The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Stephen Curry holds the playoff hopes of the Golden State Warriors in his hands, and there are far worse palms to put your faith in than the greatest shooter in NBA history. He is a two-time MVP and three-time champion whose mere presence on the court creates space for everyone around him to do their best work.
There are two causes for concern with this trust in Curry as the lone star on a playoff team in a loaded Western Conference: His ability to stay healthy, and his teammates’ ability to leverage that workspace.
Curry has missed 104 of Golden State’s 229 regular-season games over the past three years with injuries to both hands, four right ankle sprains, a strained left groin, bruised right thigh and sprained left MCL. He is approaching his 33rd birthday, five years removed from being the best player on a loaded 73-win team, now without the injured Klay Thompson by his side and with Draymond Green trying to climb from a steep decline.
Historically, the Warriors have been a really good team, even a dominant one, with Curry on the floor and neither Thompson nor Kevin Durant in the lineup. Those rotations often featured Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, two veterans with championship pedigree who had a history of succeeding in Steve Kerr’s system.
The minutes left vacant by Thompson, Durant, Iguodala and Livingston will be taken mostly by Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore, none of whom has contributed to a playoff team in years. On eighth seeds that lost in the 2018 first round, Wiggins was the third-best player by a wide margin and Oubre came off the bench. Bazemore was a bit player on a 43-win team that lost in the first round the year prior.
Bazemore has not shot above league average from 3-point range in either of the past two seasons. Neither Oubre nor Wiggins ever have. Combined with Green’s sub-31% shooting from distance since 2016, that is enough to close the space Curry creates. Where is the shooting coming from outside of Curry? Brad Wanamaker, who would likely start in the event of Curry’s absence this season, brings the best 3-point percentage last season of anyone on the roster. He shot 36.3% on just 1.4 attempts per game.
Green’s offense has fallen off a cliff, especially last season, when his best offensive skill — facilitating from the center position both in transition and from the post — was wasted without highly skilled players around him. The 30-year-old also failed to make an All-Defensive team for the first time since 2014, missing a third of last season with injuries to his lower back, pelvis, knee, right ankle, right heel and two left fingers.
Is Green, once an All-Star for three years running, even Golden State’s second-best player in Thompson’s absence? Who is? Wiggins? Oubre? They are traditionally second and third options on sub-.500 teams.
The Warriors should hope it is James Wiseman, but that is asking a lot from the 19-year-old No. 2 overall pick in what was a draft void of high-end talent. With no summer league and nary a sight of the athletic 7-foot-1 rim protector in the Warriors’ first two preseason games, Wiseman has still yet to play in earnest since a three-game run with the University of Memphis in November 2019. He is being thrown into a fire.
The depth in the frontcourt beyond Green and Wiseman includes Kevon Looney, Marquese Chriss and Eric Paschall, all of whom have shown flashes as role-playing bigs but were the backbone of a 15-win team last season. That is the case for depth at every position. Who besides Curry and Green knows the playoff grind? Depth and experience only take on added importance in a season played amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It is not as though the Warriors looked like world-beaters before Curry fractured his non-shooting hand four games into last season. They were 1-2 through three games sans Thompson, including a pair of blowout losses to the only two playoff teams they faced. They were dreadful defensively in that limited sample size.
This is also not the East of the early 2000s, when Allen Iverson alone was worth a playoff berth. This is a conference with at least three tiers of playoff contenders. The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Denver Nuggets are locks. The Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks should be. The Houston Rockets have been, at least when James Harden is invested. The Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs all flirted with the eighth seed last season. The Minnesota Timberwolves are not a pushover. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder are high lottery locks.
Throw the Warriors in with that third group of teams that will be fighting for seventh through 10th place and the right to battle in a play-in tournament for the final two seeds. And it is anybody’s ballgame at that point.
They could scratch their way into that second tier if Curry reverts to his MVP level of four years ago, if Green enjoys a career resurgence as an ultra-versatile two-way weapon, if Wiggins and Oubre take steps forward under Kerr’s stewardship and if Wiseman is ready to contribute right away. But that is a whole lot of ifs, all of which could crumble under a two-week absence or more from the greatest shooter to ever live.
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