Beyond the Key Episode of the week
By Tim Cockes
Stephen Curry is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now. He is having an incredible season, eclipsing many of his own records from last season with games to spare. He is the clear front-runner for his second straight MVP. What exactly makes Curry so effective in today’s NBA? Is it the bigger emphasis on 3-point shooting? Is it the way NBA players play defense today? It is the rule changes not allowing two hands on an offensive player on the perimeter? Is he just a good shooter on a great team? The answer is not so simple and is a combination of all of these points:
The most obvious reason that Curry is so effective is his shooting efficiency from three. This season he is shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range and has already broken the NBA record for 3s made in a season. He is also shooting 90.6 percent from the free-throw line and 51.4 percent from the field. This puts him in rare company of players that have shot 40 percent from three, 50 percent from the field, and 90 percent from the line. His three-point shooting not only affects him, but also his entire team’s offense. Think about it, if a player can consistently make a shot 30 feet from the basket then you have to guard them further out than you would a normal player. Due to the effective play of his teammates, you can’t double team Curry, making the defense miserable. If you want to make a defense happy, take the ball up the court, dribble for 18 seconds and do a last second pick-and-roll (see James Harden in playoffs). The defense only has to play for six seconds. Defenses are essentially scrambling against the Warriors this season. The Warriors use their shooting to their advantage by spacing the floor incredibly well. This makes it difficult for the defense to play the entire court because everyone on the Warriors can dribble, pass, or shoot from the outside. You may ask, “Why don’t defenders just play up on Curry and make him drive the ball?” That leads into the next aspect of Curry’s game.
There is another part of Steph’s game that often goes underappreciated. His dribbling ability has changed the game and made it nearly impossible to guard him one on one. If you close out too hard, he can drive right around you. Don’t close out quick enough and he will shoot from three. There has probably never been a player better at creating and making a shot off the dribble than Curry. There have been equally good catch and shoot players such as Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, but what separates Curry is his ability to create a shot off the bounce. Shooting off the dribble is much harder because you have to take your last dribble, set your feet towards the basket and bring the ball into and through the shooting motion. A catch and release shot is ideally already caught in the shooting pocket (chest) and only has to be shot without those other steps. Not to mention that if you’re shooting off the dribble you are likely to be defended by another players while catch and release shots have a greater tendency to be open otherwise why would you take the shot? You wouldn’t take a catch and release shot while being guarded (unless you’re Kobe). Curry’s dribbling ability is dazzling and has people coming in before games just to watch him warm-up and study what he does. His ability to create space for himself creates a nightmare for defensive players attempting to guard him. He has a habit of making defenders look silly. This extra space he can create adds to the idea of team spacing mentioned earlier. After his team has picked you apart with passing, teams have to settle for defending him one on one. If Curry ever gets a switch on a pick and roll with a big man, you can just go ahead and put that down as a made three. It might be a bit of an oversight to say that Curry is the greatest ball-handler of all-time (see Pete Maravich), but it’s the combination of his shooting and dribbling ability that makes him so deadly.
There is another component of Curry’s offensive game that contributes to his success. His passing ability is incredibly effective. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to guard him with his driving and shooting ability, he can also hit an open teammate with absurd accuracy. Curry is averaging 6.6 assists per game this season. Curry’s ability to dribble, pass and shoot coincides with the mini-revolution that the Warriors are ushering into basketball. They are revolutionizing basketball by doing nothing but playing basic basketball well. Let me explain. The Warriors essentially play the game without defined positions. Curry basically plays a hybrid-guard position as he is tasked with bringing up the ball and passing it off to get open for a shot. He doesn’t fit the traditional point guard role of only looking to set up teammates and not scoring himself. The five positions themselves were only created so that someone who hasn’t played the game would have a general understanding of basketball. Gone are the days of the pass only point guard, a forward who can’t handle the ball and only posts up, and the center who can’t stretch the defense with shooting. The basics of offensive basketball (dribbling, passing, shooting) are what the Warriors excel at. The Warriors will often play five players from 6’4-6’10 who can dribble to the basket, pass to open teammates, and shoot from the outside. This is usually their Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes and Iguodala lineup. There is always a mismatch with this lineup and they know how to exploit these matchups. What can you do against an offense that essentially has no weaknesses?
