed 62-43 at the half, outscored Miami 32-21 (the only quarter they outscored the Heat in).

The catalyst for that effort was Wiggins, who had four points at the half, and tallied 14 of his 18 points in that third quarter.

If you’re not enamored with Wiggins’ game, that’s understandable. He has clear off-ball deficiencies, lacks defensive positional awareness, and sometimes falling asleep at the wheel on offense; failing to cut when he should, standing in the corner, not always charging on fast breaks.

There’s no doubt cause for concern, but let’s not act like Wiggins is a scrub. He was a highly-touted prospect and No. 1 overall pick for a reason, and part of the reason he’s been soured on is because of that hype. But he’s a 20-point scorer for his career with truly rare athleticism.

That seemed to be the main response from Kerr and general manager Bob Myers when asked about the trade. Sure, does Wiggins share some of the same damning flaws as Russell? Yes. Is he inconsistent? Yes.

But his ability, age, and still untapped potential fits with the Warriors long- and short-term plans, and most importantly, Wiggins is being asked to be the third-best scorer and outlet man. He will get a half year of learning Kerr’s system and for the Warriors to evaluate what it is he does, to identify how fixable of a project he is.

It’s not quite as dire a situation as it’s being made out to be.

From the rumblings around the Warriors’ practice facility, Draymond Green is already taking a lead role in trying to spark Wiggins, and in a physical sense on the practice court, not just verbally. Like Jimmy Butler, but maybe a bit more patient.

And for swapping a player they can’t use, to one they clearly can, the Warriors netted a first-round and second-round pick, and cleared themselves of a colossal tax burden in the future.

The Warriors will almost certainly draft in the top five next year, have a $17.2 million trade exception to use, as well as their mid-level exception, which is projected to be at $9,708,300 if they stay under the cap. There’s also the bounty of second-round picks and that likely very valuable first-rounder they’ll get from Minnesota in either 2021 or 2022 (if the Timberwolves draft in the top three in 2021).

It’s clearly too early to say that Wiggins’ acquisition will extend the Warriors’ dynasty. But he’s allowed the Warriors to immediately return to the brand of basketball they’ve thrived with, and in two games, has helped provide competition for a haphazard group facing two of the NBA’s best in the Lakers and Clippers. There’s internal confidence that he has room to and will grow as a player.

If you can’t get optimistic about a lineup featuring Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and at this point, probably Marqueese Chriss as a younger, less JaVale-y JaVale McGee type, then you’re soaking up too much of the negativity brought on by Russell’s joyless brand of basketball and the largely fair, but rampant criticism of Wiggins’ game.

Golden State clearly needs a few more pieces to confidently make another run at the NBA Finals, but they’re not far off (with another capable guard, wing and athletic center on order) from that if Curry and Thompson are healthy next season.

Durant’s departure and trade helped the Warriors reload on assets that can be used both to win now, and for the long-term. This may just be remembered as a defining year, like the San Antonio Spurs in the year before drafting Tim Duncan, which propels the Warriors dynastic run into a full-fledged dynasty.


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