The absurdity of what Steph Curry does on a basketball court makes me laugh. It’s beautiful to watch. On Sunday night, we were treated to Steph at his most ridiculous: a career-high 62 points in a much-needed early win for the Warriors over the Trail Blazers.
what a moment— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 4, 2021
career-high 62 points for steph curry pic.twitter.com/WFoAnAEycy
Joy. That’s what that shot by Curry is. It feels so good to watch Steph go off, and it was encouraging to see the Warriors finally look like the Warriors after beginning the season with blowout losses to the Blazers, Bucks, and Nets. The defense was more connected, and Draymond Green had a lot to do with that. In his second game back from injury, Green looked more agile than he has in years. He was an energetic conductor on defense, and he made plays for others on offense. This is how the Warriors should play in the wake of losing Klay Thompson to a ruptured Achilles.
But they haven’t played that way for most of their 3-3 beginning to the 2020-21 season. Their slow start has displayed issues that will require solving, even if Thompson returns at peak strength. The Warriors are figuring out a new version of who they are and will be in the future, and it may take some growing pains to get there.
Curry can’t take 31 shots and attempt 19 free throws every game like he did on Sunday, but the Warriors do need him to dominate the ball more than he did in their first five games. Before Sunday, Curry touched the ball in the half court 31 times per 36 minutes, a lower rate than any season since Mark Jackson was still the head coach in 2013-14, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Even his brother, Seth Curry, averaged more half-court touches (33.2), as did 86 other players. That changed on Sunday, as Curry set season highs in total touches (88), half-court touches (44), and time possessing the ball (6.6 minutes).
The Warriors won’t and shouldn’t have Curry do his best James Harden impression by running countless pick-and-rolls and isolations. Taking on such a massive workload wouldn’t be wise for a 32-year-old with a lot of miles on his 6-foot-3, 185-pound body. But they do need a higher-usage version of Curry more often. This would mean having him serve as more of an on-ball creator, while balancing that role with his off-ball brilliance.
The ways that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr tweaked his offense on Sunday were a sign of progress. Kerr began the season running the same offense he had in years past, which features complex reads in a motion-based system. But while that system unlocked some of the greatest teams in league history, it’s not an ideal fit for his new roster.
“What we’re trying to get to is more drive-and-kick … getting into the paint, kicking it out, playing simple basketball,” Kerr recently said. “We’ve run certain stuff over the years, and there’s been various groups of players who’ve been comfortable with a certain style. I think with this team, I’m finding we need to get more guys into high step-ups, getting them downhill, spacing the floor.”
Simpler would be great for players like Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. because it would limit how much they’d need to think the game. Wiggins could be solid as the fourth or fifth wheel, playing a simplified game next to Curry, Green, and Thompson. But without Klay, he has too much shot creation on his plate. That’s just not his game, as he’s proved for many years. Nor is it Oubre’s. He had a career-best season with the Suns in 2019-20 when he was hitting spot-up 3s, slashing, and giving his all on defense. Oubre’s shooting should improve to at least a passable level following his yucky 2-for-30 start to the season, and his energy and defense have been as advertised. But, like Wiggins, he can’t be expected to be a quality playmaker.
Wiggins and Oubre don’t often recognize the high-level passes. In the play above, even if Curry wasn’t able to launch, simply resetting the offense sure as hell beats Wiggins jacking up a contested midrange jumper with 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
“I would love to sit here and tell you tomorrow it’ll be totally different, but that’s unrealistic. We have a bunch of guys that just don’t quite understand all the reads yet, and that’s what made our offense so tough to guard [in the past],” Green recently said. He brings up a fair point: The system is complex. “Not only did we have some of the best scorers in the world, but a bulk of the offense was read and react. Steph, go this way. KD, go the other way,” Green said. “It’s all read and react, which also made it tougher for teams to scout because not only are you trying to guard some of the best scorers in the world, you also can’t just plan that they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that.”
Only Curry, Green, Thompson, Kevon Looney, and Damion Lee have been on the Warriors since at least the 2018-19 season. Many of their rotation players are in their first season in the system, and most didn’t play much with Curry because a hand injury limited him to five games last season. Contending Warriors teams almost always had five players on the court who seemed to have a telepathic connection with the way they moved the ball. Guys like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Andrew Bogut delivered the ball with precision to Curry, or the teammates he and Thompson helped get open. But those guys are gone, and Curry needs to be the on-ball force who creates shots for himself and for others.
