BDL 25: Stephen Curry's search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4612/" data-ylk="slk:Stephen Curry">Stephen Curry</a> walks on the floor during the second half of Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Stephen Curry walks on the floor during the second half of Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

There are no Ls in the name Stephen Curry. There are, however, seven in the sentence “The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals.” Which is why, even though the Dubs clearly won the summer and stand as the odds-on favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy come June of 2017, it still feels like your man Wardell (ah, there are those Ls) finds himself in a fairly unenviable situation.

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First, a reminder of how we got here. Curry spent the full six months of the 2015-16 regular season engulfed in flames, terrifying opponents and snatching their souls with every blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flick of the wrist.

Nobody has ever shot like that. Not that often, not that successfully, not that confidently, not that brazenly off the bounce. We’ve seen plenty of self-assured and accurate high-volume gunners over the years, but the combination of speed, efficiency, swagger and seeming certitude made Steph’s 2015-16 campaign stylistically unprecedented.

It was statistically unprecedented, too. Curry ranked second in the NBA in usage rate, finishing nearly one-third of the Warriors’ offensive possessions with either a field-goal attempt, foul drawn or turnover. He also produced a True Shooting percentage (a stat that takes into account a player’s accuracy on 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) of 66.9 percent. Not only did that lead the NBA last year; it was the 20th-best mark ever, according to Basketball-Reference.com, an outlier on a leaderboard dominated by low-usage big men who catch and dunk in the pick-and-roll or specialist wings who served more as release valves than as primary offensive options. It’s not supposed to work this way, but Curry commanded a bigger share of the best offense in the world and got more efficient. Nobody’s ever carried so large an offensive load while shooting so accurately.

Curry did all that, and led the NBA in scoring and steals, and became the fifth player ever to average better than 30 points, 6.5 assists and five rebounds per game for a season, and led the Warriors to the highest regular-season win total in NBA history. For all of that, he earned the first unanimous (though not undisputed) NBA Most Valuable Player award ever. It was unbelievable, exhilarating, a nightly exercise in fan service, a truth somehow more jaw-dropping than fiction. And then there was a tweak, a slip and a sprain, and suddenly, things weren’t so perfect anymore.

Curry could still muster magic — the playoff-record 17-point overtime after two weeks on the shelf to stun Portland, the back-from-the-dead performances in Games 6 and 7 vs. Oklahoma City, the MVP-worthy turn in Game 4 of the Finals to put the Cavs on the brink — but the conjuration stopped being constant, ceased to be a matter of fact. He was no longer untouchable, and he got touched up, often, and that frustrated him, and he couldn’t escape. Ball in his hands, proven mismatch created, down by three, need a bucket, final minute of Game 7, and he couldn’t escape. Neither could the Warriors.

Suddenly, things weren’t so perfect anymore. Suddenly, Curry had gone from the smiling face of arguably the greatest team in NBA history to the leader of the team that had suffered arguably the greatest collapse in NBA history. Now, after skipping the 2016 Summer Olympics to rest his ailing knee, Curry returns to the court to start the journey anew, with the deck simultaneously stacked both for and against him.

The import of Kevin Durant — himself coming off a postseason collapse and seeking the kind of image rehabilitation that, regrettably, 2Pac and Rick James tattoos alone just can’t bring — gives Golden State a murderous lineup, enough firepower to produce what could be one of the best offenses the league’s ever seen, and an elite post-up/isolation-scoring release valve to counter defenses that snuff out the Warriors’ pick-and-roll/off-ball motion attack. It provides what looks like a supercharged upgrade to the small-ball “Death Lineup” that dominated the NBA last season, with Durant taking Harrison Barnes’ place as a near-7-foot “small-ball” power forward. Even amid roster churn that will see the Warriors enter the season with a handful of new contributors taking the place of the since-departed Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli, it positions Golden State as an unquestioned season-opening favorite to make their third straight Finals and win their second NBA title under Steve Kerr.

But Durant’s addition also leaves Curry, fairly or unfairly, looking like the MVP who needed another MVP to get his team back to being the best. He might find it funny that people are looking at the Warriors like cheat-code supervillains now, but the Warriors do feel different now as a collective, and that’s going to color how some folks feel about Steph as an individual, whether Golden State stomps its way to rings or — perhaps especially — if the anointed ones struggle.

Like Klay Thompson before him, Steph insists he won’t need to sacrifice anything or change his game to make room for Durant. But if the “turbulence” that general manager Bob Myers expects the team to experience winds up manifesting in struggles that go beyond just falling short of last season’s win total, the calls for something to change, for someone to sacrifice, will come … and, as unthinkable as it would have been five months ago, they could come for the two-time-reigning MVP.

Even if everything goes right — if Curry’s 100 percent after a summer of rest, if Durant fits hand-in-glove, if the newly added rotation pieces pick up where their predecessors left off, and the win-stacking continues apace — how likely is it that Steph’s going to do that again? Yes, Curry has improved consistently from year to year over the course of his career, and followed up his 2014-15 MVP season by making such significant leaps as to both win another Podoloff Trophy and finish fourth in Most Improved Player voting … but even the greatest shooter ever has to regress to the mean at some point, right? If he does — if, after two years of thrilling us with the highlight-heavy stuff of legend, Steph goes from The League’s Most Unguardable Player™ to “merely” An All-Star Who’s One of the Two or Three Best Players on an Elite Team — will we look at him the same? It might be enough to get the revamped Warriors back to the top of the mountain, but would it be enough to get Steph back to the rarefied air he occupied before Donatas Motiejunas hit the deck and Kevin Love started shuffling his feet?

It’s perhaps foolhardy to question how Curry will respond to the burden of expectations and the pressure to perform after having just watched him follow up one MVP campaign with an even better one. This challenge feels different, though. Steph’s not just trying to prove the best season of his career was no fluke, or that he’s back to full health. He’s trying to prove you can regain lost invulnerability, and he’s trying to replicate a miracle. The Warriors and their fans have faith that, through Steph, all things are possible. The rest of us will be watching, waiting to see if he can once again make us believe the unbelievable.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

More basketball coverage from Yahoo Sports:

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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