Stephen Curry recently welcomed The Ringer’s Bill Simmons to the Bay Area for a podcast interview that covered quite a number of topics, including the three-time NBA champion and two-time Most Valuable Player’s interest in eventually finishing his career with the Golden State Warriors, the team that drafted him with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Curry’s career could’ve broken quite differently, however, had he not been on the board at No. 7 — which was considered a distinct possibility at the time, what with the Minnesota Timberwolves holding the fifth and sixth selections and entering the ’09 draft in need of a point guard to pair with talented young big men Al Jefferson and Kevin Love.
That’s not the way things shook out, of course. Minnesota general manager David Kahn famously — or infamously, depending on how you look at it — used the fifth and six picks on Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio and Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn, leaving Curry available for the Dubs at No. 7. That … um … did not work out so hot for the Wolves.
The Wolves passing on Curry has become one of the great “what if?” moments in recent draft history. It has prompted scores of fans and draft observers (many of them hailing from the Twin Cities, naturally) to wonder how the hell Minnesota took three point guards in the first round — shouts out to Ty Lawson at No. 18, redirected to Denver for a pick that would later become Luke Babbitt — and didn’t wind up with the one who had electrified the the nation at Davidson, one of the purest 3-point shooters many had ever seen, who’d go on to NBA glory. It’s a topic that Simmons broached with Curry, leading the two-time MVP to offer a little bit of 10-years-later draft scuttlebutt that might explain why Kahn chose not to send his name up to Commissioner David Stern.
The conversation starts at about the 38:50 mark of the podcast:
Simmons: When you go to Minnesota, do you have a little something extra for them? Or do you not have any bitterness anymore?
Curry (laughing): My guy David Kahn. I don’t know where he’s at right now. I don’t know if that ever came out, but he — there’s a story around. Everybody knows how much I love golf, and play it in my spare time and whatnot. He, I think the word on the street was that he didn’t draft me because in Minnesota it’s cold, and I wouldn’t have been able to play as much golf, so I would’ve been miserable.
Simmons: Is that true?
Curry: I hope it’s true, because that’s hilarious. (laughs) That’s hilarious.
There might have been more to Kahn’s choice than golf and incompetence, though
It is! It most definitely is funny to imagine Kahn — who got an awful lot wrong during his sustained four-year implosion at the Wolves’ reins, and on his way out of office made sure to let everyone know that none of it was his fault — making the final Flynn-over-Curry call because of potential not-getting-a-quick-nine-in-before-practice-based depression. Kahn’s one of recent NBA history’s most posterizable front-office figures, and he’s super out of the league, so running with this is fun, and funny, and seems close enough to true to be worth enjoying.
Whether it’s fully or partially true, though, this ignores one thing that might be kind of an important factor in Kahn choosing not to pick Curry: that the Currys made it clear before the draft that they didn’t want Steph to go to Minnesota and play for the Wolves.
This isn’t just a story that’s been whispered and shared in secret, either. Dell Curry, Steph’s dad, straight up said as much last summer (emphasis mine):
The [Phoenix] Suns believed they had negotiated a deal for Golden State’s No. 7 pick and players in exchange for Amar’e Stoudemire. Their draft room exploded in cheers when Minnesota inexplicably went for point guards Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn with the Nos. 5 and 6 picks.
As it turned out, Golden State nixed the deal once Curry fell to that spot.
“We told Minnesota that Steph didn’t want to go there,” said Dell Curry, the ex-NBA standout who is Stephen’s father and a Hornets television color commentator. “We had no idea that they had agreed to a trade. Obviously, they couldn’t put that out. I remember [then-Suns general manager and now Curry’s Golden State coach] Steve Kerr calling me [the following morning] and saying, ‘Don’t go to the press conference. We have a trade that they reneged on.’ I’m like, ‘That’s between you guys. We’re going wherever they tell us. We can’t not go.’”
Kahn confirmed the Currys’ request/demand last year
And after Dell shared that much, Kahn offered his side of the story in a pre-2017 draft piece for Sports Illustrated:
In 2009, just days after my May 22 hiring as President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the agent for Steph Curry told me that Steph’s father, Dell, did not want his son to be drafted by Minnesota—“No offense,” as I recall Jeff Austin, his agent saying to me at the Chicago draft combine. […]
The back-channel message would have weighed heavily in my decision-making process under any circumstances, but especially in Minnesota. Immediately after my hire, I was spending nearly every weekday morning in the team’s conference room, listening to team business partners and season-ticket holders lament over coffee and pastries. “You’ll never attract free agents here,” they said, practically in unison. “Players don’t want to play in cold-weather places.” Doomsday all around. I figured it was probably the wrong time to tell them about the Currys.
Complicating matters was Ricky Rubio, an 18-year-old Spaniard who had a rare flair for passing and setting up scorers, and had captivated me. Two weeks before the draft, I made a trade with Washington, sending Randy Foye and Mike Miller for the No. 5 pick in the draft. This allowed us the flexibility to draft Rubio, who had a major buyout in his contract likely preventing him from coming to the NBA right away—and who many believed would never play in Minnesota and force a trade.
So we now had the Nos. 5 and 6 picks in the draft. Taking not one, but two players who might not want to play in Minnesota? That would have taken real cojones.
Instead, Kahn chose Rubio (“the player I wanted,” as he wrote) and then Flynn, whom he insisted the Wolves had as the No. 1 point guard prospect on their board.
Flynn made 81 starts as a rookie, but played in just 82 total NBA games after that following a torn hip labrum that completely derailed his career. Rubio came over from Spain two years after he was drafted and proved a dazzling playmaker and backcourt defender, but struggled mightily with his shot while battling injuries for a Wolves team that never reached .500 during his six seasons with the team; when he finally made his first career playoff appearance last season, he did so wearing a Utah Jazz uniform. Curry, meanwhile … well, you know. Four seasons after that fateful draft, Kahn was relieved of his duties in 2013, with the teams he built having rolled up a combined record of 89-223.
Now, that’s not to say that Kahn deserves absolution for passing over Curry. As my then-colleague Eric Freeman wrote last summer after SI published Kahn’s piece, while the ex-GM’s explanation makes some sense, it still doesn’t begin to excuse either the choice to chase Rubio with Flynn — a solid prospect coming out of college, but one unlikely to fit will next to expected prize Rubio, making him a place-holder at best — or the failure to leverage the pre-draft interest in Curry (as evidenced by the eventually-scuttled deal framework cooked up by Golden State and Phoenix) into a package of assets that could’ve returned more value than Flynn did (though, of course, not as much as Curry has).
Hindsight is 20/20, but even without knowledge of how things would pan out for all three players involved, it’d be tough to argue that Kahn did the best job he could have within the parameters set out for him. (On top of that, Dell Curry’s recollection included the note that “the Currys had reservations even about the Warriors at the time,” but that player and family came around on the situation by the Bay, suggesting that a similar outcome was at least possible had Kahn made the bold choice.) Kahn certainly richly deserves to get dunked on for the many rakes he stepped on during his tenure, which helped drive the Wolves to new depths of despair and extend a dismal streak devoid of playoff appearances that ended only this past spring after 13 years. The “he didn’t take Steph because of golf” story, though, seems like a context-eliding half-truth at best, and like a bit too much to really buy.
(Unless, of course, it isn’t. In which case: man, is that insane.)
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