Did the Golden State Warriors Waste a Year of Stephen Curry's Prime?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - January 6: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and James Wiseman #33 of the Golden State Warriors look on during the game against the LA Clippers on January 6, 2021 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Stephen Curry just wrapped up one of the greatest individual offensive seasons in NBA history.

In 34.2 minutes, he averaged 32.0 points, 5.8 assists, and an NBA-record 5.3 threes per game (he now holds the top three spots on that list, by the way). He had seven games with at least 10 threes. The rest of the NBA had six. In April and May, he averaged 37.1 points and 6.5 threes. Over the whole season, when newcomers Kelly Oubre Jr. and James Wiseman were off the floor, Curry put up 38.8 points per 75 possessions.

The list of game-breaking numbers could go on quite a bit longer, but the lasting impression may be where the Golden State Warriors finished.

They entered the league's inaugural play-in tournament in eighth place in the Western Conference. They had two win-and-get-in chances. It's hard to fault them for losing on LeBron James' desperation heave in the 7-8 game, but faltering against the Memphis Grizzlies and being in the play-in at all warrant a deeper look.

All year, the Warriors played like a postseason lock, as long as their rookie big man wasn't in the game.

They were plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when Curry was on the floor without Wiseman, compared to minus-8.3 (16th percentile) when the two shared the floor.

A swing that large is impossible to ignore, but it's really not fair to single out Wiseman. He's a rookie who spent most of the season as a teenager. He appeared in just three games last season with the Memphis Tigers. There was always going to be a learning curve, especially in an offense so dependent on reads, reactions, ball movement and player movement.

Wiseman seems tailor-made for a pick-and-roll heavy attack. The Warriors famously eschew that, at least in the traditional sense. Yes, you'll see them try to manufacture those 4-on-3 advantages with the Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll, but there are far fewer dives to the rim by a lob threat then there are for players like Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela.

That kind of simplified attack would've given Wiseman a softer landing, but Golden State spent much of 2020-21 in a sort of awkward in-between phase.

Curry may be a norm-buster, but his age suggests he's at or near the end of his prime. Wiseman needed developmental minutes on the floor, and he could've benefited from some adjustments, but how do you prioritize that over a year of Curry's peak?

Over the first few months of the campaign, the front office and coaching staff repeatedly fell off that tightrope.

Trying to square-peg Wiseman into Golden State's round-hole offense didn't work. He averaged 11.5 points, but the Warriors experienced significant dips in points per 100 possessions, effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive-rebounding percentage and free-throw rate when he played. There really wasn't an area in which he helped, at least not in the confines of Golden State's offense.

The fix probably wasn't as simple as just hammering high pick-and-roll, either. Warriors not named Curry shot 35.8 percent from three this season (the league average was 36.7). If defenses sold out on that primary action, there's no guarantee the supporting cast would've made them pay.

Flat-out sitting Wiseman would've been complicated too. When you spend the No. 2 pick on someone, you almost have to invest in some playing time. A long-term benching in Year 1 wouldn't have been admitting a mistake, but you can probably imagine some analysts going that far.

As difficult as it is to complete a trade in the NBA, that might have been the path of least resistance to short-term competitiveness.

Wiseman appeared in his last game of the season on April 10, when a torn meniscus ended his rookie campaign. From that point forward (including the game in which Wiseman went down), Golden State went 15-4 behind 37.2 points from Curry.

Had the front office moved on from Wiseman before the trade deadline (or even before the season), the Warriors might not have dealt with the play-in tournament at all.

Moving a player with that kind of pedigree often feels like a dramatic move, but again, his unreadiness was predictable. And Curry is a once-in-several-generations talent. In fact, most organizations have yet to have a single player of his caliber. As he nears his mid-30s, Golden State should be thinking about the here and now.

In March, Nikola Vucevic, a ball-moving and floor-spacing veteran big, was traded to the Chicago Bulls for essentially salary filler, Wendell Carter, Jr. and two first-round picks.

It may be impossible to know now, but would the Orlando Magic have bit on a similar offer from the Warriors? Wiseman, Oubre and picks might've accomplished comparable goals for Orlando, and Vucevic almost certainly would've raised Golden State's ceiling. Plus, he's on a reasonable contract that has him secured through 2022-23. He would've helped during Klay Thompson's comeback year too.

Of course, that's all purely speculative. Vucevic is a Bull, Wiseman is a Warrior, and the 2020-21 campaign is a wrap. "Coulda, woulda, shouldas" don't accomplish much now.

But despite an analytically disappointing first season, there may still be some organizations that are intrigued by Wiseman's raw talent. He's a seven-footer who runs the floor well for his size, can finish way above the rim and has a decent-looking jump shot. Figuring out the intricacies of NBA basketball on both ends will take some time, but he has plenty of upside.

Moving him this offseason for someone who can help now could put the Warriors right back into title contention.

On the year, Golden State was plus-17.6 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when Green and Curry played without Wiseman and Oubre. And that's with a decent sample size. Now, imagine adding Klay Thompson and one other impact player to that mix.

The Warriors might be able to have a resurgence reminiscent of the late-2000s Los Angeles Lakers.

"The comp is Kobe 06," Light Years Podcast's Sam Esfandiari tweeted in reference to Curry's lost season.

sam esfandiari @samesfandiari

-Team in transition with a ton of players who don’t work out -teenage rookie big who looks far away -FO hell bent on their way -coach who preaches ball movement, even with dudes largely incapable -insane individual run -disappointing last game when 1-man team looks poised for run

In that 2005-06 campaign, Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points for a team that finished eight games above .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Just under two years later, L.A. pulled off the Pau Gasol trade by sending multiple young players and first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies.

That, of course, helped the organization win titles in 2009 and 2010.

What may be the biggest distinction between those Lakers and these Warriors, though, is that 2005-06 was Kobe's age-27 season. Curry just wrapped up his age-32 campaign.

His shooting isn't likely to abandon him any time soon, but the window in which he can be the No. 1 on a title contender is starting to close. In the Western Conference alone, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell are all on the rise. Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard all likely have time left at or near the game's top tier.

It's time for the Warriors to act with a little organizational desperation.