Meaningful growth from Stephen Curry, Warriors builds momentum for potential return to title contention

SAN FRANCISCO — Just when the Golden State Warriors’ season seemed like it was getting started, it came to an end. The team was playing some of the best basketball in the NBA. Local statues had just changed to allow over 7,500 fans into Chase Center for the first time since the pandemic began. The young players, who had put in so much time and effort both on their own and with coaches, were playing huge minutes in crucial games.

But with Friday’s 117-112 overtime loss to the resilient Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors became the first No. 8 seed in NBA history not to make the playoffs. Instead of testing their mettle in a first-round series with the league-best Utah Jazz, the Warriors will sit back, reflect and hope that the momentum generated over the last third of the schedule carries over into next season.

“Couldn’t be prouder of the group. Just incredible effort and determination,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “They stuck together. They made this season really meaningful over the last couple of months, and that’s important.”

Once Klay Thompson went down with a torn Achilles last fall, this Warriors season was no longer about getting back into championship contention. It became about development, both for the young players who found themselves thrust into bigger roles and for the veteran leaders — Stephen Curry and Draymond Green — who needed to learn how to thrive amid mediocrity following years of excellence.

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“I think our young guys really grew. I think our vets had great years,” Kerr said. “So fun to see Kevon Looney healthy again. Steph and Draymond had just fantastic years. I think we made a lot of strides this year and I’m really, really excited about what’s next for this group.”

That, indeed, is the lingering question for this Warriors team. What’s next? Kerr called this season “a success,” but missing the playoffs won’t be acceptable next season as Curry, Green and Thompson all get a year older.

Curry had perhaps the best season of his career, becoming the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan and a finalist in the race for his third NBA MVP, and the way teams defended him — sending three guys at him at times — only gives him more confidence heading into next season when he’ll potentially have more help with Thompson’s return.

“I don’t think I’ve put together a run like that, with that much [defensive] attention in my career, so it was a really rewarding experience,” Curry said after the loss to Memphis. “The great ones figure out a way to adapt, and understand what the challenge is and not complain about it, not make excuses, but just go out and hoop. … There’s some joy and fun in that, because you know the conversation is how they’re gonna stop you, and you’ve found ways to keep that question unanswered.”

We all saw what Curry did on the court, and the Warriors will benefit from his accumulation of tricks and knowledge next season, but his growth as a leader may be just as important. Without veterans like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut, that they had during those championship runs, it will be up to Curry and Green to wrangle the younger players. Green said at times this season it felt like the team “wanted to quit” and that there was “no hope,” and in those moments Curry’s leadership shone through the strongest.

“As someone who’s played with him for nine years now, that was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen from him,” Green said of Curry’s leadership. “I know the year was incredible, the shots were incredible, the scoring, all the things that he did were incredible. But what I took away from this year was how he grew as a leader. He stood out in front of us and gave us all someone to follow. That was the coaching staff, that was everyone. He gave all of us someone to follow. And it was incredible to follow him.”

Some of the players that Curry and Green helped lead this year have gone from afterthoughts to core components of the Warriors’ brilliant run over the final 20 games of the season, when they led the NBA in net rating and defensive rating. Jordan Poole was in the 15th percentile in overall offense as a rookie last season, according to Synergy Sports Technology. This season he finished in the 77th percentile, and earned Kerr’s trust to the point that, in a do-or-die final game of the season, Poole played 38 minutes, scoring 19 points on 3-for-5 3-point shooting.

Juan Toscano-Anderson, whom the Warriors signed to a long-term contract late in the season, became an essential part of the Warriors bench and one of the team’s best defenders, while flashing Draymond-esque playmaking from the four position. Mychal Mulder shot 40 percent from the 3-point line, also showcasing his impressive vertical leap on backdoor lob plays. Andrew Wiggins isn’t exactly young by NBA standards, but he successfully flipped the narrative of his career with an excellent two-way season, and might be viewed as at least a neutral asset, rather than a negative one, heading into the offseason.

“It’s exciting. We’re going to have some guys come back who are so much further along than they were in training camp this year. So our depth is going to improve, and we’ve got some assets with possibly a couple of first-round picks,” Kerr said. “You know, some great, great veteran players like Steph and Draymond and obviously Klay coming back will change a lot about our team. Very exciting. We have a lot of work to do this summer, but we’re all excited about it.”

It’s probably naive to think, however, that this group plus Klay Thompson and James Wiseman will suddenly go from missing the playoffs to winning a championship. Green said that the team is still “far away” from getting back into title contention and that he expects to be “extremely involved” in conversations with the coaches and front office about which personnel moves can improve the roster.

That’s another reason the growth of the young players this season was so important. Should the Warriors try to package their assets, namely Wiseman, their own first-round pick and/or this year’s first-round pick that they’re owed from the Minnesota Timberwolves (which is top-three protected and becomes unprotected in 2022, but has the highest percentage of landing at either No. 7 or No. 8) for a game-changing star, pieces like Poole and Toscano-Anderson only make a potential offer more enticing.

The Warriors face financial restrictions because of the gobs of money owed to Curry, Green, Thompson and Wiggins, which means re-signing Kelly Oubre Jr. might be a prudent move, if for no other reason than to have a tradeable salary. Moves will be made, whether or not there’s a “home run” transaction out there.

But for now, putting the offseason aside, the Warriors are proud of how this season ended. We saw how the Phoenix Suns took the momentum they built from an 8-0 run in the bubble and carried it over into this season. Golden State is hoping a similar phenomenon helps return the team to its former glory.

“It was a special year all things considered, and a new experience for me, Draymond, Loon,” Curry said. “Try to make the most of it. Bottle this up, everybody make the right strides, take advantage of the summer and — you don’t want to see us next year.”

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