| USA TODAY
Understanding the NBA’s unconventional 2020-21 season
SportsPulse: This isn’t your grandparent’s NBA. Following a short layoff from the previous season, the league has devised a unique plan for 2020-21, but will it go off without a hitch?
Around this time, the Golden State Warriors’ star usually wrestled with the NBA’s first-world problems.
How can Stephen Curry keep his team engaged after winning another NBA title? How will he and his other All-Star teammates fit in together? How far out can Curry shoot from long distance?
This time around, Curry faces more difficult circumstances than trying to drain a shot from half court. In the middle of a pandemic, the Warriors opened mandatory individual workouts already missing two players after testing positive for the coronavirus. All-Star guard Klay Thompson nurses a season-ending right Achilles injury, an absence Curry called a “gut punch.” And outside of Curry and Draymond Green, the Warriors have a young and untested roster that Curry conceded will have “to adjust on the fly.”
Therefore, the Warriors’ hopes to become a championship contender again won’t happen this season. But after finishing last season with the NBA’s worst record, expect them to still make the playoffs. The primary reason? Curry remains capable of showing greatness regardless of his supporting cast.
“I hear it, but it doesn’t sink home at all,” Curry said Wednesday on a conference call. “I didn’t get big-headed when they picked us first in the league. I won’t get overwhelmed with wherever they have us coming into this season.”
Whoever has the Warriors missing the playoffs will be proven wrong come May. The main reason? Expect Curry to feel fully rejuvenated and rested after playing only five games last season after fracturing his left hand. Since then, Curry has performed well with balancing his off-season approach.
He initially rested both to heal and recharge after winning three NBA titles out of five Finals appearances. He then consistently worked virtually with his trainer, Brandon Payne, on all parts of his game. About a month ago, Curry organized informal scrimmages with his teammates in San Francisco that entailed all players testing beforehand to ensure they did not expose anyone to COVID-19.
“I’m confident with where my body is and how I’ve approached these last eight months,” Curry said. “I’ve put a lot of work in and have been thoughtful around how to pace myself.”
There are other reasons as well. Curry and Green learned the hard way how tough life would be last season without Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Thompson en route to a 1-3 start. Had Curry stayed healthy, though, he eventually would have helped the Warriors overcome their initial learning curve. That is because Curry and Green have remained the Warriors’ most important duo.
While Curry remains the NBA’s best shooter, Green remains one of the league’s best playmakers and defenders. Though Warriors coach Steve Kerr rightfully will not start playing Curry 40 minutes per game, Kerr plans to feature Green and Curry in lineups together to take advantage of that tandem. Curry also added that “everything is on the table” with how often he will play in pick-and-roll or in the Warriors’ traditional pass-heavy offense.
“Our culture and what Draymond and I can provide from a leadership standpoint,” Curry said, “can help get us going pretty quickly.”
Warriors forward Kevon Looney is healthy. Forward Eric Paschall and guard Jordan Poole have further developed from their promising rookie seasons. The Warriors have a dependable wing defender (Andrew Wiggins). Kent Bazemore and Brad Wanamaker are steady role players who can at least give Curry enough chances to rest. And the Warriors’ No. 2 prospect (James Wiseman) and second-round pick (Nico Mannion) are expected to progress quickly after spending their high school years at Curry’s camp.
Curry and Green mostly benefitted from the time off instead of struggling with not playing games since March. The same things cannot be said about the other teams that weren’t in the bubble, including the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
“We’re always going to think whatever it is as an advantage. It’s a mindset that you got to have,” Curry said. “The rest was nice.”
So where do the Warriors stand exactly? Well, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers will remain the top teams in the Western Conference. The middle of the conference will feature the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz in any order because each team has a healthy blend of star power and continuity. That leaves the Warriors, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans fighting for the final two playoff spots.
The Suns and Pelicans each have a good shot. Chris Paul will help Phoenix’s young roster make an extra push after winning all eight games in the NBA bubble and barely missing the postseason. The Pelicans have a good chance with a healthy Zion Williamson and a growing Brandon Ingram.
But keep these two realities in mind. One, the NBA will feature a play-in tournament, which would allow the Warriors to advance through that route. Secondly, the Warriors have the most experience to navigate the season’s moving parts, including possible COVID cases, injuries from a compressed season and the awkwardness with playing without fans.
Most importantly, however, the Warriors have Curry. He may have conceded uncertainty on whether he will play in next year’s Olympics. But bank on him competing in the NBA playoffs.
The Warriors’ star player has often spent his career proving those wrong who doubted him about his size, his durability and his potential. With his elite shooting, distinguishable leadership and improved durability, Curry will do that once again.
“We’ve had a lot of experiences to chase to get to the top, trying to stay at the top and being on the other side of trying to get back there,” Curry said. “I love every experience in this league. I love every opportunity and the challenge of what it takes to be successful.”