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The Magic of Watching Regular-Season Steph Curry

The Warriors star wasn’t just trying to win games last season — he was doing it in a way that was totally insane. Will 2016–17 bring more of the same?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.

A new NBA season will begin next month, and I couldn’t be more nervous about it. For many fans, that feeling is brought on by the questions that always accompany a fresh start: How long will we pretend to care about the Knicks? Which teams will lose to the Warriors and Cavs in the conference finals? Who will Evan Turner piss off more: fans of his opponents or fans of his own franchise? Could Kentucky beat the Sixers?

But my anxiety isn’t rooted in the anticipation of all the new things that will happen this season; it’s rooted in the fear that it won’t be exactly the same as the last one. I hate the unknown because I want a repeat of the 2015–16 campaign, which was the greatest NBA season of my lifetime. I want the Warriors to try to go 82–0. I want to not be able to name a single Nuggets player off the top of my head. I want to be convinced that the Cavs have serious locker-room problems when they’re in a slump, and when they start winning again, I want to believe that it’s because LeBron called a players-only meeting that magically fixed everything and resulted in him and Kevin Love becoming BFFs who ride a tandem bike and play Pokémon Go together. I want Twitter and Reddit to beat the “James Harden doesn’t play defense” jokes to death again. Most importantly, I want Steph Curry to continue his quest to save the NBA regular season.

That’s right — you can have Kobe parading into retirement, the anointing of Kristaps Porzingis, Blake Griffin punching an equipment manager, and the Warriors setting the all-time wins record. For me, the real story of last season was Curry turning the league on its head. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a basketball fan, and the thought of it only being a one-year phenomenon has haunted my dreams all summer.

I say with complete sincerity that, excluding playoff games, last season was the only time I’ve ever changed my life just so that I could watch one player. My first priority every morning was to figure out what time and channel Curry was going to be on that night. I fell asleep during the second half of so many early-season Warriors games that tipped off at 10:30 p.m. ET that I began to take naps in the middle of the day so I wouldn’t miss Curry going nuts in the fourth quarter. Most shocking of all — and I swear this is true — I actually watched his games instead of throwing them on as background noise as I mindlessly stared at my phone for three hours.

The crazy thing about this is that I’m not even a Curry fan, and I wasn’t watching to see if the Warriors would get to 72 wins. It made no difference to me whether Golden State won or lost, just as it made no difference if Curry scored 60 or went 0-for-25 from the field. I just wanted to marvel at the man who was revolutionizing the way basketball was being played. That sounds hyperbolic, I know, but it’s true: People all over the world, from kids in junior high to players in college to old men in rec leagues, have changed their approach to the game to some degree because of Curry. Ever since the sport was invented, the best basketball players have been the ones who could consistently get the closest to the rim, which is something that is just as much a product of genetics as skill. But for the first time, one of the best players in the world seemed to get better as he got farther from the basket. It made no damn sense. It contradicted everything we’d been told about what basketball players were supposed to be.

That explains the Curry phenomenon as well as anything. Almost every other great player of the past 25 years had inherent genetic advantages, not just over the general public, but also over the rest of the NBA. If you watched them play for long enough, it made sense how they became so great. With Curry, it’s the opposite. The more I watched him throw up garbage shots that found their way to the basket, the more confused I was. How could he keep doing that every single night? Sometimes, it was easy to think that I could play like Curry if only I worked hard enough on … uhh … whatever the hell it is he worked on to learn to routinely drain one-footed shots off the dribble 30 feet away from the hoop. But then the rational part of my brain would take over, and I’d realize that nobody, not even Curry, should be able to do the things that he was doing.

What made last season so much fun was that Curry seemed to finally grasp what it is about him that makes people lose their minds. There’s no evidence to back this up, of course, but it feels like up until then he had always played basketball the only way he knew how; that it was entertaining as hell just so happened to be a byproduct. But then something clicked and it looked like he started to play a game within the game to see how deep he could consistently hit from, or how ludicrous a sequence — dribbling in circles capped by a fadeaway flip-from-the-hip 3 — he could pull off.

