BY: COLIN KRAUSS
Stephen Curry has made a career off of being an unguardable high-volume three point shooter, the first of which the NBA has ever seen, but a trend that is only going to grow. It is largely accepted now that Curry is the best shooter the league has ever known, and not admitting that would be foolish. But he refuses to stop improving.
Curry hit his personal peak in the 2015-2016 season, where he took a leap forward in terms of volume of shots, health, team success, efficiency, and defensive effort. For an entire season, Curry was impossible to stop, until his postseason MCL sprain left him mildly injured through the playoffs. During his unanimous MVP season, Curry posted in 79 regular season games averages of 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 2.1 steals on historic levels of accuracy. His True Shooting % was 67%. On just over 11 three point attempts per game, he shot 45.4%, which makes no sense how good that is, especially when you consider how many of those three point attempts came off-the-dribble. His Warriors went 73-9 that year, the best record in basketball history. Their offense was historically good, and their defense was a brand-new small-ball switch-approach that has infected many smart teams in the league for the past three years.
Is it possible for Curry to reach that level again?
Short answer: No. But long answer: Yes, it’s a possibility. He’s been performing at that same level or higher in his 34 games this year. That doesn’t mean it’s less impressive than from three seasons ago, he just needs to prove he can play that way for an entire season again.
In the current 2018-2019 season, Curry is producing on the back of legendary efficiency. He has only gotten to play in 34 of the Warriors’ 45 games, which automatically puts his impact at lower levels compared to 2015-2016, when he missed just 3 total games. However, through these 34 games, his numbers are just as crazy. He’s shooting 46% on 11.8 three point attempts. His field goal percentage is a bit lower, 49.1%. In 2016, his two-point accuracy was just as ridiculous as his three point shooting. Using a very diverse range of finishing moves, Curry could not be stopped during his second MVP season. His lay-up package, finger rolls, floaters, runners, and hook shot were automatic buckets. This year, he’s proving that he still has phenomenal touch.
Another critical part of Curry’s ever-developing game is his passing ability as a point guard. People tend to not look at Curry as one of the league’s premiere playmakers. The list of truly special passers has mainly consisted of LeBron, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Nikola Jokic, Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons, and James Harden. Even on his own team, Draymond Green is known as the playmaker of the Warriors. But Curry is right there along with this tier of facilitators. This season in particular looks like Curry is reaching a new height in his passing ability. He’s making crisp dimes through impossible angles on a nightly basis. Even with his off hand, he can rocket passes through tight spaces right where it needs it go. Curry has always been a very solid passer, but this season has been magical. Although Steph is averaging his lowest assist numbers in years, 5.5 per game, they are extremely high quality plays and drive effective offense.
In identical minutes this season, Curry is playing slightly less effectively than three seasons ago. He’s averaging less points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game. Lots of this production has been swapped for Kevin Durant’s possessions. This is what holds back Curry from attaining his absolute peak. When Durant is on your team, you don’t need to take the most difficult of your looks because KD can ease the workload and provide a better shot or last resort for a possession. Durant, in his own right, is having an MVP-level season that even he hasn’t reached since his MVP year in 2014. That’s what is holding Curry back. He does not need to go into human torch mode the way he did in 2016, because the team with KD is too good to require it. But he has still shown it’s hiding inside under the surface at several points of this season.
While KD is taking some of Curry’s shine, the true difference between prime Curry and current Curry is how far he can take the offense, and how much the Warriors can destroy the opposition. This season, the Warriors have been dominant. But they aren’t toying with the league the way they did in 2016. That year, the Warriors started 24-0. They were so incredible, every game became an event for the national NBA audience of “How much will they win by today?” and “Can they beat this team before the fourth quarter even starts?” Curry was barely playing in fourth quarters for an entire season. Because he was so awesome, most Warriors games ended after 36 minutes. The Warriors aren’t that deflating for the rest of the NBA this year. Curry is averaging his lowest Win Shares per 48 since 2014. His Box +/- is a full 5 points lower than 2016 (12.5 to 7.4). The Box +/- difference between Curry on the court and off was 22.2 in 2016, compared to 15.5 this year. Curry might be reaching the same efficiency as his second MVP year, but the utter domination of the NBA is not quite the same from the Warriors as a team. Their ceiling playing through Curry is lower than in the past. But...
On the other hand, Curry’s best games this season are perfectly reminiscent of MVP Curry. Against the Washington Wizards in October, Curry turned into a fireball to go off for 51 points on 11-16 three point shooting. The difference between “Unanimous MVP Curry” and “On-Fire Curry” is that he turns off his brain while muscle memory and confidence take over the job. We’ve seen those black-out games this year occasionally, including the 50-bomb on Washington. He stops being a team player and shoots immediately after finding any space to shoot, regardless of how deep the shot is. This was the case against Dallas several games ago. He went 11-19 on threes to pull out the clutch victory over Luka Doncic. It was also on display when the Warriors barely outplayed the Sacramento Kings, where Curry made 10-20 threes in a tight win.
More recently, Golden State decimated the first-seeded Denver Nuggets by over 30 points. Steph was 8-13 from three. Shooting percentages like this are simply crazy, and Curry is making them a nightly surprise just like he did during his second MVP campaign.
The very next game after Denver, Curry went off on the New Orleans Pelicans, torching them in the third as he made 7 of 8 threes in that quarter alone. In the NOLA game with an ESPN audience, he finished with 41 points on 22 shots. The efficiency is off the charts. And the shots are of the highest difficulty too.
Another difference between 2016 Curry and Curry now is the complete takeovers in the clutch. This season, he’s been great in the clutch, but MVP Curry was jaw-dropping. Remember the 2016 Warriors-Thunder regular season matchup where Curry hit 12-16 threes with a 38-foot game-winner buzzer-beater in overtime? Yeah, I don’t think that’s coming back. I don’t know if anyone will ever have a game like that again.
Curry is missing a bit of athleticism, as well. He was 27 years old during his last MVP campaign. 27 is widely considered the physical athletic peak of an athlete, but not necessarily the peak of performance. It showed the most through his shiftiness, lateral quickness, and fluidity dribbling and attacking the rim. He’s now a bit more conservative with his looks. He is finishing about as well near the rim, but on easier makes. In 2016, Curry could eurostep into a left-handed running hook shot, take the hit from a big, and still kiss the ball off the glass and score, inexplicably. Just as amazing as his shooting and finishing was his complete package of dribbling moves. He was capable of getting to anywhere on the court and treated defenders like they weren’t even there. Curry is just too magical with the ball in his hands. Less of these spectacular dribbling and finishing moves have been seen this year, even if it is remarkable how well he can still score from any level of the floor.
At 30 years of age, Curry is still looking quite spry, however. New opinions on playing time, rest games, and recovery are helping him age slower, and he looks eerily close to the peak of his career three years ago.
Will Curry ever get to the 2016 peak that saw the entire league incapable of beating the Warriors? No. There is next to no chance he can mimic that craziness for an entire year a second time. Can he be a less-usage version of it that gets the Warriors their fourth ring in 5 years? Yeah, it seems inevitable they will take the Larry O’Brien trophy in June behind amazing seasons from both Curry and Durant.
What’s working in Curry’s favor is that the workload is smaller, the stakes are lower, he’s still in his prime, and KD can pick up his slack. Due to this, Curry can most likely maintain that historic efficiency on a more selective platter of shot attempts. Even if he won’t peak again, this version of Curry is still, to me, the second-best player in the NBA. That is an honor he’s held for several years as he works his way up the All-Time ladder.