The Golden State Warriors enter the 2022-23 season where 29 other teams wish they were: as defending champions. The confetti may have been swept up and the champagne may have dried ages ago, but the Dubs still carry the title of champs.
They’ll hold that label for 10 more months. They’ll raise a banner. They’ll have a ceremony. They’ll don rings that cost more than what most of us make in a year.
And they’ll try and do it again.
Like all teams, the Warriors have question marks. They lost two of their three best bench players and replaced them with worse players. They still don’t know exactly what they have in Klay Thompson. The rest of the league got better with Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray returning from injuries, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker presumably being healthy, James Harden having a full year to get acclimated to Joel Embiid, and the Boston Celtics adding Malcolm Brogdon to a team that finished two wins away from a championship.
And then there’s Steph Curry.
Curry isn’t the Warriors biggest question mark. If anything, he’s the littlest one. But he is, always has been, and always will be their X factor. Which means that his play this year will be the biggest factor in determining whether the Warriors repeat as champions, lose in the playoffs, or miss the postseason altogether.
There aren’t many reasons to think that the chef will take a step backwards this year, but there are a few. He’ll turn 35 shortly after the All-Star break, and Father Time comes for every player eventually. He’s come for many great players long before 35.
But perhaps most concerning for Curry is the burden he carried during the 2021-22 season. The Warriors championship run meant he played 22 postseason games — more than a quarter of a season on top of the regular season. His season lasted two months past the end of the 82-game schedule, meaning not only does he have the wear and tear of an additional two months of games, but he has two fewer months of offseason to rest up and recover.
That’s particularly of note because of the seasons that preceded the title run. In 2020-21, the Warriors played two play-in games and zero postseason games. Curry had a long offseason to prep for last year. In 2019-20, Curry played only five games due to injury. He was fairly well rested for the recent championship push.
Those concerns are valid but, thankfully, they’re nothing compared to the evidence in Curry’s favor. He was, by any and every account, one of the five best players in the NBA last year — history says he’ll be, at the least, close to that again. He improved as the season went on, with nearly unfathomable levels of efficiency in each of the final two months of the regular season.
Much of that was due to the lessened offensive burden. With Thompson’s return, and the emergence of Jordan Poole, Curry was able to carry a lighter load. His usage rate dropped from 34.0% in October, 31.0% in November, and 34.4% in December, to 29.9% in January, 28.3% in February, and 28.1% in March.
A full season of Klay — presumably playing a lot better — should give the on-court chemistry to once again be the best version of himself. The knowledge that this team is unquestionably in the race for a title — and has a gigantic target on its back — should provide any motivation needed.
Curry’s also found ways to lessen the wear and tear during games, which is part of what allowed him to average his most minutes per contest since Steve Kerr took over as head coach. His 16.5 threes attempted per 100 possessions was near his career high, and far ahead of where he stood earlier in his career. He’s gotten better at drawing fouls without excess punishment, and while he still functions as probably the greatest off-ball scorer in NBA history, he’s increased his efficiency of movement in that department.
And with reports swirling about the Warriors unwillingness to pay all of their upcoming free agents, Curry will likely feel an extra dose of motivation to prove to management that if the dynasty comes to an end, it won’t be because the players are lacking in talent.
Some day, Curry’s spot as an MVP contender will begin to fade. Someday soon, even.
But I’m not breaking any news when I say that I wouldn’t bet on that day being today.