Steph Curry is back: Here’s what the Warriors are still playing for

    Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

Stephen Curry has just completed his first contact practice in almost four months and Golden State Warriors officials are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Curry, who broke his hand on Oct. 30, is speaking to reporters for the first time since November.

His reemergence on Sunday against the Washington Wizards is a bright light in a forgettable season for a franchise that has gone to five straight NBA Finals. Since Curry’s injury, the Warriors have managed only 11 wins. When asked to describe just how different this team is from the one he came into the season with, the two-time MVP wipes some sweat off his shirt, scrunches his eyes and pauses to find the right words. His head shakes from side to side as a smile breaks across his face.

“It’s entirely different,” Curry says. “You got Loon, EP, JP, DLee, Draymond … “

He stops again as his eyes dart around a group of reporters. He’s looking for a little help.

“Am I missing anybody on the opening night roster?” he asks.

When reminded that training camp invitee Marquese Chriss and former two-way standout Ky Bowman are still on the team, he quickly mentions both players’ names as well.

“As I listed them out, that’s a pretty substantial group of people,” Curry says. “But really right now it’s just about trying to build the right habits, because obviously where we are in the standings … that’s really the only thing you can hold on to right now. “

Curry’s presence lifts up the spirits of the players and coaches around him. Fans who love to see him perform will fill up Chase Center again, hoping that he can provide the same magic for the organization that he has throughout his 11-year run with the team.

But as the Warriors get ready to reintegrate Curry into their day-to-day life, they do so hoping their star guard can help bring together a team that has undergone its second major makeover since July. The Warriors came into the season believing Curry’s brilliance could bring the best out of talented guard D’Angelo Russell, and then decided to trade Russell before the deadline — having made the determination that Russell was not going to fit into the organization’s long-term plans.

“The team [Curry is] coming back to, half the roster has turned over already,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr recently told ESPN. “That’s one of the things that makes these last 20-odd games important. We got to get a head start into next year. We’ve got to build some chemistry and some continuity.”

Here’s a look at the key questions facing the Warriors as Curry makes his return.

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What can we expect from Curry?

The Warriors still aren’t sure how many minutes Curry will play each night, especially in his first week back. What they do know is Curry’s presence on the floor will lift up the team.

“I think [assistant coach Bruce Fraser] said we should play ‘Joy to the World’ when he comes back,” Kerr said. “He’s the most joyful basketball player I’ve ever been around, and it’s just infectious. Look at these four coaches right now, all four coaches right now, I just looked over, they’re all smiling as they go through Steph’s shooting drills with him.”

Coaches and players all echo a similar sentiment: As this year comes to a close, it’s not so much what Curry can do for the team on the floor, it’s the fact that he’s there at all that will help the group the most.

“Steph’s one of the best people I’ve ever been around,” Warriors rookie guard Jordan Poole said. “As a human, as an individual. I think [when] you have that foundation, especially as a person, basketball and everything else will take care of itself.”

Poole, like many of the younger Warriors, has been picking Curry’s brain on and off the floor over the past few months. He is looking forward to playing with, and learning from, the future Hall of Famer.

At a league-worst 12-48, the Warriors aren’t focused on wins and losses as much as they are locked in on trying to get Curry to learn about his new teammates and those new teammates to learn from him.

“How hard he works,” Warriors rookie Eric Paschall said when asked what he has learned most from Curry this season. “Just how much he cares about the team and the organization. I feel like that’s one thing that carries a lot of weight, especially as a superstar. He’s a regular dude. That’s one thing I like about [him] the most, super regular, does what he has to do and just has fun.”

How does Wiggins fit in?

After Wednesday afternoon’s practice, Andrew Wiggins addressed reporters in his game jersey. He had switched into the Warriors’ home whites following his workout so that he could go through an abridged version of media day, which included taping several segments for the team’s in-house television arm — a sign of how new he still is.

“I still have a lot to learn,” Wiggins said. “I know some of the plays, but it’s not even close to all the plays. Every day I’m learning more and getting more used to it.”

