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Steph Curry Is Cookin’ Like It’s 2016

The Warriors superstar is on fire like he was when he won the first unanimous MVP. Can he reset the bar for himself—and the rest of the league?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Steph Curry’s 2015-16 campaign is one of the more marvelous and celebrated feats in NBA history. As the Warriors won a record-setting 73 games, Curry scrawled his own name into the record books multiple times over en route to becoming the first unanimous MVP the league has ever seen.

Through 10 games this season, he’s matching his previous self stat for stat.

Through 10 games in 2015-16:
33.3 points, 5.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 53/47/93 shooting splits on 20.5 shots per game

Through 10 games in 2018-19:
32.5 points, 6.0 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 54/51/92 shooting splits on 20.6 shots per game

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guaranteed a third MVP award, particularly in a star-studded league and with the possibility of splitting the vote with teammate Kevin Durant. But like in 2015-16, Curry also leads an offense this season that looks unconquerable. The Warriors are scoring 119.7 points per 100 possessions through 10 games, which leads second-place Charlotte by nearly five points. The Hornets are sizzling under new coach James Borrego, and they’re still closer to 11th place in the offensive rankings than to the Warriors. Combine that impressive efficiency with the team’s participation in the leaguewide pace spike, and Golden State is averaging more than 124 points per game so far. That’s one of the dozen highest-scoring 10-game starts to a season in NBA history and the highest for any team since 1990-91.

To make sense of Curry’s start, let’s again turn to history. On ESPN’s broadcast of Golden State’s 116-99 win against Minnesota on Friday, analyst Mark Jackson said that Warriors coach Steve Kerr had deemed Curry’s recent shooting performance the most consistent of his career. And while Curry’s most recent 10-game stretch isn’t quite the hottest of his career—that would be the 10 games he played in February 2016 when he averaged 36.7 points per game, made 67 3s, and produced the best highlight of that whole regular season—it is true that no other player has matched this kind of shooting to start a season.

Here, for instance, is the leaderboard for most 3-pointers made in a player’s first 10 games:

Steph Curry, 2018-19: 59 3s
Steph Curry, 2015-16: 52
Steph Curry, 2016-17: 48
Kemba Walker, 2018-19: 42
Steph Curry, 2017-18: 40

(Pay attention to Walker and the Hornets, by the way. They’re only 5-5, but Kemba is averaging 28 points per game and they’ve looked frisky in close losses against contenders.)

On wide-open 3s (which NBA.com/Stats defines as when the nearest defender is at least 6 feet away), Curry has made 24 of 39 such shots and is shooting 61.5 percent, which ranks first in makes and second in percentage among high-volume shooters. That accuracy likely won’t continue at such a clip—in each of the past five seasons, Curry’s wide-open-3 percentage settled in the high 40s—but it reflects the reality of watching the Warriors star now, because every shot he takes, open or not, seems like it’s bound for the bottom of the net.

One might reasonably ask why opposing teams are allowing the most prolific shooter in league history to take nearly four unguarded 3s per game, but there’s only so much a defense can do to combat Curry’s offensive derring-do, especially with officials keeping a close eye on holding off the ball. On scripted plays, he benefits from the Warriors’ whirring system, which is already operating at top gear. Every cut is intentional, every action considered, and many of Curry’s 3s this season have come as he curls off a succession of screens; set enough picks, and one of them is going to spring this quick-release shooter for a clean look.

Curry has also excelled in the moments of controlled chaos after an offensive rebound or in transition. In these situations, his sense for floor spacing draws his feet toward the arc and the ball toward his hands like a set of interconnected magnets. Before the defense can even identify the threat, let alone respond, the successful triple is already on its way. The skill is particularly helpful this season, with an offensive rebound providing teams only 14 seconds to generate a high-value look.

One new wrinkle for Curry this season is his increased share of the benefits from the Warriors’ assist-happy offense. In 2015-16, only 47 percent of his made field goals were assisted; that portion is up to 55 percent so far this season, which would represent a career high. For comparison, other elite point guards generate far more of their offense from individual effort: Just 33 percent of Walker’s field goals are assisted, as are 25 percent of Damian Lillard’s, 21 percent of Russell Westbrook’s, and 18 percent of James Harden’s. Curry has always been on the high end of this statistic, but he’s taken even greater advantage of his teammates thus far.

In particular, his connection with Durant has grown more harmonious in the duo’s third season together. “The continuity of being together now for a while,” Kerr said recently, “winning back-to-back titles together, I think there’s probably a better comfort zone, comfort area between the two of them than there’s ever been.” Indeed, that partnership has already partaken in 43 mutual assists (21 from Durant to Curry, 22 from Curry to Durant), an average of 4.3 per game; that’s up from less than three per contest in each of their first two seasons together. When a Curry pass has led directly to a Durant 3-point attempt, Durant has made six of nine (66.7 percent); when that combination has worked the other way, Curry has made a whopping 17 of 29 (58.6 percent). The third play in this compilation is an especially cruel design.

Overall, Curry ranks in the 97th percentile of NBA players in half-court scoring rate, and nobody who ranks ahead of him in efficiency has handled anywhere near the volume of offense that Curry has. (Among those peak users, Durant ranks second in points per half-court possession. The Warriors aren’t fair.) Curry places in the 90th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers and the 96th percentile on dribble jumpers, and all these numbers conspire to say, again, that Curry never seems like he’s going to miss.

He will start missing some, of course, if only because no qualifying shooter has ever shot 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free throw line over a full season; even for Curry, that consistency would represent a remarkable accomplishment. He’s dialed in now, though, and he’s been dialed in in this fashion for over a month: As our Dan Devine noted, Curry tallied more points than minutes played in the preseason. At the moment, he’s coming closer to that outrageous feat in the regular season than any player since Wilt Chamberlain actually achieved it in 1961-62. It won’t continue. It can’t continue. But Curry has already pushed the sport’s scoring boundaries so far. Who would bet on him to miss at this point?