Two weeks remain until NBA players report for training camp, but Stephen Curry is getting a head start on setting his narrative for the 2019-20 season. On Wednesday, the Warriors guard told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols he’s committed to playing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the second Warriors superstar to indicate he’ll play for Team USA in as many days following the squad’s disastrous seventh-place finish in the FIBA World Cup this summer. “That is the plan,” Curry said.
After the U.S. faltered in China, team exec Jerry Colangelo had terse words for the players who withdrew from the roster, saying he would “remember” who “didn’t show up.” In his declaration of intent, Curry made it clear he planned to be around.
“I’ve never been on the Olympic team,” Curry told ESPN. “I’ve been on two World Cup championship gold-medal teams. But the Olympics is the experience that I want. And next year will hopefully be it.”
Curry isn’t just announcing his intention, injuries permitting, to play in next summer’s Olympics, though. By taking the lead on rebooting Team USA, he’s climbing atop Narrative Mountain, and announcing loud and clear to the farthest stretches of the NBA: This is going to be the Year of Steph.
The Warriors enter this season with more uncertainty than they’ve had in years. Draymond Green will turn 30 this season, and struggled at times with injury and fatigue last regular season. Kevin Durant—arguably the best player alive at times last season—departed for Brooklyn, where he’ll begin rehabilitating a ruptured Achilles tendon. Klay Thompson, Steph’s brother in splash, signed a five-year maximum extension with Golden State this offseason, but will miss at least the first half of the season recovering from surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee, which he tore in Game 6 of the Finals.
In Thompson’s stead is one of last year’s breakout players, All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell, making his full-time return to California after washing out with the Lakers following the 2016-17 season. The former no. 2 pick proved last season that he can contribute offensively, scoring 21.1 points a game, shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, and adding seven assists. How he’ll feature defensively, and integrate into Golden State’s vaunted offensive system, however, is still an open question.
Curry, to an extent, has had to share his spotlight in the Bay Area. The past few years, he’s split the focus with Durant, who joined the Warriors following the 2015-16 season, much to the general public’s chagrin, and seemed to chafe with the notion that the Dubs were Curry’s team. Even when Curry was the league’s most valuable player, he had to divvy up shots with Thompson, whose lights-out shooting, derpy attitude, and occasional flirtation with legendary scoring numbers made him a fan favorite. With the Slim Reaper gone, and Thompson sidelined, the Warriors are Steph’s, and Steph’s alone, for the first time since Monta Ellis shared the locker room. And that should frighten the rest of the league.
The last time Curry had this commanding a grip on center stage, he led the league in scoring, averaging 30.1 points per night, on 50.4 percent shooting, and a career-high 20.2 attempts. Curry has led the Warriors in shots per game in every season but one since then, and with a supporting cast now headlined by Russell, Green, and a band of misfits, it’s safe to assume his number of shots per game will eclipse 20 once again.
Curry is one of 13 players to own at least two MVP awards; only eight have claimed the prize three times. The runner-up for Curry’s first trophy, James Harden, laid a blueprint last season for MVP contention on the back of a dominant, high-usage-rate campaign. Harden’s 36.1 points per game were the seventh most in league history, and became a necessity for a Rockets squad struggling with injuries to Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela. Without their usual band of gunslingers, it was imperative that Harden launch almost double the number of shots as his next closest teammate. Harden finished the season with the second-highest usage rate of all time (40.5 percent). (Curry, meanwhile, topped out at 32.6 percent in his second MVP campaign, good for 74th all time.) And though Harden ended up finishing just short of his second MVP award, he was quick to defend his season, and criticize the media story lines that he felt lost him the accolade.
The narrative, Harden posited, had as much influence on who took the award as his play. How else could he have lost to Giannis Antetokounmpo after dropping “a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, [and] two 60-point games in one season.” Last week, Harden told GQ he believed it was too early for a narrative to take shape for this year’s MVP race. With his announcement this week, Curry started molding it.
For the first time in half a decade, Curry’s team won’t enter the season as presumptive favorites to win the championship. Which means they will rely more on Curry than ever to keep them relevant in the title race. Each jaw-dropping pull-up and deep, deep 3 Curry attempts with deadeye accuracy will add to his MVP case. An increased workload doesn’t come without potential pitfalls, though. Curry’s ankles are infamous, and after his second straight season with fewer than 70 games played (following five with at least 78 logged), and more than 28,000 career regular-season and playoff minutes tallied, it’s fair to wonder whether his body can hold up for a season of full-throttle, hero-ball hoops.
But if he leads the league in scoring, like Harden did last season, it might take a statistically anomalous campaign like Giannis’s to stop him from taking home his third award. If he does so while keeping the Warriors at the top of the Western Conference standings, flanked for the first half of the season by Green, Russell, Kevon Looney, and Willie Cauley-Stein, it’ll be hard to argue that the prize should go to anyone but him.
MVP awards and historic seasons aren’t determined in the offseason, but the groundwork for them is laid early. With his announcement on Wednesday, Curry placed the first brick in what might be his ultimate solo campaign. All summer, fans were bombarded with stories about dropouts, misplaced priorities, and failures abroad. By declaring his intention to play for Team USA, Curry has asserted himself as a prospective savior: He Who Will Avenge A Seventh-Place Finish. We won’t see him on the floor for at least a few weeks, but it’s already the Year of Steph.