The unprecedented season of Stephen Curry
Wardell Stephen Curry isn’t normal.
Perhaps this is an obvious statement, figuratively speaking. But Curry, quite literally, is doing things on the court the NBA has never seen. As Gregg Popovich said recently, watching Steph play can put one in a trance.
“I was almost in a mesmerized state in our last game at Golden State watching Curry shoot,” he said prior to tip of Game 2 in the Spurs’ first-round series against the Lakers. “I was just watching. It was like playing against Michael Jordan. I was watching Curry make shots I couldn’t believe anybody could make.”
And really there’s a good reason for that, because at this rate, nobody has made the types of shots Curry has. Of the 551 instances in league history in which a player has scored at least 22.9 points per game for an entire season (Curry’s 2012-13 average), Steph stands alone as one of the most prolific shooters ever.
Basketball teams at every level are comprised of players who fulfill different roles to complete the group. Very basically, there are scorers, facilitators, rebounders and defenders, obviously among other, more specific skill sets. Clearly, the guys who can blend these talents are the ones who demand a higher premium, but the ability to efficiently shoot the basketball from the 3-point line has become one of the most valuable commodities within any given gameplan, especially with advanced metrics outlining just how crucial these shots are.
But when you think about the great 3-point shooters in league history, you mostly recall how they perfected that specific craft, many times at the expense of another. Steve Kerr torched the nets when he got a good look, but nobody ever asked him to score 20 points a night or defend the opposition’s best player. No lead was safe with Reggie Miller on the court, but even during his best scoring season (24.6 ppg in 1989-90) he knocked down fewer than two 3-pointers per game. Now, the popular ‘three and D’ players — the Shane Battier types — have become highly sought after because of what they offer on both sides of the floor, but there’s a reason why they’ve been given the previously mentioned moniker.
The idea of a high-volume scorer taking more than 40 percent of his total field-goal attempts from beyond the arc while still putting up at least 20 points a night was unusual. The group of players who could lead their team in scoring and still record elite 3-point numbers was an exclusive one, and not even Miller, Glen Rice or Ray Allen accomplished what the Golden State point guard did this season.
At just 25 years of age, Curry put up those 22.9 points per game while hitting 3.5 threes a night at a 45.3 percent clip, numbers never collectively matched in NBA history, according to basketball-reference.com. As far as shooters go, we’re currently privy to watching something special.
Shooting threes is not easy. It’s why, despite the high value of made attempts, they’re the lowest-percentage shot on the floor. It’s also why you don’t typically see a team’s first scoring option hitting so many at such a successful rate. Knocking down shots from NBA range is one thing when you’re open, but it’s another thing entirely when a defender’s in your jock all night.
And most big-time scorers do a lot of damage from the free-throw line, but not Curry. The diminutive star attempted more than twice as many 3-pointers per game (7.7) as free throws (3.7) while setting the record for made threes in a season. He also hit more shots from deep (272) than free throws (262) this year. In fact, 43 percent of his field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc; just 23 percent of his shots came from anywhere inside the paint.
And what’s more, his 3-point-shooting percentage was higher than the 45.1-percent mark he averaged from the floor in general, not something you often associate with a guy who averaged nearly 23 points in 78 games played. Roughly 67 percent of Curry’s shots were jumpers, yet he still managed an effective field-goal percentage of 54.9 and a true-shooting percentage of 58.9. But while the old adage says ‘you live by the jumper and you die by the jumper,’ Steph survives by his, and he hasn’t become any less lethal with the end of the regular season.
As his team prepares to host the Nuggets in Game 6 tonight, Curry heads back to Oracle Arena averaging 24.8 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, including 3.8 made threes at 42.2 percent during the playoffs. He hasn’t slowed a bit, even with the ultra-intense atmosphere and general higher level of defensive focus that comes with postseason play. (To be clear, Denver hasn’t exactly been what you would call dominant, defensively.) But Curry can kill you from deep in so many different ways, it’s difficult to pin-point the most effective method of slowing him down.
While someone like Spurs guard Danny Green has been deadly from the arc as a spot-up shooter, by eliminating those good looks you effectively take away his ability to beat you from deep. But that’s not the case with Curry. During the regular season, Steph took at least 112 threes from each of the following four vantage-points: as a spot-up shooter (159 attempts), as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (155), in transition (128) and off the screen (112).
So even if you’re able to keep up with him off the screen, in transition or spotting up, the defensive assignment hardly ends there. As lethal as Steph is floating around the perimeter, he’s equally as dangerous dancing with the ball in his hands. He can destroy you going left or right, off the dribble or pulling up from 30 feet. And unlike many shooters whose percentages might regress toward the mean the more shots they jack up, Curry is like a dominant pitcher — if you don’t get to him early, you’re screwed. Once he finds his rhythm, he makes the impossible look easy.
But the NBA’s seventh-leading scorer will have his work cut out for him, as he will certainly face his toughest tests as the postseason moves on. Denver has focused its efforts toward thwarting the point guard’s success by pushing the limits of physicality. The modern-day limits, at least.
The Nuggets began pushing, elbowing, even tripping the 3-point assassin, disrupting his motions and even frustrating him into unwise fan interactions. And their tactics did not go unnoticed by Warriors coach Mark Jackson, whose post-game comments have made their rounds along with player responses. This series just became quite heated, and whether or not Curry will be able to withstand the punches for another round remains to be seen. But up to this point, it seems like the only thing that has remotely worked against the explosive shooting star.
“When you get close to playoffs and in to playoffs, you see those kinds of performances. It’s always memorable for all of us,” Popovich said that day. “Coaches, fans, players … everybody.”
If Golden State is able to upset the previously favored Nuggets and move on to a second-round date with San Antonio, the only blueprint for defending Curry might exist in Denver’s current rough-em-up gameplan. Because for what Steph has already accomplished this season, there is no precedent.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.