After falling to the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals last season, the Golden State Warriors were up against themselves heading into the offseason.
It was already pre-determined that All-Star guard Klay Thompson would miss the entire 2019-20 season after tearing his ACL in The Finals. When Kevin Durant elected to walk away in free agency, plenty of questions arose around the league's most dominant team over the last five years. Even after getting another All-Star guard in D'Angelo Russell in return for Durant, there was skepticism on how he'd fit in.
The season they've had this year was written in the stars, but many held out hope solely based on the fact you cannot count Stephen Curry out. He's just that special.
When the two-time MVP broke his left hand just four games into the season, all of those hopes went out the window.
The Warriors currently own the worst record in the NBA at 13-48. That's only one loss shy of how many games Golden State dropped in the past two seasons combined.
It has essentially been a season long tryout for the unfamiliar faces on their roster, trying to prove they belong on the team when they're expected to return to contender status next season. It's safe to assume that head coach Steve Kerr and the team's front office have been watching closely to figure out which players will mesh with their core three players in Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green.
Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III both played well enough to become trade assets at the deadline. Russell's tenure with the Warriors also came to an abrupt ending as he was traded for Andrew Wiggins after barely half a season in San Francisco.
Players like rookie second-round pick Eric Paschall, former two-way player Damion Lee and former top-10 pick Marquese Chriss have showed some individual promise, but it hasn't translated to team success.
That's why March 1 became increasingly important to this Warriors team. It was the date that Curry had circled on his calendar to return from his broken hand.
Curry returning to action would give all stakeholders in the Golden State organization a chance get some value out of this season. An opportunity to watch guys like Wiggins, Paschall, Lee and Chriss play alongside the franchise's best player to see how they impact the game playing alongside the best shooter in the world.
Everything appeared to be lining up perfectly for that March 1 date, until the final day in February rolled around.
Curry had returned to full contact practice, participating in scrimmages with the team. He admitted his hand didn't feel completely normal, but was also aware that this is the "new normal."
"I'm getting used to what the new normal is," Curry responded when asked about his hand a week ahead of his mentally scheduled return date. "It definitely feels different, but I'm trying to get to a point when I'm actually playing basketball that I don't think about it."
He went through more practices and shootarounds, but within the day of his hopeful comeback, coach Kerr and the Warriors' medical staff shut down the idea.
"He was not thrilled, but Steph is always very rational and easy to speak with," Kerr told the media. "He put up a little fight, but also understood why we wanted to take extra precaution."
Golden State elected to send Curry down to their G League affiliate Santa Cruz Warriors to get some more scrimmage time in while the big league club traveled to Denver to take on the Nuggets. The good news for Warriors fans, is the confirmation that Curry will be back in the lineup to face the Raptors on Friday.
So what should the Warriors do with their superstar guard for the remainder of the season?
Curry should play anywhere between 20-to-25 minutes per game for the remainder of the season, which will give him 20 games to test his hand at game speed.
20-to-25 minutes should be just the right amount of time to let Steph make a difference on the floor without putting him at risk of re-injury. If his hand responds well after the first five-or-so games, then you could bump his playing time up for the final stretch of the season.
20 games is a solid sample size to give coach Kerr and the front office enough to dissect the games of Wiggins, Paschall, Lee and Chriss alongside Curry.
Wiggins has been solid so far in his first chunk of games with his new team, but he's being focused on as the Warriors' primary scorer. What will Wiggins look like when he has much more space inside when defences have to adjust to the gravitational pull that Curry amasses? And then add Thompson to that equation as well, moving Wiggins down another spot on the scoring totem pole, and you could have quite the third option.
"He's a walking 20 points," Curry said of Wiggins after his first scrimmage with his new teammate. "The intangibles he can bring, cutting, length on defense, all those things will be a fun process to build that chemistry. This is a 15-month journey to spring next year."
Wiggins immediately noticed Curry's impact, too. "He's a game-changer. Once he steps on the floor, the game changes," Wiggins stated after the same practice.
Paschall is another player who has stepped up as lead scorer for Golden State throughout this broken down season. The rookie does the majority of his damage attacking the basket, using his explosiveness to take defenders off the dribble, which should also flourish when Curry stretches out opposing defences.
As for Chriss, it's moreso to see if he can be a pick-and-roll threat or a valuable off-ball screener to Steph. When it comes to Lee, can he knock down open 3s when the defence is slow to rotate his way after frantically closing out on the sharpshooting guard?
Curry returning provides meaning and value to this otherwise discombobulated season in the Bay Area.
It gives the players that have competed in losing efforts all season a chance to show how they can help next year's team. It gives the six-time All-Star guard a chance to build on-court chemistry with his teammates. It gives the fans that signed up for season ticket packages at their brand new Chase Center arena in downtown San Francisco a reason to be excited to go to the team's 10 remaining home games.
Steph Curry is a showman. He's one of the most entertaining players in the NBA. If he feels he's both mentally and physically ready to return, why would the Warriors hold him out, even if the games he's participating in don't mean anything to this very season?
That first game that Curry goes full Human Torch, stopping every fan in their tracks to get to the nearest TV should serve as enough of a reminder that the Golden State Warriors will be back next season.
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