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Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins has more respect than bitterness toward LeBron James after Cleveland trade

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After flashing a growing smile, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins reflected on what it has been like to match up with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. For a few moments, Wiggins’ typical stoicism vanished.

“It’s fun and competitive. Every time you face someone like that, it’s a big game,” Wiggins told Sportsnaut. “I’m just trying to be the aggressor. He’s LeBron, but I try to make him as uncomfortable as I can.”

The Warriors face the Lakers in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series in San Francisco on Wednesday with plenty of implications (10 p.m. ET, TNT). With Golden State trailing 3-1 in the series, the Warriors hope to avoid an early elimination less than a year after winning the 2022 NBA title. If not, Golden State could face an unsettling offseason with potential trades and organizational turnover.

But another compelling subplot has entailed Andrew Wiggins facing LeBron James for the first time in the NBA playoffs nearly a decade after James’ indirectly affected Wiggins’ career. Shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Wiggins with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, James announced his plans to return to Cleveland as a free agent.

In his Sports Illustrated letter, James expressed excitement over playing with future teammates while curiously omitting Wiggins. James has since told Yahoo! Sports that he excluded Wiggins because he “didn’t know the kid.” Either way, the Cavaliers traded Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves as a centerpiece for Kevin Love. Cleveland then won an NBA title in the midst of four Finals appearances against Golden State (2015-18).

“It’s the business side of basketball. You can’t have any hard feelings toward anything,” Wiggins said. “People get traded all the time. At the end of the day, they have a ring and I have a ring. It worked out.”

Andrew Wiggins’ Cleveland revenge tour

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Wiggins conceded he thought differently at the beginning of his 10-year NBA career. Whenever the Timberwolves faced the Cavaliers, Wiggins approached each game hoping to make a point to Cleveland and to James about his value.

Consider Wiggin’s statistical performances against Cleveland on Dec. 23, 2014 (27 points); Jan. 31, 2015 (33 points); Jan. 8, 2016 (35 points); Jan. 25, 2016 (20 points); Feb. 1, 2017 (23 points); and Feb. 14, 2017 (41 points). Nonetheless, James split those head-to-head matchups statistically against Wiggins while Cleveland won all four games. Though Wiggins had more points (25) than James (18) in Minnesota’s win over Cleveland on Jan. 8, 2018, James countered with more points (37) than Wiggins (19) in an overtime victory on Feb. 7, 2018.

Wiggins changed his perspective in 2019-20 shortly after the Timberwolves dealt him and a future first-round pick to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell before the trade deadline.

“Earlier in my career, it was fresh. But now I’m just focused on winning,” Wiggins said. “I was in a different position. I was in Minnesota. I had the ball a lot more than now. The team I’m on now is a lot more talented than it was in Minnesota. I got Steph [Curry], Klay [Thompson] and Draymond [Green]. I’m on a squad full of great players. Now, it’s about team basketball.”

The Warriors face a 3-1 series deficit partly because they have failed to fulfill that job description. In all three losses, the Warriors became plagued with turnovers and foul trouble. Warriors fourth-year guard Jordan Poole has also faced a reduced role amid inconsistent performances.

In addition to Stephen Curry’s productive scoring, though, the Warriors have become pleased with Wiggins’ play. He has averaged 14.8 points on a 44.7 percent shooting clip and 5.8 rebounds through four games against the Lakers. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Wiggins has held James to inefficient marks from the field (43.3 percent) and from 3-point range (21.4 percent) any time he has been the primary defender.  And despite missing the Warriors’ final 25 regular-season games to attend a personal family matter, Wiggins has impressed Warriors coach Steve Kerr with his conditioning level and defensive effort.

“I like to score too, though. But any time you face someone that’s great, you want to do your best,” Wiggins said. “It’s your chance to go out there, play some good defense and help your team win. LeBron is one of the key pieces to his team with [Anthony Davis] and [Russell] there. They have good pieces to the team. So, I have to go out there and make it hard for them.”

Defensive preparation for LeBron James

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To prepare for his defensive assignment on James, Andrew Wiggins said he has watched entire games and clips with both the team’s coaches and by himself. He sought Warriors veteran Andre Iguodala for feedback considering he won 2015 Finals MVP partly because James’ productive 35.8 points per game came on low shooting marks overall (39.8 percent) and from deep (31 percent). Iguodala advised Wiggins to focus on beating James to his spots since that might increase his chances with limiting his scoring than it would with actually contesting a shot.

“Be solid. You don’t need to gamble that much,” Wiggins said about defending James. “He’s going to hit some tough shots. You can’t get discouraged or anything. You just got to keep playing. You just keep thinking about the next play and make it hard on him.”

During those matchups, Wiggins has defended James with physicality and aggressiveness. At times, Wiggins has picked up James at half court. Other times, Wiggins has covered James along the baseline, behind the perimeter and at the post. Through it all, Wiggins has intentionally avoided any trash talking.

“It keeps me locked in on the game. I’m not locked into no BS,” Wiggins said. “I’m focusing on what me and my team need to do to win.”

If only Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks shared that same mindset.

After the Grizzlies’ Game 2 first-round win over the Lakers, Brooks dismissively called the 38-year-old James “old” before adding, “I don’t respect anyone until they come and give me 40.” James declined to address Brooks’ publicly. He let his play do most of the talking. The Lakers won three of the next four games. James averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds. And Brooks struggled both offensively and defensively while weathering loud boos from Lakers fans.

After the Lakers eliminated the Grizzlies in six games, James posted a serious of cryptic insults at Brooks on his social media accounts. Wiggins contemplated whether such a tactic backfires on an NBA star, including James.

“Maybe it works for some people, but I don’t know,” Wiggins said. “I don’t know about all the ‘poking the bear stuff.’ LeBron is one of the greats. You got to respect it.”

Wiggins respects James for more than just his on-court accomplishments as a four-time NBA champion and leader on the league’s all-time scoring list (first) and assist list (fourth). Though Wiggins has not talked to James extensively about these issues, he has admired from afar both on how James has taken care of his body and maximized his business portfolio.

“LeBron has made a lot of great choices. That’s one thing I know a lot of young guys look up to him for,” Wiggins said. “I just want to set myself up where I have money coming in when I’m done playing basketball. A basketball career doesn’t last very long.”

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Who knows what Andrew Wiggins post-basketball career could entail. He has brainstormed ideas occasionally, but has kept those details private. Instead, the 28-year-old Wiggins has simply enjoyed competing against James through a different lens.

“Whenever we play, there’s always going to be a story,” Wiggins said. “But at this point, I just hoop. It’s bigger than me. Now it’s about the Warriors winning another NBA championship.”

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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