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Steph Curry, to the Max

With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson on the mend, how far can Curry push the scoring barrier this season? We dive deep into the numbers to find out what a fully unleashed Steph might look like.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Steph Curry has seemingly accomplished everything on a basketball court over his decade in the NBA. He’s a three-time title-winner, a two-time MVP, and a one-time scoring champion. In March, ESPN ranked him the ninth-most-famous athlete in the world, and the second-most-famous American athlete, behind only LeBron James. He is the poster player for the league’s 3-point boom, essentially the avatar for modern basketball on the court.

And yet, the eve of Curry’s 11th season carries more intrigue than any previous. His first 10 seasons cleave neatly into two evenly sized slices: In his first half-decade, the cherubic sharpshooter from Davidson grew from a questioned, injury-prone lottery pick into an All-Star, and in his second half-decade, he grew further into a super-duper-star and surefire Hall of Famer. What might the next half-decade bring for Curry?

What might this next stretch bring, moreover, for the Warriors, the first team to reach five consecutive Finals since the mid-’60s Celtics? Kevin Durant left. Andre Iguodala was traded. Shaun Livingston retired. Klay Thompson is out for most, if not all, of this season after tearing his ACL in June. Of the top 20 Warriors in minutes played since they began winning titles, only three remain on the active roster: Curry, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney.

Beyond those three and summer addition D’Angelo Russell, the rest of the roster is weak, untested, and frankly unbecoming of a prospective contender. Prominent NBA analysts think Golden State might miss the playoffs. After cruising through recent regular seasons, knowing even a B-level effort would be enough for a top-2 seed and a prime playoff perch, the Warriors will be forced into nightly battles this season as the NBA’s power axis tilts down the California coast toward L.A.

But in the wreckage of Golden State’s 2018-19 playoff run and subsequent summer lies a new opportunity. Curry hasn’t been fully unleashed in years, and this season, he will need to carry an offensive burden greater than ever before to salvage the Warriors’ dynastic run.

The first point to emphasize when considering Curry’s role in an offense singularly focused on his skill set is his unique prowess from range. There’s a difference between a great shooter and a great scorer who can also shoot. Players like James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, and Devin Booker are applauded as long-distance threats, and they rightly warp defenses with their ability to score from anywhere in the half court. But none of those players has ever made 40 percent of their 3s in a single season, whereas Curry has never made fewer than 41 percent. He exerts a different kind of gravity than any other active player—and any in league history.

Curry is the only player in NBA history to average, in his career, at least 20 points per game and make at least 40 percent of his 3s (on at least 100 attempts). He’s the red dot in this graph—the lone figure that far up and that far to the right.

Among 1,152 players in NBA history to attempt at least 100 3s, Curry ranks fifth in career accuracy, and only one other player in the top 10 averaged double digits in points. Basically all the other best 3-point shooters were specialists; Curry is a 3-point specialist who can also score inside the arc, get to the free throw line, and distribute to others. (And yes, that is Seth Curry ahead of his brother, and Steve Kerr ahead of his point guard. Hilarious.)

Most Accurate 3-Point Shooters in NBA History (Min. 100 Attempts)

Player 3PA PPG 3P%
Player 3PA PPG 3P%
Steve Kerr 1599 6.0 45.4%
Hubert Davis 1651 8.2 44.1%
Seth Curry 686 9.3 43.9%
Drazen Petrovic 583 15.4 43.7%
Steph Curry 5690 23.5 43.6%
Jason Kapono 1054 6.7 43.4%
Steve Henson 243 3.1 43.2%
Tim Legler 603 7.0 43.1%
Steve Novak 1337 4.7 43.0%
Kyle Korver 5478 9.9 42.9%

And even as the rest of the league tries to mimic the style that won Golden State three titles in a four-season span, no individual player has caught up to Curry in terms of maximal 3-point volume. He’s not just accurate; he’s exceedingly prolific, too: On the single-season leaderboard for most made 3s, Curry ranks first, third, fourth, sixth, and ninth. That’s five of the top 10; nobody else has more than one such season that high.

So Curry starts from a higher potential baseline than any guard in the NBA, even Harden, who weaponized spacing last season en route to a record number of 3-point attempts (13.2 per game and more than 1,000 overall) and 36.1 points per game, the second-highest non–Wilt Chamberlain mark in NBA history.

Even if Harden isn’t Curry’s equal as a shooter, however, his record-breaking volume is a fair representation of what Curry might try this season. After all, Harden achieved that after injuries and free agent departures depleted the Rockets’ roster, thrusting more pressure on their star guard to score—the same scenario in which Curry finds himself this season.

