Green began serving an indefinite suspension handed down by the NBA Wednesday for striking Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkić across the face Tuesday night in the third quarter of the Warriors’ three-point loss. But a healthy Wiggins saw himself in completely unfamiliar territory at Crypto.com Arena.
Wiggins entered the day starting all 656 regular-season games he has played over his nine-year NBA career. The only game he ever began on the bench was Game 1 of the NBA playoffs last season, returning from a two-month absence due to a personal matter. Wiggins didn’t start the second half Tuesday and sat the entire fourth quarter, the same place he watched the first six-plus minutes two nights later.
In came Jonathan Kuminga for a suspended Green, and also rookie Brandin Podziemski for a struggling Wiggins. Despite the loss, Steve Kerr likes what he saw and will stick with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney, Kuminga and Podziemski in his starting lineup.
“It felt like we needed a shift,” Kerr said. “I feel like Brandin gives us the extra playmaker on the floor in the starting lineup. Obviously, he’s a great rebounder, competes, excellent defender. And then JK deserves the minutes and with Draymond out it’s a perfect opportunity to step in.
“It feels like a group that can really connect. And then I like being able to bring Chris [Paul] and Dario [Šarić] off the bench to really anchor that unit, and we got a deep team. Bringing Wiggs off the bench with Moses [Moody], those guys are damn good players. We’re deep and I think we’re going to make a little run here, I really believe that.”
Kerr will remain with this starting five for at least “the next few games” in order to “give it a good look,” he added.
So, how did Wiggins respond? The box score numbers weren’t too pretty. Wiggins never got going, scoring nine points in 22 minutes off the bench on 4-of-9 shooting. He missed all four of his 3-point attempts and was 4 of 5 on 2-pointers, all right at the rim.
Wiggins was a minus-7 and had more fouls (five) than made shots or rebounds (three). Still, Kerr saw the positives in how Wiggins handled moving to the bench.
“I thought he was great the way he approached it,” Kerr said. “He brought energy. He got on the floor for loose balls, he was guarding Kawhi [Leonard] out there and giving us the length and athleticism we needed.
“But he handled himself beautifully, because that’s who Wiggs is. He’s a great teammate, a great pro. … This is not an easy time for Wiggs, but I know who he is, I know his character and I believe in him.”
Wiggins now is averaging 12.0 points on 41.4 percent shooting and 26.4 percent as a 3-point shooter. On the season, he has committed 42 turnovers, nearly double the amount of his 24 assists.
His replacement, Podziemski, struggled to find his shot as he went 2-of-11 from the field and missed all three of his shots beyond the arc. The energetic rookie also finished with seven rebounds, three steals (tying a career high), two assists and one blocked shot. Podziemski in his last three games has grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. Kuminga was a team-high plus-5, the only starter with a positive plus/minus, scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting.
A Curry-Podziemski-Thompson-Kuminga-Looney group had played only three minutes together before Thursday. They spent 14 minutes and 22 seconds together against the Clippers and outscored them 40-37.
Whether it’s Kerr or his Warriors teammates, Wiggins is sure to receive support. At the same time, Curry was more than fine seeing changes made to the starting lineup of a team that now is 10-14 and has lost three games in a row, including seven straight on the road. Staying stagnant isn’t an option for him, and a message has been sent to the rest of the roster.
“Changes were necessary,” Curry said. “When you’re a team that’s struggling to find an identity and trying to find momentum and win basketball games consistently, you have to experiment – can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. … To your point, Wiggs coming off the bench and trying to figure out how he can be aggressive and assertive, that’s a big change.”
As the calendar shifts to 2024, Wiggins’ main role being in reserve very well could be just one of many more changes to come for the Warriors. Sit tight, we’ll see what comes next.