The Warriors might be leading the “most exciting/intriguing team of 2012-13″ race by a nose, though the Nets and Timberwolves are in the conversation. Most of the intrigue stems from good stuff: the coalescing of a vision for the team’s play, centered on a defensive game-changer in center Andrew Bogut, an army of elite shooters and the potential for a varied pick-and-roll attack. But a small chunk of the intrigue stems from bad stuff, as in: Can Golden State’s two best players actually stay healthy?
Bogut has suffered two freak injuries to unrelated body parts over the last two-plus seasons. Stephen Curry’s injury issues, however, have been repetitive and consistent — endless right-ankle turns, tweaks, sprains and strains, finally requiring surgery in April. If your point guard can’t turn the corner, change direction and get lift off both legs, your chances of building a top-five offense aren’t good.
Curry, who played only 26 games last season, told reporters this week that his ankle feels great (via Warriors World):
“Being out since March and having surgery in April, and my last two-and-half to three months of rehab, it’s been a good process. I’m being patient with it. Right now, being able to do a full-court workout and not having any pain or soreness or tightness. It’s very optimistic right now. We still have five weeks for training camp so it can only get better.”
He has a chance to be a transformational offensive player, a sort of Steve Nash Lite who combines point guard skills and Ray Allen-level shooting accuracy to become essentially impossible for teams to defend over 48 minutes. There’s a reason Nash’s teams in Phoenix and Dallas ranked either first or second in points per possession for nine straight seasons. The 24-year-old Curry is already just about on Nash’s level as a shooter. The next step is reaching something like 80 percent of Nash’s abilities as an off-the-dribble prober and creative passer, especially now that Monta Ellis isn’t around to split playmaking duties. (The Warriors did sign Jarrett Jack, who has the size to defend most shooting guards and thus could work as a partner for Curry in some stretches instead of as a run-of-the-mill backup point guard. Still, with Klay Thompson emerging and Brandon Rush and rookie Harrison Barnes available for playing time on the wing, I’m not sure the Warriors’ ideal minutes distribution involves heavy doses of the Curry/Jack pairing.)
Curry is never going to reach Nash’s level as a passer — how many have? — but he has the tools to bring more as a passer/penetrator than he did in his first three seasons. His assist rate is below average for a starting point guard. Though Ellis’ presence as a combo guard ate away at Curry’s passing stats, Curry actually averaged more assists per minute with Ellis on the court last season, according to NBA.com. Curry’s shot attempts jumped and his assists dropped when Ellis hit the bench, suggesting that Curry went more into score-first mode when he had full creative responsibility. Note: Curry played only 102 minutes without Ellis last season, and his passing numbers essentially stayed the same regardless of Ellis’ presence in 2010-11. And in Curry’s rookie year, his assists actually shot up when Ellis sat.
The former Davidson star is a pretty nifty passer with a good sense of what’s happening all over the court, both in transition and in the half-court. He’s capable of throwing tricky passes with both hands, and he has flashed essentially every pass you’d want from a point guard: behind-the-back bounce passes to a pick-and-pop big man at the foul line; wraparounds to cutting big men in the lane; pocket passes to David Lee on the roll; well-timed snappy dishes to spot-up shooters curling around screens; and smart drop passes on the pick-and-roll to the “other” big man when defenses converge on Curry’s pick-and-roll partner.
He has a good sense of space, too. Curry recognizes when his penetration to the foul-line area has sucked in a perimeter defender an extra step or two, giving one of his perimeter teammates a chance to drive by that defender if Curry can kick the ball there in time.
All the passes are there, really, and Curry has developed some nice hesitation moves and flippy off-the-glass shots he can use in traffic. It just hasn’t been there consistently yet. Curry tends to pull up early on pick-and-rolls for long two-point jumpers — not necessarily a bad thing because he is a dynamite shooter. But you’d like to see more probing for better looks, especially with all of the good three-point shooters around and Bogut providing a second capable offensive big man alongside Lee. The Warriors like to run a lot of two-man staggered screens for Curry, particularly in delayed transition, and when you sub Bogut in for Andris Biedrins and think about Thompson looping around behind those picks, Curry’s options on plays like that become pretty dizzying.
That “work for a better shot” thing applies to Curry, too. Only 15 of his 74 shots on the pick-and-roll last season and 36 of 291 in 2010-11 were three-pointers, per Synergy Sports. Considering how many jumpers he attempts off the pick-and-roll, you’d like to turn a few of those long twos into threes.
Defenses have also been able to get Curry moving backward on pick-and-rolls or string him toward the sideline, areas from which he’s less dangerous and more vulnerable to being trapped into a jump-pass. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing; Nash, Chris Paul and other elite point guards often invite that attention all the way to sideline, knowing that they’ve forced a defense to overextend and can take advantage by turning the corner. Curry hasn’t quite mastered that yet.
A healthy ankle aids all of those changes of direction and the general decision-making process. It’s an obvious requirement for Golden State to fulfill its potential. And given the defensive limitations and inexperience of some key players, the Warriors are going to have to reach their ceiling to snag a playoff spot in what should be a competitive race among at least 10 contenders. The eight postseason incumbents should all be good again, and Minnesota looms as a dangerous potential interloper, especially if point guard Ricky Rubio can provide some passing and defense in the second half of the season.