Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry’s MVP-Caliber April Shows Golden State Warriors Their Future

“I think we all should just stop and appreciate what he’s doing right now”, Stephen Curry’s teammate Kent Bazemore said in the midst of Curry’s incendiary run throughout the month of April.

Curry was already having one of his best individual seasons since 2016, the year he won the only unanimous MVP award in NBA history. But the tear he’s been on has been a whole new level. Here is what Curry has done over the last month:

  • Across the month of April he averaged 37.3 points per game on 51.8% from the field, 46.6% from three-point range, and 90.8% from the free throw line. 
  • He obliterated the previous record for most three-pointers in a month with 96. 
  • He reeled off 11 consecutive 30-point games, breaking Kobe Bryant’s record for a player 33 or older. 
  • In one particular incandescent streak of five games he threw in four games with 10 or more three-pointers. The most double digit three-point games any other player has in their career is teammate Klay Thompson with five (or six if you count the playoffs). Beyond that no other player has hit that mark more than three times in their career. Curry has 21 such games. 
  • Curry has now hit 291 three-pointers this season, despite missing time and the NBA playing a shortened season. He will surely post his 4th season with more than 300 three-pointers made. The other player to have hit the 300 mark was James Harden in his own incandescent 2018-19 scoring season.
  • Curry passed Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors all-time leading scorer, having passed Reggie Miller on the all-time three-point shooting list earlier in the season.
  • He is currently in the lead for the scoring title, and leads the NBA in total points. The only other player to win the scoring title at his age was Michael Jordan.

Yet the Warriors remain mired in mediocrity, stuck in the play-in bracket with a .500 record. Realistically, despite that incredible list of achievements in the last month alone, that record is probably enough to doom Curry’s chances of his third MVP.

With three games left against the Pelicans, who are attempting to chase down the Warriors’ three game lead for a play-in spot, two against the tanking Thunder, and a final contest against the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State has plenty of chances to make it into the top eight in the West, and therefore get two cracks at one of the final playoff spots. But objectively that is a pretty poor return from such an incredible run from Curry.

The Warriors need pieces that fit

Still, this season has all been about preparing for a genuine championship attempt next season. Obviously they need more talent on their roster. This level of individual play just isn’t sustainable over a season, especially not with Curry well into his 30s. If there’s a star on the horizon this summer, the Warriors will be in the conversation. They’ve also got a decent shot at a potential lottery pick on the way, perhaps even two, and of course Klay Thompson’s return to look forward to. So there’s plenty to be optimistic about.

But the last month should certainly have helped remind the Warriors how to leverage Curry’s unique talents to the fullest. Their best stretch over the last month was an 8-3 run, powered not just by Curry, but by surrounding him with high-IQ role players who knew how to move the ball, move themselves, and hit the open shots presented by playing with Curry, and who could provide solid, versatile defense on the other end. 

As much as they would have liked proactive coaching decisions to be the driver, it was two injuries that really unlocked that Warriors mini-run. James Wiseman’s injury re-inserted Kevon Looney into the starting lineup, while Kelly Oubre’s injury brought Kent Bazemore into the starting lineup. Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson continued their solid seasons, playing increased roles very effectively off the bench. All four players understand how to play with Curry and can offer various levels of shot-making, passing, and defense to complement the rest of the roster.

Andrew Wiggins too has staked a strong claim as part of the Warriors’ future core, barring a superstar trade in which he is the ballast, at the expense of Oubre. Given the Warriors upcoming financial constraints, they can’t keep both. Wiggins simply has fitted in better to their system, moving the ball when needed and hitting 38% of his three-point shots.

Combined with his consistent defensive effort on the wing all season, Wiggins has not only been better than Oubre, but is also a much better fit – the ball doesn’t stop in his hands, and he picks his spots to get his rather barreling into multiple defenders or throwing up a shaky jumpshot. As a third or fourth wheel next season he’ll do fine as long as CEO Joe Lacob is willing to foot the enormous bill they’re facing.

Altogether that’s five role players, alongside Green and Thompson that the Warriors can count on as they seek to create a roster that might have a shot at contending around Curry. And crucially it shows the Warriors what they should have known all along – surround Curry with players who can play the right way and they will almost always have a decent shot at pulling out a win. 

James Wiseman will have to wait

The biggest blow this month was the news that their prized rookie James Wiseman would be out for 6 months with surgery to prepare the meniscus in his right knee. That has robbed him of what both he and the Warriors needed most – a full offseason of NBA development, complete with a summer league and training camp. 

Wiseman has been unlucky. His rise was always going to take time, but this was the worst possible thing that could have happened to his early career. Now he will enter his second season off the back of a predictably shaky rookie season without the extra opportunity to learn how to play the Warriors way or the intricacies of NBA defense, something he has struggled mightily with. 

The upshot of this is that Wiseman is now going to have to earn his minutes. Barring some miraculous growth the Warriors can’t count on him to be their starting center next season. If Wiseman can develop over the course of the season that’s a bonus, but for now he’s best used in a Javale McGee vertical spacing bench role at least for the initial stages. Over time he can offer much more, but a vital chance to accelerate that has now gone.

The Warriors need to amend their decision-making

The implication of all this is that the front office are going to need to change tack a little as they enter their most high pressure summer yet. Over the last couple of seasons the Warriors have prioritised athleticism and youth to refresh an ageing roster. But they just can’t afford to take punts on high potential rookies who are still learning how to play the game, or use valuable exceptions on talented but flawed players who can’t see an open pass or hit an open shot. 

The Warriors priority now has to be acquiring players with a high level of basketball IQ, feel for the game, and a solid measure of experience whether that’s in the draft, free agency, or the trade market.

If there’s a frustration, it’s that none of this is new. Exploiting a market inefficiency around basketball IQ is exactly how they built their 2015 title-winning team, bringing in Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.

The Warriors have done it before. Now they need to do it again. All the more so, since they now have final, conclusive proof that Steph Curry going absolutely supernova isn’t enough on it’s own.

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