Even though the disappointment of the Golden State Warriors' playoff elimination was still fresh, Stephen Curry stepped to the podium after Game 6 and confidently asserted that he and his team could be even better in the 2013-14 season.
And you know what? There's a good chance he's right about that.
While it might be hard to imagine how Curry—a guy who just finished making more three-point shots in a single season than anyone in the history of the NBA—could make an appreciable leap next year, remember: He's only 25 and hasn't had the benefit of a full offseason of work since he was a rookie.
A seemingly endless series of ankle injuries, surgeries and rehabilitation periods have turned all but one of Curry's NBA summers into tiresome treks back to health. This time around, he'll have three-and-a-half months to work on his game.
When asked what areas he could improve, Curry cited his strength, quickness and ability to get to the foul line. Those might seem like vague goals, but it'd be difficult to peg three more appropriate areas on which Curry must focus. Clearly, he knows where his weaknesses lie.
What's more, we've already seen proof that Curry knows how to add things to his game. Anyone who watched his growth during the 2012-13 season knows that he actually got better during the season. And that growth wasn't just confined to his numbers—although it's worth mentioning that he improved his field-goal percentage by four percent, his three-point accuracy by about one-and-a-half percent and his points-per-game average by five full points after the All-Star break.
Numbers are fine, but the subtler changes were what really mattered. Curry's increased aggressiveness, willingness to create his own shots and that fantastic left-handed whip pass that he featured so often in the playoffs all came about over the course of the regular season.
Not only did Curry show the ability to grow during the year, he also proved he could adapt within individual playoff series. Whether it was learning how to attack a double team or taking advantage of pressure by driving the lane, Curry made it clear he's capable of adding new weapons to his arsenal in a surprisingly short amount of time.
And now that he won't have to spend half of his summer in a walking boot, he'll get a chance to do that.
In addition to his capacity to augment his technical skills, Curry's newfound confidence gives him a great chance to come back even better next season. After capturing the hearts of the NBA world with a few of the postseason's most memorable takeover efforts, Curry seems to have convinced himself that he really is a star. For a humble, team-first guy like him, it can be hard to come to that realization—even when everyone else already knows it.
Curry now has tangible proof that he can carry a team. And if he ever has any doubts about that over the summer, he can pop in the tape of his pair of 22-point quarters during the playoffs.
Obviously, Curry's ability to take another step toward superstardom is critical to the Warriors making a deeper playoff run next year. But he probably won't be alone in his growth.
In what'll be his third NBA season next year, expect Klay Thompson to improve right along with his backcourt teammate. Though the Washington State product didn't shoot it quite as well as he did in his rookie campaign, Thompson definitely proved that he's going to be a deadly outside threat (40 percent from long range in 2012-13) whenever he's on the floor.
The Warriors also involved him in a wider variety of offensive sets this past year, which showcased Thompson's skills as a decision-maker coming off of screens and in the post.
Most importantly, Thompson gradually became the Dubs' primary perimeter defender last year. His length, footwork and surprising lateral quickness should only improve with time.
Plus, Brandon Rush's return from a knee injury that cost him virtually the entire 2012-13 season will bring a vital defender and three-point shooter back into the fold. There's no telling how his knee will respond, but if Rush can be anything close to what he was just two years ago, he'll immediately join the rotation as a terrific three-and-D sixth man.
And then there's Harrison Barnes, who, at just 20 years old, stands to make the biggest leap of any Warrior. Everyone saw that he could be a go-to option in the right matchup during the playoffs, as the rookie scored at least 19 points in six different postseason games.
Barnes is athletically unlimited and at times last year, it was evident that he was still figuring out how to harness his considerable natural ability. His ceiling is tough to project, but it'll be a borderline stunner if he doesn't eclipse his postseason averages of 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 46 percent shooting during the regular season next year.
He'll be the Warriors' most versatile offensive player in no time, and if he can channel his physical skills in the right way, there's also nothing stopping him from becoming a truly elite defender. It sounds crazy, but if Barnes (and not Thompson or David Lee) is the Warriors' second-leading scorer next year, don't be surprised.
It's important to note that there are a few factors that could hinder the Warriors' development in 2013-14. Their financial situation will almost certainly force them to choose between retaining Jarrett Jack (an unrestricted free agent) or Carl Landry, who can opt out of his contract to test the market.
Those two players were critical to Golden State's success all season long, and if young guys like Kent Bazemore and Draymond Green aren't quite ready to assume much larger roles, the departure of Jack and/or Landry could leave a couple of large voids in the rotation.
Glad we got that unpleasantness out of the way.
Returning to the positives, we still haven't even touched on the most intriguing reason for optimism.
Finally, there's the biggest wild card of all: Andrew Bogut.
Golden State's hulking center was never healthy in 2012-13, but in those few, fleeting moments when his blown-out ankle and balky back felt halfway decent, Bogut transformed the Warriors. In brief stretches of the postseason, he completely dominated the paint on both ends—swatting shots, doling out hard fouls and dunking on anything that moved.
Put simply, he made the Warriors an elite team when he was healthy enough to even hobble onto the court. The regular season was nearly a total loss for him, and even the playoffs devolved into a depressing series of painkilling injections and uncomfortable grimaces.
But when he was even remotely healthy, Bogut was a beast.
For a guy like him, numbers never tell the whole story, but we saw him go for 14 points and 21 rebounds in Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets. And he averaged 14 rebounds per game in the first four contests of the series against the San Antonio Spurs.
But then the ankle flared up and he could barely move in Games 5 and 6.
If—and it's a massive "if"—Bogut can get healthy enough to give the Warriors more than a few good games at a time, this team is primed to contend next year.
Golden State's season ended at the hands of a more experienced, more complete Spurs team. There's no shame in that.
But the fact that Curry and the Warriors are already looking ahead, unsatisfied with their past achievements, is a great sign for the future. If things break right, we might eventually look back at Curry's postgame press conference not as the end of a great run, but as the moment when everything started.
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