The hidden toll of a losing season is the tedium of it. Professional athletes know how a loss can sting. What they might not fully appreciate—at least until they’ve lived through it—is how quickly that sting can fade. Losing game after game muddles one road trip into another, one month into the next. The NBA calendar is already a disorienting mess of games. When a team loses almost 80 percent of those games, as the league-worst Warriors have this season, all that’s left is the mess.
Stephen Curry returned to the lineup on Thursday to help make sense of it. What Curry offers Golden State, beyond the obvious benefits as one of the best living basketball players, is the reprieve that comes with change. “It just feels like we have emerged from the woods a little bit,” coach Steve Kerr said. A rebuilding team doesn’t typically have much to play for by this stage of the season, but Warriors newcomer Andrew Wiggins explained that Curry’s return made Thursday feel like opening night. For months, the Chase Center stood as a $1.4 billion tribute to losing basketball, as shiny as it was hollow. Curry conducted enough energy to fill it. Fans packed into the lower bowl to watch him pirouette around the arc in his famed pregame warm-up, flicking in jumpers with familiar ease. Curry was greeted to a standing ovation not just upon his introduction, but the first time he touched the ball—an otherwise routine dribble through the backcourt treated, correctly, as the most important play of the night.
“To me,” Kerr said, “it feels like it’s on again.”
These past four months have been unlike anything Kerr has experienced in his coaching career. The Raptors beat the Warriors 121-113 in Curry’s return, handing Golden State its 49th loss of the season. In their first three seasons under Kerr, the Warriors lost just 39 games in all. The state of the team, explicable as it was under the circumstances, has taken an obvious toll. It wasn’t a month after Curry’s injury that Kerr shattered his clipboard during a game against the Bulls, cutting open his hand in the process. As the losses piled up, Kerr would occasionally betray his irritation from the postgame podium, venting about transition defense or careless turnovers. Draymond Green, meanwhile, has spent much of his season chaperoning lineups of rookies and misfits. Soon he’ll return from a knee injury to play his first game with Curry since October 30, a dynastic reunion long overdue and a rare opportunity this season for Green to play with another grown-up. For champions forced to endure this kind of losing, Curry is more than a superstar point guard. He is an improvement to their quality of life.
The Warriors experienced this in Curry’s first game back. “He draws so much attention that I can just roll to the basket,” said Marquese Chriss, the beneficiary of two of Curry’s seven assists. “And when I get the ball if nobody steps up, I get a layup or get to make a decision to pass to somebody on the weak side.” One of the best things about Curry is how simple the game becomes for the people around him. “He makes the game fun,” Wiggins said. “He makes it exciting.” To borrow a vintage Kerrism, he creates joy—and now he’s providing it to a new supporting cast.
When the Warriors formed their pregame layup lines, it dawned on Curry that the team around him had turned over completely. Of the eight other Warriors who played in Thursday’s game, not a single one was on the roster when Golden State met Toronto in the NBA Finals. None are champions.
“Draymond usually throws me a pass in the corner at a certain time,” Curry said. “He wasn’t out there. Nobody got hype for my little scoop shot. It was really weird, for sure, but that’s the nature of the season. We’re trying to build something new based on the culture that we have and that championship identity. It’s gonna take some time, but it was fun just getting out there and playing with a bunch of new guys where you’re trying to build chemistry on the fly.”
Curry needed this. He needed this moment to subdue the nagging doubt that follows any injury, and to show he could be knocked to the floor, as he was early in the game, without damaging his surgically repaired hand. (Adding 23 points, six rebounds, and seven assists in just 27 minutes didn’t hurt.) He needed real basketball to relieve his own repetitive cycles, just as the Warriors had theirs. “The rehab process can be monotonous, and it can be overwhelming on a day-to-day basis when you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again,” Curry said. “That’s where being around the guys kind of gives you a jolt—even if you’re not playing. You rely on that.”
He needed that jolt, and to know what his future holds. Aside from a few 10-day contracts and two-way prospects, every other Warriors player is signed with the team for next season. Most have little idea of how to actually play with Curry, beyond the intuitive. When Juan Toscano-Anderson scooped up an offensive rebound, he didn’t know to look for Curry relocating to the corner for an open jumper. How could he? A similar dynamic exists for Curry, in a different way and on a different scale. Even when Green returns to the lineup (and Klay Thompson returns next season), the Warriors will have fewer connectors than Curry is accustomed to. In the past, Curry could give up the ball early knowing that keen facilitators would get it where it needed to go. He could trust in Green, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant, and once upon a time, in Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut, and David West.
For as eager as the Warriors were to move the ball on Thursday, enthusiasm is no real substitute for experience. The game has revealed itself enough for Eric Paschall to rack up eight assists, but has he really internalized his reads to the point he could make them under playoff pressure? Damion Lee clearly has some game, but will he recognize the swing pass that gives the Warriors the go-ahead look they need in a tight fourth quarter? Wiggins is among the more proven commodities on the roster, and yet there’s so much we still don’t know about how his skill set and Curry’s will interact beyond their drive-and-kick connections. These are the variables Curry has largely been able to take for granted on more veteran teams. No more. Golden State is now a developmental enterprise. It’s not so much a question as to whether Steph can still be effective in that setting, but more how he goes about acclimating to an entirely different way of life.
“We can start looking ahead, using these games to prepare ourselves for trying to reach a higher level of play,” Kerr said. These games are a gift. They don’t really matter, and yet they clearly matter; the lower stakes of this lost season make it an extended orientation for next season. It always made more sense for Curry to return to the floor rather than sit out the rest of the way, as long as his hand allowed it. Golden State’s ceiling in 2021 will in part be determined by the strength of this head start. Curry will have all the time he needs to dispense with his initial minutes restriction. Whether they win or lose, the addition of a genuine star allows the Warriors to begin their proof of concept—even if it’s drawn in rough sketches. A competitive game against the defending champions was as good a starting point as any.
“We can build off of that,” Curry said. The ground beneath the Warriors is finally stable enough to try.