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Steph Curry Is Still Evolving

Kevin Durant may have taken over the spotlight, but don’t weep for Steph. He’s still changing the very nature of how teams play the Warriors, but he’s found new ways of doing it.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It was hard to watch the Warriors’ 130–114 throttling of the Thunder on Saturday without thinking about how drastic of a stylistic point guard change Kevin Durant has experienced. Durant’s ex — Russell Westbrook — is the modern Allen Iverson: a ferocious, ball-dominant scorer who plays with adrenaline constantly pumping through his veins. Stephen Curry is the evolutionary Steve Nash: a dazzling playmaker who inspires awe with crossovers and shooting from untold depths. We’d seen the contrast in the previous two meetings this season, but as the Warriors continue to round into form, inching closer to the ideal that had been promised in the offseason, the differences have become more pronounced.

Westbrook had 47 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but he also had as many turnovers (11) as the entire Warriors roster did. Westbrook’s tenacity has a dark side: forced plays and brash decisions helped make Durant and Westbrook an imperfect duo in Oklahoma City. Saturday’s game was a symbolic performance representing their clashing styles, a reminder why one of the reasons Durant left OKC was to play with “selfless” teammates. Durant played with ease alongside Curry, who had 26 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, and zero turnovers.

While Durant was throwing daggers, Curry seamlessly faded into a secondary role. It was everything Thunder fans wish Durant and Westbrook could’ve been: a perfect harmony of two divine talents. Curry is the more compatible partner for Durant. That is not a knock against Westbrook — he’s having one of the greatest seasons we’ll witness in our lifetimes — but a compliment to Curry’s efficiency and adaptability.

Golden State’s two biggest stars have jelled in the new year and Curry is finally excelling in his new arrangement, averaging 27.5 points on 19.6 shots per game with a 61.5 effective field goal percentage since January 1. Those numbers are much closer to Curry’s historic 2015–16 campaign than what he was doing before the calendar flipped. Not long ago there was talk of how Golden State had become Durant’s team. On New Year’s Day, Curry was averaging 23.9 points on 16.7 shots per game with a 57.6 effective field goal percentage. Those numbers are tremendous for anyone, but Curry isn’t just anyone. His past two seasons set unsustainably high standards, so when Curry couldn’t reach those same highs early in this season, that dip in production was interpreted to mean that he and Durant were having difficulties coexisting. In reality, they were just growing together.

“[Curry] realized he could be aggressive and shoot 25 times and it wasn’t going to affect KD,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said last week on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “I think early in the season he felt like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get this guy involved, I’ve got to get him the ball.’” Curry’s New Year’s resolution must’ve been to just be himself, since he’s gone back to jacking up uniquely challenging shots. He’s attempting more pull-up 3s per game since the start of 2017 (6.3 since the new year began, compared to 4.3 before it) and has hit a superior percentage (44.2 percent, compared to 29 percent), per SportVU. Kerr said when Curry is launching “30-footers in transition and going nuts, that’s when we are at our best. KD not only appreciates it, but enjoys it and feeds off of that.”

This is the Curry that intoxicated the world last season. This is the Curry who is inspiring a new generation of basketball players to push the boundaries. Chef Curry didn’t disappear. He was just in the kitchen tweaking the recipe.

“It’s not that he was having a bad season before. He just didn’t have to score 50 points for us to win because we had a better team,” Durant said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “When you think of San Antonio, they been having 50-win seasons for 20 years straight. People look at Tim Duncan as the guy, but, like, Tony Parker won Finals MVP. Manu Ginobili is a huge part of it. Kawhi Leonard won a Finals MVP. They do it as a team. They don’t worry about who’s the guy because any given night we can all be the guy. That’s what we have on this team.”

Adaptation is a hallmark quality of the greatest point guards. Curry’s backcourt partner, Klay Thompson, is an all-time great shooter, but Curry had never played with an all-time great scorer like Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe Bryant, as Nash did. The Lakers superteam was a failure, but Kobe posted his best effective field goal percentage with Nash. Amar’e Stoudemire looked to be on the Hall of Fame fast track during his prime years in Phoenix. Nash always found a way to make his teammates better and now Curry is learning to do the same. “[Nash] basically played the position the way that I tried to,” Curry told ESPN in 2015. “He’s definitely an inspiration.”

Durant will go down as one of the greatest scorers ever, so naturally there would be an adjustment period for Curry. Now that Curry is on track, the Warriors are thriving. Before New Year’s Day, they were scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions — already one of the highest offensive ratings ever, and trailing only the Raptors in the first two months of the season. Since then, the Warriors have ramped up their offensive rating to 116.3 and watched as the other historically good offenses of the season (teams like the Raptors and Rockets) recede. There isn’t necessarily causation between Curry’s reemergence and the Warriors’ amplified offense, but Curry regaining his touch doesn’t hurt.

Golden State’s offensive numbers exceed the Seven Seconds or Less Suns with Nash on the floor from 2007–08 through 2010–11, with an offensive rating hovering around 115, per NBA.com. The Suns parallels run deep; back when Kerr was general manager of the Suns, the team looked at Curry as a prospect who might’ve become the successor to Phoenix’s two-time MVP. “We looked at him as the next Nash, the point guard of the future,” Kerr told The Mercury News. “I’m sure the Warriors, once they got their hands on him … were thinking the same thing.”