Now to address the other aspect of Curry’s effectiveness, the defense that he is playing against. It’s already been addressed why Curry is so difficult to guard, but let’s now expunge the myth that Curry is only thriving in today’s NBA because players aren’t playing defense. NBA legend Oscar Robertson recently made comments essentially saying that Curry is taking advantage of the way that the game is played and that defense isn’t played the way that is used to be. Oscar Robertson is one of the greatest players in basketball history, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is wrong in this instance. Now, it is a fair assessment to say that players do not take pride in playing defense the way that they used to. Before the shot clock was invented you didn’t have a choice of whether you wanted to play defense or not. You had to play defense because the other team could hold the ball the whole time if they wanted to. You weren’t guaranteed to get it back. This guarantee has made a lot of players place a lesser emphasis on defense. It needs to also be stated that the way that defenders are allowed to play has changed. The NBA has changed the rules to allow for essentially a zone defense that hasn’t been allowed in years before 2001. This rule was implemented to avoid offensive isolation plays. The way that perimeter defense is played today is also very different. Defenders are not allowed to hand-check or basically have two hands on an offensive player with the ball. If you ask me, the way that the rules are now leads to the purest form of basketball that we have seen in the modern era. You have to guard your man all the way down the court sometimes because of the addition of the 3-point basket. Players previously had no reason to take a 30 foot shot if it’s worth the same as a 16 foot shot. Perhaps players in that era weren’t even playing defense 30 feet from the basket. In addition, we now live in a time where every move and shot a player takes on the court can be recorded and measured. Analytics has made it easier to scout a team and see where their players like to shoot and so on. Defense should be easier to play in this era, yet teams are still struggling mightily with Curry. Also, you can’t just push around your opponent as if it’s football like you used to be able to. There are no “Jordan Rules” in this era of basketball.
I just want to take a minute to address something that has been bothering me. When people comment on things, or write things to the effect of “Curry would stand no chance against the Bad Boy Pistons, they would rough him up!” that makes me so upset. The way that the Pistons and later on the Knicks used to play defense was not basketball. You play defense with active hands and feet. Knocking someone to the ground is not a basketball play. The Pistons would have gotten destroyed by Jordan if they had to play actual defense, or actually shake hands after someone whips your butt. That’s why I have very little respect for Isaiah Thomas, his fake smile and the “Bad Boy” Pistons. There is a reason that no one wanted him on the 1992 Dream Team.
Curry is effective because of the offensive skillset that he has. Good shooting is good shooting in any era. He might not have been as effective in another era, but Wilt Chamberlain wouldn’t have been as effective in this era. That doesn’t make anything he accomplished any less impressive. Curry is a great player regardless of the time that he is playing in. Players and teams are trying desperately to guard him and are failing because he is a great player. Nothing anyone can say will change the fact that he is a great player.
Many people would argue that Curry would not be effective in an era that didn’t have 3-pointers. I would argue that a made shot is a made shot in any era. Curry’s percentage would still be off-the-charts in previous eras. This is a chart of points per game leaders without three pointers. Curry would still rank third behind James Harden and Demarcus Cousins. Don’t forget the fact that the Warriors have won a large number of their game by huge margins rendering it unnecessary for Curry to play in the 4th Quarter. He is still leading the league in scoring despite this. Curry would still be an elite scorer if all of his shots were worth two points. The 3-point shot is essentially making it important for all players to be able to shoot the ball well. If you can’t shoot, teams will find out and they won’t guard you, making your team play 4-5 (see Joakim Noah). Great big men are harder to find due to this increased emphasis on shooting from the outside and not in the paint. Yet, if another great big man could come along, he would dominate the league the way the Curry is. Shaq would dominate in this time period because there would be no one who could guard him. There was hardly anyone to guard him when he played.
Stephen Curry would have to rely more on his driving and passing abilities to be as effective as he is now, but he would find a way to be an efficient because he is a great player. Great players study the game and learn to use the rules to their advantage. Curry studied the greats before him and worked on his game accordingly. Great players find a way to be great. If Michael Jordan played in today’s 3-point reliant NBA he would be the best 3-point shooter in the league because he would just stay in the gym and shoot 3s until he was the best at it. No one had Jordan’s work ethic or borderline psychopathic competitive desire to win. Great players find a way to be great.
Do you remember when Mark Jackson was the coach of the Warriors and said that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were the greatest shooting backcourt of all-time? Some people said maybe one day they will be, others laughed off this ridiculous notion. Perhaps those people should have considered the fact that Jackson watched Curry and Thompson warm-up in practice for years and maybe he could be right. On a closer examination of Curry’s game-winner against the Thunder, I noticed something very interesting. After Curry hits the shot, Mike Breen gives his incredible call and then the commentators sit in silent disbelief for a moment. Jeff Van Gundy breaks the silence by analyzing the replay, while Mark Jackson does nothing but laughing to himself. I think that little chuckle best describes most people’s react to Curry’s heroics. Speechless. That laugh also says I told you so. Stephen Curry may go down as the greatest pure shooter in basketball history. If you love basketball, then you have to love watching him play. For the Curry haters and doubters I have one question:
Who’s laughing now?