The Golden State Warriors were in trouble. The Boston Celtics had taken a 71-67 lead in the third quarter of Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Finals, and Stephen Curry was in the midst of an off night, having not made a single three. But Andrew Wiggins came to the rescue. The 26-year-old scored 10 fourth-quarter points and grabbed 13 rebounds, the second-highest total of his career, while playing exceptional defense on Jayson Tatum.
Curry rarely struggles on the biggest stage, averaging 27 points per game over his career in the NBA Finals. The only other time Curry failed to make multiple threes in the Finals was in Game 3 in 2018 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he shot 1-for-10 from behind the arc. Then-teammate Kevin Durant bailed him out with a 43-point explosion en route to the duo’s second straight championship.
In a sense, Durant bailed him out again on Monday night against the Celtics.
Rewind to the summer of 2019. The Warriors had just lost an excruciating Finals to the Toronto Raptors in which Durant tore his Achilles tendon and Klay Thompson tore his ACL in back-to-back games. To make matters worse, after a season full of media speculating whether Durant would return to Golden State the following year, the 2014 NBA MVP informed Warriors general manager Bob Myers that he would be looking to go elsewhere in free agency.
The NBA has a soft salary cap that teams can only exceed in certain circumstances, one of which is re-signing their own veteran players. With Thompson’s new five-year contract worth $32.7 million in 2019-20 kicking in, the Warriors’ cap space was limited. Durant wasn’t just taking his basketball talent with him—he was taking a maximum salary slot that the Warriors wouldn’t be able to offer an incoming free agent from a different team.
Myers, though, was keen on not letting him walk away for nothing.
Myers leveraged his strong personal relationship with Durant to convince him to agree to a sign-and-trade that would allow Golden State to get another big contract back in return. To pull it off, Myers also negotiated a trade with Durant’s preferred team, the Brooklyn Nets, and got their outgoing All-Star D’Angelo Russell on board to come to Golden State.
In the long term, the Warriors knew that they needed a forward to replace Durant, rather than a guard like Russell. They also sensed that former first overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins’ time in Minnesota had run its course after nearly six seasons, and they knew Russell was friends with Timberwolves’ star Karl-Anthony Towns.
Golden State worked its magic again, orchestrating a Russell-for-Wiggins trade and getting Minnesota to add two key sweeteners. Firstly, the Timberwolves threw in a first round pick that became Jonathan Kuminga, who played 17 minutes a game for Golden State in 2021-22.
Secondly, the Warriors unloaded the contracts of Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans III in order to stay under the luxury tax threshold for 2020. Already committed to expensive long term deals for their three All-Stars, the Warriors were inevitably going to pay the tax for many seasons to come. Getting under the threshold in 2020 allowed them to avoid paying the repeat offender penalty in subsequent seasons, which would have amounted to tens of millions of additional tax dollars.
It took some time, but Wiggins has blossomed in Golden State. His offensive limitations, specifically shooting and playmaking, are somewhat hidden playing alongside Curry, while his commitment on the other end of the floor has made him arguably the Warriors’ second-most important player in the 2022 Finals. The 6-foot-8 athlete has been the primary defender on Tatum all series, holding him to 23 points per night on significantly below-average efficiency, while crucially only fouling Tatum on two shot attempts in five games.
Thanks to Wiggins’ performance in the pivotal Game 5, the Warriors find themselves one win away from another NBA title, and it all comes back to Kevin Durant essentially doing a favor for his former employer on his way out.
The alignment of the stars that allowed the Warriors to initially sign Durant back in 2016—a huge salary cap spike with Curry still on a discount deal—was a gift. Now, six years later, that gift keeps on giving.