Over the last three seasons, counting both regular season and playoffs, Curry has played 1,214 minutes with both Durant and Thompson off the floor. These minutes aren’t a perfect simulation of what Curry might do over a full (or nearly full) season without those teammates to share the offensive load, but they should work as a proxy. As my colleague Kevin O’Connor has noted, Curry’s individual statistics in those minutes recall Harden’s stats from last season. These two stat lines—on the left, Curry’s per-75-possession numbers without Durant and Thompson; on the right, Harden’s overall numbers in the 2018-19 regular season—are eerily similar, down to the exact same true shooting percentage.

Curry (Without KD or Klay) vs. Harden

Statistic Curry Harden
Statistic Curry Harden
Points 38.4 36.1
USG% 40.1% 40.5%
FGA 27.4 24.5
3PA 16.2 13.2
3PAr 59.0% 53.9%
3P% 39.7% 36.8%
TS% 61.6% 61.6%

Harden reaches the free throw line a bit more while Curry shoots a bit better from the field, but the overall similarities are striking. And if Curry was capable of producing those numbers then, he should be now as well. He shouldn’t, for instance, be cramped by a lack of offensive talent or spacing beside him on the floor: The players with the most minutes alongside Curry in those possessions without Durant and Thompson were Green, Iguodala, Livingston, Looney, and JaVale McGee. None would be considered a floor-spacer.

Rather, the roster’s depletion of supplementary offensive talent means Curry will be forced to lean more on his own scoring efforts this season. His career high in usage rate came in 2015-16, when he used 32.6 percent of the Warriors’ possessions when he was on the floor. That mark ranked second in the league, but in every other recent season, Curry has ranked in the 8-13 range in the statistic—high, but nowhere near Harden. The Rocket guard’s usage rate last season (40.5 percent) was the second highest in a season in league history, and even if Curry doesn’t rise quite so high, it will be fascinating to discover what the dynamic looks like over the course of a full season.

It’s only four games, but Curry’s preseason numbers already reflect his new reality. He tallied his highest-ever averages in shot attempts, 3-point attempts, free throw attempts, and points per possession. Converted to 75 possessions, he averaged 35 points and more than 12 3-point attempts, making his usual 43 percent—numbers nearly in line with the statistics he collected without Durant and Thompson.

Another wrinkle in Curry’s upcoming season concerns new teammate Russell, a ball-dominant player himself. Last season, Russell ranked second individually in possessions used as a pick-and-roll ball handler, while the Warriors ranked 30th as a team. And while Curry led the Warriors in average time of possession per game, he was tied for just 35th in the NBA in that stat; Russell, in Brooklyn, tied for 10th (with LeBron and Ben Simmons) as he held the ball for 33 percent more time than Curry, 52 percent more time than Durant, and 400 percent more time than Thompson. Curry’s old backcourt partner is the master of efficient scoring; Thompson averaged 21.5 points while holding the ball for only 1.6 minutes per game. Russell is a different kind of offensive player entirely.

That dissonance might make for an awkward fit in Golden State’s motion system, but it also inspires potential opportunities for Curry away from the ball. Earlier this month, he told reporters, “Our formula is whoever gets the rebound, whoever’s close to the ball—get it and go. The other guy just runs.”

Curry is already the best off-ball guard in the league, and his two best teammates—Russell and Green—are willing and capable passers. Last season, Curry’s scoring efficiency coming off screens placed in the 97th percentile; among players with at least 100 such possessions, only Joe Harris was better. In each of the last four seasons (as far back as houses this data), Curry has rated in the 90th percentile or better. And for as far back as has the numbers, Curry has shot better on catch-and-shoot 3s versus pull-up 3s every season.

Steph Curry Accuracy by 3-Point Type

Season Catch and Shoot % Pull-Up %
Season Catch and Shoot % Pull-Up %
2013-14 0.458 0.403
2014-15 0.482 0.423
2015-16 0.477 0.438
2016-17 0.459 0.373
2017-18 0.436 0.410
2018-19 0.446 0.415
Total 0.459 0.411

If all these signs point toward a dynamite Curry campaign, the obvious, unanswerable question in October is how long Curry might be able to sustain a maximized workload. Over the last two seasons, he has missed a combined 44 regular-season games due to injuries. He’s 31 now, and not built like Harden—who has himself seemed to wear down toward the end of recent seasons. It’s certainly possible that Curry simply can’t sustain a 40 percent usage rate of 35-plus-point pace for a full season, when the Western Conference margins are so slim that Golden State can’t afford its leader to sit for weeks at a time.

The good news for Curry and the Warriors is that no existing evidence suggests Curry tires either over the course of the season or over the course of individual games. For instance, although he’s missed time due to injury in the last two seasons, in each of the five previous seasons, he played a minimum of 78 games. His statistics are also basically constant across the different months throughout his career, suggesting that he holds up just fine come springtime. (We’ve combined October with November and April with March for sample size reasons.)