While the Warriors want Curry to get used to playing with all his new teammates again, one of the biggest keys to his return for the final 22 games of the season is to see how he fits in with Wiggins. There remains a chance the Warriors could attach Wiggins’ contract to some of their future first-round picks to land another impact player this summer — but the far greater probability is that Wiggins is the Warriors’ starting small forward for the foreseeable future.

The organization has held firm to the belief that the team’s culture can bring the best out of Wiggins.

“I don’t think we’re really going to feel the full effect of Andrew’s presence until we’re whole,” Kerr said. “We’re playing lineups that we haven’t played all season, and we’re trying to plug him into that, which is a tough position to be in. But with that said, he handles that beautifully, he’s great to coach, he’s available every day, every night to play and that’s a good quality to be able to count on somebody night after night to be out there.”

The Warriors made the bet on Wiggins and his bloated contract, believing that he would be a better fit alongside Curry than Russell would. It’s a bet that will help define the second half of Curry’s career in the Bay.

“He’s a walking 20 points for sure,” Curry said.

When asked what the biggest difference is between the Warriors’ culture and the one he experienced over the years with the Timberwolves, Wiggins’ answer illuminated one of the reasons why Warriors staffers are so confident about his future in the Bay.

“We’re losing games here right now, but everyone’s still positive,” Wiggins said. “The energy’s still positive, everything’s still positive. It’s good spirits. Losing sucks, nobody likes to lose, but everyone keeps their head up high. We did that same thing in Minnesota, too, but here it’s a little different.”

What other Warriors are here for the long haul?

With stalwarts Curry, Green and Klay Thompson in the fold alongside Wiggins as a new core piece, the Warriors have to decide which other players are part of their future. Paschall and Chriss (playing a combined 51.7 MPG over the past 15 games) appear to have locked in rotation spots heading into next season, with Lee also pushing for more minutes given his solid play. Poole has shown flashes of promise in recent weeks but has not provided real consistency. Same goes for Bowman, who has had a lot of great individual moments but still needs to refine his game over the summer.

One of the largest questions heading into the end of this season and beyond centers around big man Kevon Looney. After dealing with a nerve condition throughout the first few months of the season, Looney has played in short bursts to mixed reviews, ranking last out of 94 power forwards in on-court impact based on ESPN’s real plus-minus at -2.96. He noted earlier this week that he is looking forward to having more rehab time this summer to get his body back on track. When asked about a hamstring injury that forced him to miss some games last month, Looney said he did not think the injury was directly related to his nerve condition, but he did offer a glimpse into how much time he has spent trying to get healthy.

“It’s like a day-by-day thing,” Looney said. “I’m pretty much over it, but I got to do a lot of maintenance work to keep it [in good shape]. I don’t want to have any setbacks, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with my body. Each game I feel like I get better, stronger and more confident with my body. Just learning to trust it all over again … it made me question my movements and I had to think before I even moved. Now I’m starting to feel better. I can just go out there and play off my instincts.”

What about the lottery?

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects the Warriors to snag pick No. 3.7 on average in the lottery. Both FiveThirtyEight and BPI have Golden State finishing in last place by a pretty comfortable margin. So with the flattened lottery odds — which give the Warriors only a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick with the worst record — there isn’t demand internally to chase losses.

“We haven’t spent one second discussing that dynamic, that winning could hurt us,” Kerr said in January.

“The players are going to play when they’re ready to play. And we’re going to try to win every game that we can. … I don’t think there’s a whole lot of value in doing anything else other than that.”

The good news for Kerr is that he is confident that both Curry and Thompson have gotten the mental break they needed away from the game after the intensity of the past five years. As the Warriors set out to achieve another championship run next season, Kerr is optimistic that both players are refreshed physically and mentally.

“I’m very confident that both Steph and Klay have gotten the mental break,” Kerr said. “I almost look at it — look at LeBron this year. LeBron looks like a different guy than he did a year ago. And eight straight trips to the Finals, just crazy. That’s a feat that people probably don’t talk about enough, to understand the emotional toll that takes.

“So for our guys, five straight trips to the Finals, just the feeling of being wiped out, Steph and Klay have both gotten to get away, not under ideal circumstances, neither one has been able really to enjoy themselves physically because of their injuries, but just to step away from the fight, I think has been important.”

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