Strange as it seems, the Golden State Warriors enter the coming season as one of the NBA’s biggest enigmas. Their era of unobstructed dominance is over, and they face an immediate future armed only with a badly-depleted roster and a giant question mark about the next phase of their evolution.
It’s an evolution that may include at least some level of regression. With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson out for a big chunk of the season, they’ll lean on Steph Curry more than ever to manufacture points. New acquisition D’Angelo Russell will alleviate some of the scoring and play-making responsibilities, but the spacing they’ve enjoyed the past three seasons with a trio of historic shooters dotting the perimeter is a thing of the past.
Fortunately for them, what makes Curry so unique and what distinguishes him from other prototypical shooters of his ilk is his ability to create his own shot. In his MVP days, just as he was cementing himself as the greatest shooter in league history, he was also showcasing the type of ball-handling wizardry matched only by the likes of Kyrie Irving.
But at 31 and three seasons removed from his last MVP campaign, the question is just how much of that Steph remains and how often can we reasonably expect to see it, given this new set of circumstances.
During the Durant years, we had to settle for a more domesticated version of Steph. He often operated as an offensive decoy, capable of unleashing a barrage of threes on opposing defenses at any moment, yet deferential to Durant as the team’s primary scoring weapon. It was almost easy to forget that he’d recently spearheaded a philosophical revolution on the way we play and think about basketball.
It’s become an increasingly rare treat to see the “old” Steph. The one who danced and shimmied on his defenders and launched 30-foot bombs and erupted for 25-point quarters. The Steph who turned quotidian pre-game routines into shooting and dribbling exhibitions that nearly broke social media. But this spring, we had a chance to see him bear his fangs once again.
Through the first 10 games of the playoffs, Steph yawned his way to 23 points per game. After Durant went down against Houston, that figure clipped out at 32.5 ppg the rest of the postseason. No performance was more emblematic of the way his destructive and demoralizing power can lay dormant until he decides to conjure it than when they eliminated the Rockets in Game 6 in Houston. It was vintage Steph: scoreless through the first two quarters followed by a 33-point explosion in the second half.
He went on to eviscerate the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, averaging 36 points per game on better than 42 percent from downtown through their four-game sweep. It wasn’t just that he was putting up big numbers. He was in full-swagger mode. Not that he’d ever really lost it, but it had just been diluted as he and the rest of the Warriors (at least those not named Draymond) tiptoed around Durant’s brittle ego.
We know that partnership eventually eroded, but some recent verbal jabs between the two seem to indicate that their dynamic may have been more tenuous than we thought. Durant made headlines earlier this month when he said that the Warriors’ style only worked up to a point and that, as the playoffs progress and defenses clamp down, iso-ball is the best solution. Clearly irked by that statement, Steph responded by saying he prioritizes winning championships above all.
But that brand of high-volume scoring is likely what Steph will have to reproduce this season to engineer wins and give his team a shot at making the postseason. There will be no Klay to act as a release valve, and it’ll be a sharp learning curve for Russell as he figures out how to navigate the backcourt with a player of Steph’s caliber and a lighter usage rate than he’s preferred.
As tantalizing as it is to imagine the return of MVP Steph, it’s unrealistic to expect it on a nightly basis. At the same time, the Warriors are in a quandary. They’ll have to figure out a way to juggle the competing goals of winning enough games to stay in the playoff hunt, while managing Steph’s short and long-term health. Steve Kerr has said he’ll have to fight the urge to play Curry added minutes most nights, but there will be those critical nights where he needs Steph to unleash everything. How often that is remains to be seen, but Curry getting back to his old ways will be must-see TV once again whenever it happens.