The Golden State Warriors start a new season in just over three weeks, and they’re staring down the barrel of a situation I’m not aware of any other team in NBA history encountering: the prospect of being without one of their core players ... but only for home games.
While Andrew Wiggins refused to disclose his vaccination status at Monday’s media day, the indignation and public anger from the otherwise mild-mannered-to-an-extreme forward made it pretty easy to surmise whether or not he had been inoculated. Add in the reports that the Warriors are concerned he won’t get vaccinated — as well as rather candid comments from Steph Curry on the matter — and it’s first grade math to determine where Wiggins is on the matter. Or was, just mere days ago.
We’re still dealing with an absence of information, but Wiggins had until Sept. 29 to receive a single-dose vaccine and not miss any practice time, as the pertinent mandates don’t go into effect until Oct. 13. And he has until Oct. 7 to receive a single-dose vaccine without missing the team’s home opener, an Oct. 21 contest against the Los Angeles Clippers.
And if he still opts against it, and is willing to forgo in excess of $350,000 per game for the right to remain unvaccinated? Well, the Warriors will have one roster available for 41 road games, and a different one for 41 home games.
The Warriors are in a bit of an odd predicament. Wiggins is not a sure fire star like Curry or Draymond Green, but, under normal circumstances, there’s zero doubt that he’d be in the starting lineup every day.
But now? Will the Warriors commit to having two starting lineups for the year? There’s a lot to consider each way.
The case to start Wiggins
Wiggins is the de facto starting small forward if vaccinated, and the bulk of those reasons don’t dissipate just because he’s absent for half the games. His scoring and three-point stroke help an offense that starts a pair of non-shooters in Green and Kevon Looney. His on-ball defense is invaluable for a team that lost Kent Bazemore and Kelly Oubre Jr., and figures to be without Klay Thompson for the first few months of the year.
And his durability — an admittedly humorous trait given the topic at hand — makes him a constant in the lineup. Half of the time he’s there all of the time.
I may have, at times, led the Wiggins-is-overrated crusade, but he’s a 20 points per game scorer with quality defense on a max contract. You don’t have to write a dissertation to explain why he should be starting.
Starting Wiggins also allows the Warriors depth to be on display. The team’s complementary pieces will be at their best in specialty roles of the bench — those are the roles designed for them — and plugging 36 solid minutes in at the wing allows those players to fill those roles.
But let’s look at why starting Wiggins for the team’s 41 road games could be a poor decision.
Between injuries and varying performances, the Warriors haven’t had much continuity lately. Last year a whopping 14 players started a game for the Dubs, in a 72-game season. The year before, in a pandemic-shortened 65-game season, the Warriors started ... wait for it ... 18 different players.
That’s not the main reason the Dubs missed the postseason the last two years, but it didn’t help either. It took the Warriors a few months last year to find rhythm; they can’t afford that this season. Just seven of the Warriors’ first 19 games this year are on the road — plugging Wiggins into a small handful of games in the first six weeks figures to strongly disrupt not just the chemistry of the starting lineup, but of the bench as well.
There’s a case to be made for starting your best players. But as the Warriors have proven time and time again over the last seven seasons, the best lineups are the ones with consistency, chemistry, and that special something that even we professional writers can’t put to words. I don’t know what that thing is, but I know you don’t achieve it by starting one dude in San Francisco and a different dude in 28 other cities.
Discipline, fairness, etc.
Let’s make something abundantly clear: Wiggins can get vaccinated anytime he wishes to. If he doesn’t, that’s his choice, and he makes that choice fully understanding the ramifications, financial and otherwise. For anyone stating that Wiggins is being “forced” to get vaccinated, no: he has total freedom to remain unvaccinated, and he simply will have to face the consequences for his actions.
That’s his choice.
If not vaccinated, Wiggins will not only have to stay home for all 41 of the Warriors home games, but he’ll be absent for the team’s home practices and workouts, as well.
Mind you, I have zero experience being an athlete in a professional locker room. But if I had to guess, it doesn’t go over particularly well in a locker room when a player who voluntarily avoids a simple health measure that would have allowed him to play in home games and at home practices waltzes onto the plane for the road trip and slides right into the starting lineup, playing 36 minutes and pushing everyone’s roles back a notch.
Every practice Wiggins misses is a practice his teammates are busting their butts and sweating during. Every game Wiggins watches from a couch in a Bay Area mansion is a game his teammates are giving their heart and soul to.
I don’t imagine Steve Kerr sees it as fitting into his coaching ethos to allow such a player to still start. And while Wiggins is respected in the team’s locker room, I’m not convinced Curry, Green, and Thompson would let that fly.
The options are good
This isn’t like last year, where the Warriors were a team sorely lacking in depth, who desperately needed every minute Wiggins could give them.
Golden State can put together strong starting units with or without Wiggins.
The question mark for Otto Porter Jr. is his health — it’s not his talent, and it’s certainly not his fit. Porter isn’t the natural scorer that Wiggins is, but he’s a better three-point shooter, and more willing to play a tertiary offensive role. He’s an exceptional defender, with the size to rebound and play up a position.
When Thompson returns, the Warriors could sub a little defense in favor of offense, and start Klay in Porter’s place, with Jordan Poole staying at the two. There’s dynamic potential here.
Is a starting unit of Curry, Poole, Porter, Green, and Looney, with Wiggins off the bench, worse than a lineup of Curry, Poole, Wiggins, Green, and Looney, with Porter off the bench? Is a starting unit of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Green, and Looney, with Wiggins off the bench worse than a lineup of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green, and Looney, with Poole off the bench?
I’m not convinced of either of those things.
If unvaccinated, it’s a little hard to see a scenario where Wiggins is starting every road game, let alone playing three-quarters of the minutes. His absence would allow other Warriors to shine in larger roles, and unless those players punt their opportunities, Kerr is unlikely to start dialing them back.
We’ve spent the last week thinking about how much money Wiggins would potentially be sacrificing, and how much it would hurt the Warriors if he chooses to remain unvaccinated. But it could also severely impact his playing time on the road.
Hopefully we don’t have to find out.