SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometime early next month, after clearing the few remaining obstacles, Steph Curry is expected to return to his customary place in the Warriors’ starting lineup.
This is the plan. It’s what Curry wants and what the Warriors have stated -- despite groans of dissent from the more apprehensive cells of Dub Nation.
Moreover, this is as it should be.
There will be 15-to-20 games remaining after Curry is cleared to return. There is no point in spending March and April trying to sprint back into the playoff race, which is half the rationale uttered by those who don’t want Curry on the court until next October.
While there are no immediate stakes, there are significant long-term ramifications.
The final few weeks of the season become intriguing if Curry is active, and they are particularly meaningful if he is starting alongside two relative strangers. He has never played with Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors' new starting small forward, and only has played 31 minutes, scattered over three games, with Marquese Chriss, the starting center.
“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.
“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league.”
Curry, though, was and still is the hub of this offense. As KD often said, “Steph is the system.” Which is why his late-season availability is more crucial than that of Klay Thompson, who plays off Curry in a 3-and-D role that he has mastered. Klay’s game need not change. Steph’s game, as the point guard, requires a grasp of the strengths and weakness of all of his teammates.
To sit a healthy Curry over the final weeks would only make him antsy. Worse, it would be detrimental to the first few weeks next season, when losses once again will matter. Why risk a 7-7 start while “figuring it out,” when roster chemistry and court geometry can be addressed in the low-risk conditions of March and April?
Put another way, doesn’t a head start make sense?
“I do know that this last part of the season is an important stretch for us to springboard into next year,” Kerr said. “With the trade for Andrew and all the young guys we’re trying to develop and Steph’s return, these are important games. They allow us to get to know each other and play together and maybe fiddle with some lineups, fiddle with some schemes and get a look at them over the summer before we get back to camp.”
If every current Warrior were healthy and the team was chasing a playoff seed, the starting lineup would feature Curry and Thompson at guard, Draymond Green and Wiggins at forward and Chriss at center.
The remainder of the rotation would be culled from guards Ky Bowman, Damion Lee and Jordan Poole; forward Eric Paschall; and, assuming he’s able to play 15ish minutes per game, center Kevon Looney.
This foundation is not dramatically different from what the Warriors will have when they open training camp in about seven months. They’ll have added a lottery pick and a free agent, maybe a tweak here or there, but Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Green comprise the new core four.
The next Curry update is nine days away. Assuming there no setbacks, he’ll be scrimmaging around that time and able to play in early March.
The current Warriors are best served by playing together as soon as possible. It’s good for the players and the coaching staff. But only if Curry is part of the action will the evaluation be as thorough as it should be.
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Cue the cringing amongst those worried about the Warriors jeopardizing their lottery positioning and visualizing the nightmare scenario where Steph is injured in a game with the Warriors entered with a 15-53 record.
Even then, such games won’t be “meaningless.” To the contrary, it’s absolutely significant insofar as it provides information that can be useful ahead of the draft and free agency.