You can close your eyes and picture Stephen Curry in action, going through his go-to moves. You may see him running through a series of picks like a slalom skier in attempts to get open; you may imagine him dribbling the ball behind his legs as he sidesteps a defender in order to create space; and of course there’s his pulling up for a deep three before the opponents can set their defense in order to stop him. They’re moves that are all predictable in a general sense, though defenders can rarely ever predict just when they will be utilized nor can they do much to keep him from getting, and often converting, a good look whenever he wants it. It’s something he does every night and yet the novelty never wears off.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much Curry changed the way modern NBA basketball is both played and defended. But even in spite of how influential he was, still no one has been able to replicate his ability or achievements. While he didn’t transform the NBA singlehandedly, he was certainly the prime mover in these shifts. Teams were looking for their own sharp-shooting backcourt to try to replicate what the Warriors had unleashed in Curry and Klay Thompson, but Curry was a once in a generation player. No one could match his own skill or achievements, but teams still emphasized shooting like never before hoping that they could at least catch up to his team.
In 2015-16, the Warriors were first in the league in three point attempts, taking 31.6 per game. This year, that number would rank only 25th. Curry and the Warriors are living in the world they created, and it’s not that other teams are beating them at their own game, but having revolutionized the game once, they do not appear ready to do so again. What once was new and astonishing is now normal, and the cutting-edge offense and the devastating small-ball lineups the Warriors unleashed upon the league when Steve Kerr took over are now standard tools in most team’s arsenal. While no team has been able to replicate the Warriors dominance, Golden State is now just another team that relies heavily on three pointers, trying to find a way to stand out in a homogenous landscape.
Golden State seems to be a team caught between wanting to maximize the final prime seasons of their trio of Hall of Famers, while also wanting to build for the future. At this point, it remains unclear how good of a job they’re doing at either. With the Wolves 2021 first-round pick and James Wiseman, the Warriors have two great trade chips they could cash in, if not for their own reluctance to do so, and that there don’t currently appear to be any available players worth going all-in for. While the tendency to view a consistently good team that makes the playoffs nearly every year as a failure just because they’re not true title contenders is misguided, it also seems that for the Warriors to settle for such a fate at this point is foolish in its own way. Only so many players as transformational as Curry exist at any given time, players that a championship team can undoubtedly be built around, and to prize 2027 more than 2021 when Curry is already on your roster does not make sense.
While Curry’s awe-inspiring and giggle-inducing performances have not transformed the Warriors into a great team, they do remain one of the best League Pass selections solely because of his ability to do things no one else is capable of. And while there is something a bit depressing watching a player as great as Curry on a team decidedly a rung or two below title contender, there is also a joy in seeing him once again be the unquestioned leader of a team. When Durant joined the Warriors, they became one of the best and most imposing teams in basketball history, but something was lost too. The team became less fluid, less organic, less magical with Curry’s dynamic unpredictability balanced, and often overcome, by Durant’s more exacting, though no less dominant, style. With Curry on his own again, he is unleashed in a way he hasn’t been since the 2015-16 season, and though nothing can match the fever dream of that year, there’s something thrilling about watching him try.
Historically, guards have not aged particularly well. There are notable exceptions like John Stockton and Chris Paul, but neither of them relied on quick-twitch athleticism the same way Curry does. How will he adapt when he slows down a bit and is unable to lose his defender as easily, when he lacks the burst to get to the hoop or away from those chasing him around his teammate’s picks? Perhaps he will join his most formidable rival LeBron James in defying traditional trends, but if not, as fun as it can be to watch him play, the prospect of him winding down his prime in a series of meaningless seasons on an inconsequential team is a desultory prospect.
Watching Curry this year, he does not appear to have lost a step. He has adapted to life as the Warriors’ sole star with aplomb, the absence of Durant and Thompson not affecting his ability to create shots and score with ease even as defenses turn all their focus on keeping him from doing so. Without Curry, as last year showed, the Warriors are one of the worst teams in the NBA. With him, they are in the midst of the Western Conference playoff race, and a team no one would be eager to face in the postseason. It may not be the most glorious way to wrap up an illustrious career, but in light of his previous achievements, and how much joy and awe watching him can still inspire, it’s quite far from an ignominious one. Even when he retires, the league he revolutionized will remain, irrevocably remade in his own image.