Steph Curry Statistics by Month

Oct./Nov. 146 33.5 23.3 6.4 4.5 0.478 0.422 0.915 0.576
Dec. 118 35.3 22.1 6.6 4.8 0.461 0.417 0.894 0.558
Jan. 132 35.0 24.8 6.7 4.2 0.486 0.443 0.903 0.597
Feb. 112 34.4 23.3 6.6 4.7 0.483 0.436 0.898 0.588
March/April 186 34.0 23.8 6.8 4.5 0.475 0.453 0.907 0.585

Within games, Curry has actually seemed to improve his shooting accuracy late, heating up as he keeps letting shots fly. On his first 10 3-pointers in a game, he’s made 43 percent; on 3-point attempts 11 and beyond, he’s made 47 percent. (These numbers go back to the start of the 2014-15 season, when Curry became all-caps, MVP-level CURRY.) And that’s not because of selection bias—the idea that he might not keep shooting on days he’s cold from beyond the arc—either: The same pattern emerges when looking only at games in which he attempted double-digit 3s.

Regardless of his performance this season, whether it’s transcendent or merely typically great, Curry’s legacy is already secure. Already third on the all-time 3-point leaderboard, he’s just 77 3-pointers away from Reggie Miller for second, a mark he’ll probably reach by Thanksgiving. Even Ray Allen and the record are just a little more than a full season away; so prolific is Curry’s pace that through 10 seasons each, Curry made more than 1,000 more 3s than Miller and more than 700 more 3s than Allen.

Nor is Curry in search of a definitive season, either, that inspires vivid memories and pops off the Basketball-Reference page. Curry’s 2015-16 season might be the greatest offensive campaign in league history, as he led the league in scoring, with a record number of 3-pointers, for the 73-win Warriors. That Curry season is no. 1 by a wide margin on the all-time offensive box plus/minus leaderboard, and it won Curry the first unanimous MVP award in league history. It included the most mind-melting game-winner in recent regular-season memory.

But this season affords Curry a new opportunity to embrace the kind of individual basketball he has long skirted, which other contemporary stars have all adopted at one time or another. Curry’s top usage season ranks just 74th all time; this decade alone, Westbrook, Harden, DeMarcus Cousins, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, DeMar DeRozan, Isaiah Thomas, Joel Embiid, Durant, and Devin Booker have all dominated the ball more in at least one season than Curry ever has.

For reasons of curiosity alone, one wonders how Curry might adjust to his new context. From a team-level perspective, Curry is so outrageously dominant when at his best, so singularly able to manipulate defenses and make teammates better, that he may be able to lift Golden State to contention by himself. In those 1,214 minutes with Curry but without Durant or Thompson over the last three seasons, the Warriors have still run their opponents off the floor. On offense, they’ve scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions, a number that would lead the league every year. The same goes for their net rating, which comes in at plus-11 points per 100 possessions.

For this sort of reason, my answer to the “Who’s more important to the Warriors: Curry or Durant?” bar room debate over the last few seasons was always Curry. We knew what a Warriors lineup with an average forward in Durant’s place looked like: That team, with Harrison Barnes as the average forward, won a championship and then 73 games.

This Warriors team isn’t that Warriors team, both because of the erosion of depth and the loss of Thompson, whose absence limits Golden State’s offensive ceiling and, perhaps more importantly, saps its defensive intelligence. The Warriors might not be able to defend anyone this season, with the backcourt a particular issue; their 29th-place defensive rating this preseason exemplifies this concern even if team-level preseason numbers aren’t all that reliable.

But if Curry reaches his ceiling this season, the Warriors are likely to prove their doubters wrong. Since the playoff bracket expanded to 16 teams in 1984, 177 of 180 All-NBA First Team honorees (or 98 percent) have reached the playoffs. The only exceptions are Bernard King’s Knicks in 1984-85, Charles Barkley’s 76ers in 1987-88, and Anthony Davis’s Pelicans in 2016-17. There might be some cause-and-effect confusion there—a player with amazing numbers might nonetheless be knocked down by voters if his team underachieves—but the general idea remains: The league’s very best players, in their very best individual seasons, don’t miss the playoffs.

After a half-decade of dominance, moreover, the Warriors are once again underdogs versus the rest of the West, and a magical Curry campaign may well recapture the joy so many basketball observers felt when he first rose to stardom. Kerr says his point guard is “at his peak physically, mentally.” Curry’s peak to date produced, again, maybe the best offensive season in league history. It’s hard to imagine he has anything better in store for 2019-20, but Curry isn’t the sort to place any limits on his range.