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Stephen Curry is better than ever, but the Warriors are floundering

Stephen Curry has played at an MVP-caliber level through the first month of the NBA season, but the Golden State Warriors are mired in a puzzling championship hangover. (Matt York/AP)

The greatest shooter in NBA history has become famous for his expressiveness in gleeful times, bounding around the court, pounding his chest and even putting opponents to bed when necessary.

But Stephen Curry has long possessed remarkable composure when facing adverse circumstances, avoiding the slumped shoulders, finger-pointing and profane tirades that can become commonplace when losses mount.

Late in the third quarter of a blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, the Golden State Warriors star exhibited a rare breach of decorum. After teammate Andrew Wiggins was called for a foul, Curry’s frustration bubbled to the surface and he punched the basketball high into the air. The moment passed quickly: Before the whistle blew for a technical foul, Curry had, true to form, already calmed down and chased after the ball in an effort to return it to an official.

Unfortunately for the Warriors, the trying times that have marked the beginning of their title defense figure to be longer lasting than Curry’s split-second vent session. In a season that was cast as perhaps the “Last Dance” for a veteran core that has won four titles in the past eight seasons, Golden State is already grappling with the fact that only Curry has consistently stayed on beat.

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Well before he capped last season with a signature triumph in the Finals, Curry opened the campaign by playing the best basketball of his career. The 14-year veteran has been even better through the first month of this season, averaging 32.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. Not only is Curry comfortably above the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting splits, he is averaging more points, rebounds and assists than Michael Jordan did during the Chicago Bulls’ “Last Dance” run of 1997-98.

At 34, Curry has blended expert technique, mental mastery and improved strength in a devastatingly efficient and consistent package rarely approached by players in their mid-30s. During the 130-119 loss to the Suns, who were without starters Chris Paul and Cam Johnson, Curry poured in a season-high 50 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

And yet Curry’s yeoman work hasn’t been enough to keep the Warriors above water. With its loss to Phoenix, Golden State fell to 6-9 on the season, placing it 12th in the Western Conference. The Warriors are now 0-8 on the road and 1-4 against top-six seeds in either conference thanks to a 27th-ranked defense and a disjointed bench that regularly squanders Curry’s best efforts.

“It’s a struggle right now,” Curry said to reporters, in the aftermath of Golden State’s worst start on the road in 33 years. “Let’s keep it real. We have to understand that it’s going to be really hard to dig yourself out of the situation we’re in because there’s a lot of issues. But it’s not anything we can’t overcome.”

As Golden State was run off the court by Phoenix, Coach Steve Kerr scolded his team for its “pickup game” approach and lack of trust in each other. Clearly hoping that the message would stick, Kerr used his postgame news conference to call out his team for “hanging [their] heads” and “feeling sorry for ourselves.” The Warriors, he said, “lacked” the “combination of joy, competitive desire, unity and purpose” they have displayed for much of the past decade.

“I’ve failed,” Kerr said to reporters. “I’ve got to bring these guys together. … We’ve got to get everybody on board, on the same page, in terms of just worrying about winning. … Everyone can’t wait to play us and kick our a--. We’ve had a lot of success, a lot of fun, a lot of joy in beating people over the years. Teams don’t forget that.”

The Warriors launched their season last month hoping to put Draymond Green’s punch of Jordan Poole behind them and expecting to play an 11-man rotation that would include recent lottery picks James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Kerr planned to deploy a “Strength in Numbers” approach like he used to win a title in 2014-15, yet he has been forced to cope with a group that has performed more like the 2020-21 Warriors, a fundamentally flawed one-man army that lost in the play-in tournament despite MVP-caliber play from Curry.

While there have been no conspicuous flare-ups between teammates since Green’s inexplicable preseason strike, Golden State has lost its easygoing verve and its ability to fashion a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Klay Thompson has been mired in a shooting slump, Green’s defensive impact has slipped and Poole has been less reliable than expected. Meanwhile, the prospects have been largely dumped from the rotation: Wiseman was assigned to the G League this week after a poor start, Kuminga has been a non-factor and Moody has been an afterthought.

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A group of newcomers has replaced that trio: Donte DiVincenzo, JaMychal Green and Anthony Lamb. Collectively, they represent a step down from Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who all found new homes during the offseason.

Thanks to a record-setting payroll, the Warriors were able to retain their entire starting lineup and re-sign Poole to a nine-figure extension. But their bench overhaul, which was motivated in part by luxury tax concerns, has significantly compromised their defensive intensity and versatility. Golden State has slipped in several areas, including getting back in transition, holding opponents to one shot and avoiding unnecessary fouls.

The Warriors’ malaise has lasted long enough that it qualifies as a championship hangover, but they haven’t yet reached the point of sheer panic. Last season, the Boston Celtics hovered around .500 for nearly half the season before getting hot and reaching the Finals. Golden State is still just three losses back of the West’s fourth seed, and the conference standings won’t fully shake out for some time.

Even so, Kerr and Curry have adopted a grave tone in their self-evaluations. The time for course correction is now. Curry noted that the Warriors have never previously suffered from “rough patches this long where you haven’t found anything to create an identity around 15 games in,” and he said that he was “ready for the challenge” of helping get his teammates “in the right mind frame to win.”

“Just put the focus on the team,” he said, speaking carefully like always. “If your energy can be focused on the team, having each other’s back vocally or with your energy and body language. Whatever the sacrifice might look like when you’re out there on the court, that usually creates good vibes and you can feed off of that and get out of a hole. You can’t obsess about the stat sheet. That’s not how the game is played.”

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