This was supposed to be a wildly different season for Stephen Curry. Way back in October, I had picked the Warriors guard to win his third MVP. Even if the Warriors were never going to be contenders, thanks to Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL, 2020 was setting up to be something of a Steph revenge tour. He was going to get to shoot as much as he wanted. And freed from the shackles of expectations and other superstar scorers, Curry was finally going to get a chance to be selfish and ball-dominant in the way Steve Kerr’s system typically doesn’t allow.
Reality, of course, was comically different. Curry played in four games before breaking his hand, playing solid but not spectacular ball before he left the lineup with injury. The Warriors lost three of the four games he played in, two of them in blowout fashion. The Dubs’ opening night drubbing at the hands of the Clippers was so thorough that Kerr basically said right after the game to prepare for more nights like that one, himself probably not realizing at the time how difficult this season was going to be from a winning standpoint. Golden State, since those opening losses and Curry’s injury, has since settled into an elegant tank, clearly hoping the health of its core can bring back the success the franchise has grown accustomed to starting with next season.
What that core—and particularly Curry—is still capable of is an interesting question. The Warriors’ five-year run of success, which included three titles, started with Curry, and specifically his never-before-seen shooting ability. Curry forcibly stole the mantle of Best Player Alive when he was the unanimous MVP on a 73-win team. Even when he joined forces with Kevin Durant, most Warriors diehards would argue that though Durant was the more talented player, Curry was still the most important figure in the team’s success. Steph, at his height, was the modern superstar. He didn’t need the ball in his hands to dominate. He set back screens to free up shooters. He didn’t physically overwhelm defenders in one-on-one situations. He mastered the most important skill on offense to a level which no has ever mastered it, and became an expert in leveraging that skill to make his entire team successful.
Despite all that, despite all the winning, despite all the threes and all the success, Curry has probably never been fully appreciated for his place in the game. He’s never quite talked about with the same reverence as guys like LeBron, Durant, or maybe even Kawhi. Current players always seem a little skeptical about him, and the Durant years in the Bay ultimately obscured how special Curry was because of the overwhelming talent on the floor. Even Kerr recently made comments about how Curry will no longer be able to operate with the security blanket of Hall-of-Fame teammates.
With Curry now back in action on Thursday, he’s finally going to get the chance to begin writing the next act of his career. This lost season obviously won’t go any distance in determining how Curry is ultimately judged against his peers. But his rivals have moved on in his absence. Kawhi and LeBron both look poised to lead title runs for their third separate franchises. Giannis is leading a 2016 Warriors-esque juggernaut in Milwaukee. And James Harden and Russell Westbrook may have finally found the best system for themselves.
After sending most of those players scrambling at some point in the last decade, Curry is now playing catch-up again, and that’s what is at stake for the next few years of his career. Can Steph return to the mountaintop? Can he still be the leader of a 60-win team? Is his individual transcendance still brilliant?
We’re not going to get the answers to those questions over the last few weeks of the regular season, but I hope we get some glimpses. The game missed Steph’s scoring flurries, his shimmies, making big men look foolish, and the one time a night he pulls up from an unfair distance and nails it anyway. The game missed his greatness, even if all his contemporaries continued to thrive in his absence. After only a few months away, the NBA feels like it’s in a completely different place from when Curry last played. The next phase of Steph’s career will be about trying to get back to where he was at the height of his powers. Watching Curry back on the hunt should be just as exciting as when he was on the top.