Fast-forward to today and it’s clear the vision has been realized. The ankle-breaking crossovers, craftiness, and moments of brilliance are all familiar — just enhanced. “I hope it doesn’t sound conceited, but I do see [Curry] as an evolution of my game,” Nash said last year on The Vertical Podcast With J.J. Redick. “Through evolving, he does things that I never even really thought to do: shooting from that depth, that deep, that quickly.”

Nash said that he grew up as a playmaker, whether the sport was soccer, hockey, or basketball, so that’s his “wired” mentality. On the other hand, Curry was a 2-guard, so he naturally had a score-first predilection. When Nash was pressured deep behind the arc, his approach was to cross his defender to get into the paint to make a play for his teammates. Curry can do that, but he’s also able to shoot many different ways with speed and dexterity from all over the court. “He gets rid of the ball so fast sometimes it’s crazy,” Nash said. “I think that evolution put him in a different category.”

Nash never attempted more than 13.6 shots per game, while Curry has played only one season in which he averaged fewer than that. Nash never averaged more than 19 points per game; Curry has for five straight years. The Warriors point guard has played 670 fewer games but already has more made and attempted 3-pointers. Nash’s jumpers came right at the 3-point line and from midrange, whereas Curry can comfortably pull up to shoot from 35 feet. “I was able to do it going left and right, and we can both do it at speed, but I was always trying to get to the 3-point line,” Nash told Bleacher Report. “He can do it from deeper and, frankly, I never took a step-back. He has no trouble taking a step-back and making it. You add that to all the other shots. It could be a clincher in this game of deciding who’s the best.”

Watching Nash score 48 points in the playoffs against the Mavericks is like watching a Curry prototype. When you think of Curry, you’re imagining bombs launched from deep, but he can also slither into the paint like Nash. Curry is even more vibrant, but the aesthetics are similar, particularly in the pick-and-roll.

When Nash shot, passed, or drew a foul out of the pick-and-roll, the Suns scored an elite 1.09 points per possession from 2005 through 2012, according to data derived from Synergy Sports. The Warriors come close, scoring 1.05 points per possession since 2013 with Curry pick-and-rolls. Their respective potency plays a significant role in how they help their team, but also how their styles are mirrored.

Curry’s ability to finish wrong-foot layups, avoid or absorb contact, and spin the ball off the glass is reminiscent of Nash. Curry is shooting 68.1 percent from inside three feet of the rim over the past three seasons, which is eerily identical to what Nash posted over his last eight years with the Suns, per Basketball-Reference. Nash played at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. Curry is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. Neither of them is a Westbrookian level athletes, but they’re both magical finishers.

Mike D’Antoni’s Suns offenses ran the pick-and-roll more than any other team in the NBA, while the Warriors run it the least under Kerr, but both head coaches have gotten innovative. With more teams switching pick-and-rolls today, the Warriors frequently “slip” their screens. Pick-and-rolls are meant to create an advantage for the offense, but if a defense switches it can turn the possession into a ball-stopping isolation. Here’s what a slip screen looks like:

“It’s kind of a fake pick-and-roll,” Kerr told Simmons. “You’ve seen lots of teams set screens and slip screens, trying to deceive the defense and see if you can create an opening, rather, through a screen, through a slip of a screen.” But the Warriors haven’t run this play a ton with Curry and Durant. Here’s an idea of what it could look like:

The attack should be lethal. Both players can shoot from anywhere, drive, or set the screen. Durant is impossible to stop when he’s catching the ball and goes straight into a live dribble. The fact they don’t turn to this play on a regular basis makes me wonder if they’re waiting to unveil it in the playoffs, when the stakes are higher. There’s no reason to show their full hand this soon by giving opposing coaches film of all the options they have built into the set.

One can only imagine the wizardry Nash would conjure in a world in which he played with Durant. After all, Nash was a superior passer to Curry. Nash averaged over 8.5 assists nine times in his 18-year career, while Curry never has. Curry’s assist-turnover ratio has never risen above 2.5, while Nash’s did for 16 seasons. Their roles are different, but as Steph gets more and more comfortable with his 1B role on this Warriors team, techniques that helped Nash excel at his peak could start manifesting in Curry’s game. Nash told The Mercury News “the cat-and-mouse” and “picking and choosing a spot” are the areas of improvement for Curry. “He can improve a lot, which is scary,” Nash said. “It’s pretty remarkable to think about the heights he can get to.”

Curry and Durant are both 28 years old. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are 26. As Curry ages, it’s fun to wonder how his game will continue to expand and evolve. Even if Curry loses a step, making it difficult to dribble the ball like it’s a yo-yo and shoot from all angles and distances, he could still transition into more of a spot-up shooting role (Curry is shooting 48.7 percent off the catch, per SportVU). But it’s always possible Curry could master his playmaking after he’s already made massive strides. “Once Steph figured out that he had to take care of the ball, that three turnovers is fine, six is not, and he started getting superefficient rather than just explosive,” Kerr told Simmons, “[that’s when] our team changed.”

Curry won’t reach Nash’s innate skill level as a passer, but he’s found ways to change how offenses and defenses react to him in ways people didn’t even dream of in 2005. Durant may have the superior counting statistics, but Curry’s impact over a game as a gravitational force runs deeper, in ways that can really only be measured in proprietary statistics. Driving lanes are wide open for his teammates, even when the ball isn’t in his hands since defenders must always be wary of his shot. Nash defined the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and won back-to-back MVPs, but he was never the marquee name. Amar’e Stoudemire’s superstardom in Phoenix didn’t overshadow Nash’s systemic influence on the team; it was a mutually beneficial partnership. Curry and Durant appear to be finding a similar balance.