The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.
Stephen Curry is playing a different sport than everyone else in the NBA. A player with his unremarkable size (6-foot-3 and 190 pounds) and speed should not impact the game as much as he does. He barely stands out in the concourse of an NBA arena, much less on the court. Curry doesn’t have the cartoonish physique of LeBron James, the blazing speed of John Wall, or the freakish dimensions of Giannis Antetokounmpo. He can’t do as many things to help his team win as Kevin Durant. The things he can do, though, he does better than anyone who has ever played the game. Imagine a striker who consistently scored 30-plus-yard goals, or a wide receiver who averaged 30 yards a catch. A player that deadly that far from the basket changes the way teams play defense.
Shots from the logo near midcourt are supposed to be prayers. In the past three seasons, Curry is 33-for-76 (43.4 percent) on shots between 30 and 43 feet from the basket. In 2013-14, the league leader in that category (Jamal Crawford) made only four. Once you take into account the value of the extra point, Curry has an effective field goal percentage of 65.1 percent from that area of the floor. In essence, Curry is more dangerous on a shot he practically invented than guys like Marc Gasol and Kristaps Porzingis are at the rim (64.3 percent). Shooting from right behind the 3-point line might as well be a layup for him. He takes and makes 3s at such a high rate that he puts an incredible amount of pressure on the defense. Curry attempted more 3s per game in each of the past two seasons than anyone else in NBA history.
It would be one thing if Curry were just spotting up. Even the deadliest spot-up shooter is relatively easy to guard since they can be shadowed all over the court and run off the 3-point line. What makes Curry revolutionary is his ability to dribble into 3s. Shots should be much harder off the bounce than the catch. A stationary player has more time to set his feet, and more room to get his shot off. Curry shot nearly as well from 3 last season after seven or more dribbles (40 percent) as he did without dribbling at all (45.4 percent). Most conventional defenses don’t work against a player like that, especially in the pick-and-roll. Going under the screen or having the big man drop back and concede an open jumper is a death sentence against a 3-point shooter as lethal off the dribble as Curry. Switching screens and leaving a big man on an island against him isn’t much better. All he needs is an inch of space to get his shot off.
The Warriors are a completely different team when Curry is in the game. In the regular season last year, they had an offensive rating of 118.1 with him and 102.4 without him. The numbers were even more dramatic in the playoffs, when their offensive rating went from 123.1 with him to 95.9 without him. His teammates could score on their own. Their system just doesn’t make sense without him. Golden State gets a higher percentage of its offense on cuts than any other team in the league, and a lower percentage on shots from the ball handler and the roll man in the two-man game. The threat of Curry shooting is what makes it work. Multiple defenders have to track him everywhere he goes, regardless of whether or not he has the ball.
The old rule of thumb used to be that defense is more consistent than offense because there will be nights when shots won’t fall. The beauty of Curry’s game is that it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need the ball to take over a game. According to NBA.com/stats, Curry was 20th among starting point guards in number of touches per game at 78.6, more than 20 fewer than Russell Westbrook or James Harden. He was 26th in average time per possession with the ball (five seconds). Time with the ball is zero-sum. The more one guy has it, the less for everyone else. Players who boost a team’s offense without dominating the ball raise its ceiling because they create more opportunities for their teammates. The better their teammates, the more valuable their skill set becomes. The Warriors have a lot of players who take advantage of the opportunities Curry leaves for them. He is first among equals in Golden State. Most star point guards are autocrats. Curry runs a democracy.
The way he plays sets the tone for the team. It’s hard to complain about your role when Curry gives up the ball and sacrifices his body by setting screens. His fans are more sensitive to slights than he is. Steve Kerr forgot to thank Curry at the Warriors’ victory parade, and he insists Durant is the more valuable player of the two. The most important part of the job for an NBA head coach is managing the ego of his star players. Curry is so unselfish, Kerr forgets he needs to. They could become a next-generation version of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, winning titles together for the next decade. Since so much of Curry’s game is based on his ability to make 3s at a high volume, he could redefine the aging curve for point guards. Steve Nash and John Stockton were All-Stars at 37, but Nash attempted only 2.3 3s per game that season, while Stockton was at 1.5. A decade from now, Curry might be attempting 15 3s per game. He is in uncharted territory.
The biggest threat to a Warriors dynasty isn’t another team. It’s money. The only reason they were able to put the team together in the first place is the modest contract Curry signed in 2012, when he was dealing with career-threatening ankle injuries. His teammates are starting to return the favor. Durant just signed a two-year extension that will pay him $9.5 million less than the max salary this season. Klay Thompson recently floated the idea of taking less money when his deal is up in two seasons. Those discounts put pressure on ownership to pay the prohibitively high luxury-tax bills necessary to keep the team together over the long term. The NBA’s economic structure forces the entire organization to sacrifice financially to win, and everything in Golden State started with Curry. The Warriors’ leader is their most unselfish player.
Playing with Curry is easy. With the exception of David West, the rest of his teammates have a higher true shooting percentage when he is on the floor than when he is off. Curry is a different kind of black hole. He doesn’t attract the ball like a magnet. He attracts defenders. There are Curry Rules when teams face Golden State, just like there were Jordan Rules a generation ago. Like all of the greatest players in NBA history, Curry is changing the way we think about the game. Basketball players no longer need to be built like track stars to dominate, and they don’t need to tower over the competition. Guys his size used to be outgunned. They couldn’t have made the shots Curry takes, and their coaches would have benched them if they tried. David needed a miracle to beat Goliath because all he had was a slingshot. Stephen Curry has a cannon.