Stephen Curry made his return to the Golden State lineup on Saturday after missing the last 11 games with a groin strain, and not a moment too soon. His return comes at a perfect time for the Warriors, who struggled through his absence with a 5-6 mark that included brutal losses to Houston and Oklahoma City.
There was also the matter of the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green meltdown, which, as veteran Warrior watchers noted, went down while Curry was home recuperating. The negative effects of Curry’s prolonged absence illustrated his value to Golden State more than even his torrid start to the season.
The Steph that we saw against the Pistons on Saturday wasn’t vintage Steph — seven turnovers against three assists, 3-for-9 from three-point range in a 111-102 loss. But right on cue, Curry dropped 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first quarter against Atlanta on Monday en route to a tidy 30-point effort.
Now that Curry is back, the Warriors are finally starting to feel whole again. Green should also be back soon from a toe injury, and DeMarcus Cousins is said to be closer to seeing his first action, as well.
With enough distance between the KD-Draymond contretemps, all seems to be well in Warriors World, even if the first quarter of the season produced some odd trends.
The most entertaining dynamic of this Warriors season is about to take center stage again.
Before his injury, Curry was playing like the two-time MVP of old.
Through his first 12 games, Curry was averaging better than five made threes per game on 49 percent shooting, a historic rate that was a speck ahead of his record-breaking 402 makes during his second MVP season in 2015-16. It was as if Curry was reminding everyone that he didn’t relinquish his hold on the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as much as he simply ceded ground to make way for KD’s arrival.
Life without Curry wasn’t fun for Golden State, who dropped three straight in Texas while looking mortal. Before Durant’s arrival, the Warriors needed Steph to be at his best to win championships. It’s an open question — one they hope to never need to answer — if they can do win it all without him.
As great as KD is, Steph is the one who makes the Warrior engine run. If Curry’s not the best player on the team, he’s the most important one.
That’s an odd juxtaposition because many of us — myself included — believe that Durant is the best player in the world.
That hasn’t resulted in regular-season MVP’s during his Warrior run, but KD’s status was made crystal clear when he won back-to-back Finals MVP’s. That extra edge at the most important time of the season was the whole point of adding him to the operation.
It’s not as if KD played badly while Curry was out. In the four-game run-up to Curry’s comeback, Durant scored 176 points, culminating in a valiant 51-point effort during an overtime loss in Toronto.
But the Warriors play differently without Curry. They’re less free, less adventurous, and altogether less like the Warriors that rose up years ago.
Since joining forces with Golden State, Durant has put himself in a lose-lose situation. His two titles are seen as inevitable, a byproduct of amassing an unprecedented amount of star power on one roster. A championship setback, however, would have been unconscionable.
When Durant asserts his dominance, it’s often at the expense of the beautiful symphony the Warriors created before he arrived. When he takes a backseat to that, it defeats the whole purpose of having him there.
So it goes for KD in the Bay.
The league has caught up to the Warriors, at least stylistically
There once was a revolutionary air to these Warriors. They shot threes with abandon and stretched the floor to its outer limits. They switched everything and took positionless basketball to its extreme, with a 6’6 center who ran opposing big men off the court and right out of the league.
Everyone plays like that now, with long switchy players on the wing and sleek, downsized frontcourts. Ok, not everybody, but good luck beating Golden State with a traditional back-to-the-basket big.
And everybody shoots threes. When the Warriors started their run, 30 three-point attempts per game felt like shooter’s Valhalla. Now, it’s a middle of the pack number. While everyone else is launching more and more long-range bombs, the Warriors like to chill in the mid-range like a bunch of heretics.
They’re good enough to get away with it, but they’ve gone from cutting edge to charmingly retro in the span of just a few short years. If this indeed their final run together, beating the three-point math they made popular will be one hell of a trick.
For a team that made the center position obsolete, their Achilles heel is, hilariously, the center position.
Young Damian Jones was the only healthy 7-footer on the roster before he tore his pectoral muscle against the Pistons. He’s not expected back for a long time, if at all, this season.
Kevon Looney, who’s built more like a modern day four-man, has been their best all-around option in the middle, especially since second-year man Jordan Bell has regressed despite the occasional athletic flash. Questions about the center position have grown so tiresome that Steve Kerr even snapped back at one too many queries.
Steve Kerr tired of center questions: “Haven’t we asked that question enough? I don’t know how many times I need to answer it.” pic.twitter.com/xhUrMVsu2a— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 2, 2018
This is one of those things you worry about ... until you remember that DeMarcus Cousins took part in a recent scrimmage and is likely to come back around the new year. Boogie’s return is looking more like a necessity than a luxury, which will be a whole other dynamic they’ll need to incorporate into their structure.
Without Draymond Green, their defense has grown lax
Amid the offensive pyrotechnics that are the Warriors’ trademark, the part of the equation that often goes overlooked has been their elite defensive status.
That started to slide last season, an understandable by-product of the boredom that accompanies the regular season grind. Call it the champion’s prerogative, because they once again defended at a championship level during the postseason.
Much of that can be attributable to Green’s absence due to a toe injury, but there are other troubling signs. They don’t force many turnovers, and their rebounding is mediocre. The Warriors have proven they can turn it on when necessary, but it’s still a dangerous way to live.
And yet, none of it will likely matter
For all the depth the Western Conference boasts, there are more good teams than great ones. The Rockets took the Dubs to the brink last season, but are battling to stay above .500. Ditto for the Jazz, who at least offer an intriguing stylistic matchup.
The Nuggets and Clippers are two of the best stories the league has to offer this season, but does anyone believe they’ll be able to punch above their weight this spring? Oklahoma City is really good, maybe the second-best team in the West, but the Thunder could use a healthy Andre Roberson to effectively challenge the Warriors in a postseason series. That won’t happen for a while after he suffered a setback on his surgically repaired left knee.
Through all the ailments and drama, this is still Golden State’s world. It’s been suggested that only the Warriors can stop the Warriors, but that’s not exactly true. If there’s anything this recent malaise has taught us, it’s that only health can get in their way.
Specifically, the health of Steph Curry.