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There’s No Substitute for the Steph Curry Experience

The Warriors are the worst team in a league filled with superstars, juggernauts, and nightly thrill rides. But even in a lost season, Curry’s return brings a level of excitement and pizzazz that just can’t be replaced.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s the performance of it all that makes Steph Curry seem unbreakable. The bouncing and sashaying, the twirling, the way he casts his limbs forward on a ball fake, the moonshots he doesn’t bother to watch swish through the net. Curry gets by players so easily it’s almost like they’re in on the act, as if they know when to curl away so that the path will be miraculously free. Surely he’s too free a spirit to snap. But Curry is breakable, famously so. His right ankle used to sprain so easily that he re-designed his running form. Most recently, Curry broke his left hand just four games into this season. This time it had nothing to do with his sometimes funky, susceptible-to-injury style; Aron Baynes sat on Curry’s hand, and even the most prized shooting hands are no match for 260-pound Aussies.

Curry will reportedly make his return Sunday after a four-month absence. It’s the longest break he’s had since 2014, when the Lob City Clippers sent the Warriors home in the first round of the playoffs. (A shorter summer vacation is the rub for every Finals appearance; Curry’s played in five straight.) The last time an injury cost Curry this many consecutive months, during the 2011-12 season, we didn’t understand the degree to which we were being robbed, of a shimmy and of a legend. Curry played 26 games that season. It was Mark Jackson’s first year in Golden State; he’d taken over for Keith Smart, who’d taken over for Don Nelson, who took over a team that hadn’t had a .500 season in 12 years.

Most of the current young Warriors players probably don’t remember Nelson, who retired in 2010, or Nellieball, or much at all about the Warriors being awful. Andrew Wiggins was 15 when Nelson was forced out; Eric Paschall, Ky Bowman, and Marquese Chriss were 13. Kids don’t watch terrible teams unless they’re geographically bound or they’ve pledged loyalty to a certain player, and Stephen Curry hadn’t become Steph Curry yet—the two-time MVP, the god of 3s, the reason kids were shooting from feet beyond their driveways. Before Curry was winning, he was losing. Now he’ll lose again. At least for a little bit.

The Warriors are terrible this season, a league-worst 12-47, even worse than when Curry went down in 2011-12. It’s been seven years since he’s played with so little at stake. There’s no Kevin Durant, no Klay Thompson, no Andre Iguodala, no dynasty, no rumors of winning fatigue, no prestige, no championship on the line. Not even a playoff berth. There’s Wiggins, the Warriors’ newest investment. One benefit of returning rather than waiting out the season is the chance to foster an on-court relationship with the transplanted wing, who could play a major role in the future the franchise is picturing. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t have dealt D’Angelo Russell, their biggest chip, for him.) Curry’s only obligations are to adjust to the team, and return to being himself.

The NBA has missed him. There’s no shortage of the spectacular when LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and—let’s not waste our time; the list is long—are playing each night; still, there’s no replacing Curry. We spent years calling Golden State unwatchable because the Warriors were too good, but when you did tune in, Curry put a temporary plug on your complaints. Chances are you’ve seen him break a record live, or at the very least, come close. Curry’s scurries and flurries are one of the most entertaining themes the NBA has to offer. He’s known for his efficiency, but what comes before the shot is hardly efficient. Curry doesn’t go from Point A to Point B on a drive; he loops around defenders, rocks, swings, doubles back, and crosses Go before laying it in. It’s like he’s spitballing, like his body’s incessant flailing is buying time for his mind to make the right move. Sometimes he pulls up from 30 feet or half court or Napa Valley, and it never gets to that point. And then he winks, as if we’re all old friends.

I still think of Curry as part of the new wave of NBA. He’s 31, and he’s no unicorn, but he is the godfather of a very specific type of basketball, the egregiously deep shooting, improvisational, dancing, prancing sort of guard bleeding into the league. We’ve grieved Curry’s loss all season, but he’s been here. In Trae Young, Buddy Hield, Devin Booker, and many more household names to be.

Curry is about to embark on the next stage of his career. His team isn’t at the top anymore. Thompson’s return next season likely won’t be enough by itself to take the Warriors back to those historic heights. The Splash Brothers will be a League Pass team at minimum, a playoff competitor at best. Curry won’t ever lead that powerful of a dynasty again, unless, of course, the unthinkable happens, and those Giannis-to–Golden State rumors turn out to be more than delirious Northern California hope. It wouldn’t be the first time that a long-limbed superstar decided he wanted to play with the league’s most singular superstar. Curry will probably never reach that glorious, multi-championship, 73-win height again. But he’ll sure as hell be fun to watch.