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Can Stephen Curry thrive as a solo star?

The former two-time Kia MVP enters an interesting phase of his career.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Stephen Curry is averaging 26.5 points, but shooting just 31.8% on 3-pointers this season.

The ball was tossed his way and he tossed it right back, only higher and softer and straighter. This went on for what, five, six minutes? Stephen Curry caught passes in practice earlier this week from Bruce Fraser, the Warriors’ assistant coach and long-time Curry ball retriever, and made 3-pointer after 3-pointer. It was clearly a contest to see whose arm would tire first: Curry’s, Fraser’s, or the one filming.

As you surely know by now, Curry made 105 3s in a row before, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, he “choked” on 106. It was a marvelous display of fundamental shooting, rhythm and concentration, except now comes the hard part for Curry.

Because, what’s the bigger and more difficult challenge, making all those 3s in a row, or restoring the Warriors without a shooting co-star?

In years past, Curry could always count on having like-minded company both at shooting practice and at games. Klay Thompson and Curry regularly conducted “shootouts” at the Warriors’ workout facility, often long after teammates had showered. And of course, the two conspired to shoot down opponents on the floor, where together, they were the finest shooting backcourt in NBA history.

And for three bonus seasons, Curry also had Kevin Durant, a former Kia MVP and four-time scoring champion, around to add more flavor to those shooting contests and most importantly, draw defenses away from Curry and make life easier.

But now, as a singular star, Curry is alone on an island, with Thompson recovering from his second major leg injury and Durant in Brooklyn with the Nets. Given this change of fortune, the basketball culture gets to see how Curry adjusts to a reality he hadn’t experienced since his first few years in the league, well before his reputation and expectations soared.

As he warned us recently: “This year’s different.”

What are the realistic expectations for the Warriors this season?

This seems an awkward topic to raise about a two-time MVP and three-time champion; however: Is Curry, now working solo, good enough to haul the Warriors to the highest levels of the NBA?

The factors working against him: NBA history, and also the competition he and the Warriors are facing in yet another stacked season for the Western Conference.

The history part is cruel, especially against smallish guards. Allen Iverson in 2001 was an outlier as he took the Sixers to The 2001 Finals, where they were overmatched against the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Lakers. Otherwise, no normal-sized guard has ever come close to that success, not without All-Star help. And anyway, asking Curry to lead the Warriors back to The Finals this season, after a two-year absence and without Thompson and/or Durant, seems unrealistic and unfair.

The most ambitious scenario has Curry and the Warriors returning to the playoffs, and even that comes without guarantees. There are simply too many variables and too much unpredictability in the rotation, coupled with a conference thick with good teams, that’ll make even a postseason journey an adventure.

There are some harsh critics who might take it a bit further and suggest this season will serve as a statement about Curry’s true greatness. If, for example, the Warriors fall into the lottery for the second straight year — this time with a healthy Curry — would that be a blow to Curry’s reputation? Shouldn’t the game’s all-time all-around shooter and two-time MVP be good enough, even at age 32, to lead his team at least to the playoffs?

Those questions will be answered in time. Meanwhile, Curry is by far the most accomplished and proven option on the Warriors, with all due respect to Draymond Green (who is expected to make his season debut Friday after missing the first four games with a foot injury). Already, defenses have adjusted and pounced on the opportunity to throw traps and double-teams at Curry, strategies that would’ve been costly in the past with Thompson and Durant around.

But now? Curry is averaging 26.5 ppg and 7.0 assists, but he isn’t enjoying the same freedom as before. He’s shooting just 41.3% overall and 31.5% on 3-pointers, meaning he’s forced to work harder for his shot. Yes, it’s a small sample size, so no need to jump to any quick conclusions, yet those are alien to a player with career shooting marks of 47.6% and 43.4%, respectively.

“There’s no excuse, just for what my expectations for myself and shots that I take I always think I’m going to make,” Curry said about the rough shooting. “I don’t think — maybe one or two of them I would call bad shots. The rest of them I was confident in and ones that I feel I can make. And it’s just a matter of sticking with the program.”

Unlike the historic moment he spent at practice hoisting that record number of 3-pointers, there are multiple defenders in Curry’s grill when the game starts.

Stephen Curry drives to the basket against two defenders during the Warriors’ win over the Bulls.

The teammates that surround him are, for the most part, dealing with transition and it was uncomfortable early. Kelly Oubre, an athletic swingman, is playing for a stable and winning franchise for the first time in his career. Same for Andrew Wiggins, who’s also — still — dealing with the outsized expectations stemming from his No. 1 overall Draft status and his massive contract, both of which are swallowing him up. Then there’s James Wiseman, the rookie center who’s showing teases of being very good, but again, there’s plenty of games and growing experiences that lie ahead.

Oubre has missed 20 of his 21 shots from deep as he struggles to fill the Thompson role and stretch the floor. Wiggins is once again bedeviled by lapses of inactivity and costly disappearances. Wiseman, while off to an impressive start, isn’t commanding high-alert respect from opposing defenses just yet.

“We’re learning and growing,” Curry said. “Mostly just because of different personnel and that’s OK right now. We’re learning and growing so I think you got to be honest with yourself. Around the first two games it was terrible and disjointed. As we continue to grow week to week we can add a little bit. We just have to make sure our effort and competitiveness is there, and that will help us get through these early growing pains … it will come.”

The work for the Warriors begins when Curry surrenders the ball. There’s almost 10 points separating Curry from the Warriors’ second leading scorer this season, a drop-off that might continue the entire season. It’s an imbalance that Curry has never seen with the Warriors, even in the early days when at least he had Monta Ellis around.

In that sense, Curry could find himself in a similar place as James Harden, pre-Chris Paul and pre-Russell Westbrook … and Westbrook in his MVP season after Durant left OKC … and Derrick Rose in his MVP season in Chicago. Those high-scoring and overloaded guards, lacking a dangerous shotgun rider, managed to lead their teams to the playoffs. Those examples would be reasonable standards for Curry in 2020-21.

It’s an interesting basketball phase for Curry. He has two more years on a max contract that he’d like to see extended after he turns 35, always a tricky age for players not named LeBron James. He won’t have Thompson until next season, and even then, nobody knows what to expect from a player who’s had surgery to repair a knee and Achilles. Also, if Warriors’ ownership is spoiled by all those championship runs, will there be wholesale changes if the Warriors struggle this season and next?

Those are issues for the future. For now, Curry must reach a comfort zone between a golden era that produced three titles, and a more tempered reality caused by a crucial missing player and the simple fact that great moments don’t last very long, not in today’s NBA. As Kerr mentioned often during the Warriors’ championship runs, they weren’t living in the real NBA world.

Just as the NBA is about to learn a lot about the transitional Warriors, there’s also lots to learn about their star, now riding solo, caught up in this new and barely familiar basketball life.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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