Remember that buzzer-beater he hit in Oklahoma City in February to beat the Thunder and tie the NBA record for most 3-pointers in a game? It was the shot of the 2015–16 regular season, and also an objectively terrible decision. Curry started his shooting motion with about three seconds remaining, which would have been plenty of time for him to try to get to the rim and/or pass the ball to an open teammate. If any other player in the world would have taken that shot and missed, they would have been ripped apart for it. But Curry was in such a zone by that point that he knew he had an ultra-green light. And most importantly, I’m convinced that he knew what basketball fans wanted to see. We didn’t need another buzzer-beater at the rim. We needed him to do what he does best: Make shots from absurd distances look like layups. Curry wasn’t just trying to win games last season; he was trying to be as entertaining as humanly possible while doing it. And my God, did he ever succeed.

This is why I honestly think Curry has the potential to be the greatest regular-season player of all time. He not only understands that the NBA regular season is basically just an exhibition — he also fully embraces it. When he goes on the road, he knows he’ll perform in front of thousands of fans who might get to see him play in person just once a year. And when he’s at home, he knows he’ll play in front of thousands of fans who would consider it the pinnacle of their lives if he simply acknowledged their existence.

Best of all, Curry’s style of play is perfect for the regular season. His game is almost entirely finesse, making a full season less of a physical grind since he doesn’t have to absorb too many bruising hits, like the guys who make their living at the rim. As long as his lungs and legs are fine, he can run around the court all day, crossing dudes up and bombing 3s from everywhere imaginable. And by the way, doing that is much easier in the regular season, too. In a playoff series where every player goes balls-to-the-wall and coaches’ strategies become hyperfocused, slowing down Curry isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But when teams are playing the Warriors as their fourth game of the week and half of their roster is hungover, jet-lagged, unmotivated, or just not good? Yikes.

Here’s what has me so nervous about this season, though: Since the release of the Curry 2 Lows on June 9, Steph Curry’s world has been rocked to the core. The basketball gods are punishing him for releasing the lamest shoes an NBA MVP has ever put his name on, and they show no signs of letting up soon.

Everyone with a social media account mocking Curry for the shoes was just the beginning. One day later he scored 38 points as the Warriors beat the Cavs in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, which, in retrospect, was really just the basketball gods taunting him. That’s because Draymond Green hit LeBron in the balls and was suspended for Game 5, which the Warriors lost on their home court in a blowout. Three days later, the Cavs won Game 6, Curry was ejected when he hit a fan with his mouth guard in frustration, and his wife was ripped to shreds on social media for accusing the NBA of rigging the outcome. And three days after that, in the biggest game of his life, Curry went 6-for-19 shooting and watched as Kyrie Irving sprayed him for the game winner. On the ensuing possession, he was locked up by Kevin Love and eventually threw up a brick.

Just like that, the greatest regular-season team of all time blew a 3–1 series lead. The defending NBA champs led by the reigning MVP let the title slip away, triggering a wave of Crying Jordan memes so overwhelming that it all but retired Crying Jordan for good.

And if all of that weren’t enough to make me concerned that Curry won’t be able to rediscover the magic he had last season, now Kevin Durant has come to Oakland to ruin everything. Sure, the Warriors can boast the best collection of talent in NBA history. They might have perfect chemistry, and the end result could be the most beautiful basketball the planet has ever seen. But screw that. I don’t want to see Curry be the second-best player on his team. I don’t want him to “play within himself” and “get his teammates going” and do all that other shit that point guards are supposed to do when they take the court on a team loaded with talent. I want to see Steph Curry be Steph Curry. I want him to launch nothing but ill-advised shots and somehow make half of them. I want him to chew on his mouth guard, beat on his chest after every made 3, show terrible body language during dead balls, and do whatever else he does that drives opposing fans crazy. I want him to be so amazing that we all pretend like he’s some 5-foot-10 perennial underdog and not a 6-foot-3 college All-American who was a top-10 draft pick and is the son of a former NBA player. I want him to use the entire regular season as an experiment to see how many terrible shots in a row he’d have to miss for Steve Kerr to tell him to stop attempting them.

Unfortunately, if the Curry 2 Lows didn’t put an end to the Steph Curry I know and love, I have a feeling Durant’s arrival will. I don’t care about KD ditching Oklahoma City, and I won’t raise a stink that he joined the same 73-win team that eliminated the Thunder from the 2016 Western Conference finals. But if Durant drives the final dagger through the heart of Regular-Season Steph Curry, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.