“We have to figure out what we have to do different,” Green recently said. “Shaun, Andre, David West, and Zaza [Pachulia] and Bogut, all the guys that have come through here during that five-year period we were really at the top, were extremely important to what we were able to do. So you now come to the realization that those guys are no longer here and some things may have to change. Figuring out what those changes are while trying to stay true to who we are and who we know ourselves to be is the challenge.”
We saw a lot of those changes on Sunday. The Warriors ran a season-high 14 isolations, according to Synergy Sports, a result of the mismatches created by setting ball screens, which they used more than they have all season. They also flourished in the pick-and-roll, utilizing a more straightforward game plan.
Kerr has long been reluctant to run frequent pick-and-rolls; the Warriors have run fewer ball screens than any other team in the NBA during his years as head coach. Kerr said in 2016 he didn’t run much pick-and-roll because it can relegate playmakers like Green, Iguodala, and Livingston to spot-up shooters. He prefers players to cut, screen, and keep the ball moving to the stasis that a pick-and-roll can breed if a defense switches the screen. “You’re losing a lot emotionally from what makes the team tick,” Kerr said at the time. “So that’s the balance we always try to find with our group to get everybody involved and energized.”
The Warriors didn’t need to run much more pick-and-roll to win three championships in five years. But Curry does hold the two most efficient pick-and-roll scoring campaigns of any player in the past six seasons, according to Synergy Sports. The Curry-Green pick-and-roll has also long been one of the game’s most unstoppable attacks because of how lethal the two are in their respective roles as shot creator and playmaking screener. In certain situations, theirs is a perfect marriage. They hooked up late on Sunday, and it led to a pivotal open shot for Wiggins.
Playing more “simple basketball,” as Kerr mentioned, can lead to more advantageous situations for role players like Wiggins. The style makes even more sense after selecting an explosive 7-footer in James Wiseman with the second pick. Wiseman has been able to effectively play off Curry and finish powerfully at the rim.
The Warriors still have flaws, though. A lack of shooting is the most obvious one—something that has plagued the team ever since Thompson and Kevin Durant got hurt during the 2019 NBA Finals, leaving Curry as the lone knockdown shooter on the roster. (The Raptors exploited Golden State’s lack of spacing by using a box-and-one to contain Curry.) Curry hit 18 of his 31 shots on Sunday, but the rest of the team was only 5-for-18 from 3. Even after Golden State’s big win, it ranks 23rd in offensive rating. Opponents have smothered Curry this season while he races through screens off the ball and orchestrates the offense from the top of the key.
More and more teams are employing an aggressive defensive scheme that sends an early help defender to the middle of the free throw line (also called “the nail”) in order to pack the paint and dissuade drives. Against the Warriors, opposing defenders instead set up closer to the 3-point line to block driving lanes and deter him from shooting, just as Blazers forward Robert Covington does in the video above. Teams routinely send multiple defenders in his direction because they’re unafraid of shooters like Green, who has shot above 34 percent from 3 in a season just once in his career, and Oubre, who’s a career 32.3 percent 3-point shooter.
Thompson’s presence would obviously help spacing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the cure when Golden State’s role players still aren’t scary enough to prevent opponents from helping hard off of them. Only Brad Wanamaker has logged a season hitting over 40 percent of his 3s, and it came on only 39 attempts; most struggle to reach league average.
Warriors president Bob Myers needs to find better shooters through trades, free agency, and in the draft, where they’ve whiffed on multiple choices in recent years. Unfortunately, most of those unreliable shooters also aren’t skilled enough as playmakers to get Curry the ball back when he’s open. And if a team can’t shoot 3s well and can’t make rapid decisions, they won’t be great in the modern NBA, no matter what type of offense the coach runs. The Warriors’ best hope is for Curry to be less of a gravitational force that pulls in defenders as he races around screens off the ball, and more a source of offense like Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic. During his outburst on Sunday, Curry created 50 of his 62 points unassisted. Good things tend to happen when decisions are being made by an all-time great.
What the Warriors need to carry over from their previous iteration is their ability to get stops. Thompson’s absence is felt here, too: Golden State ranks 27th in the NBA in defensive rating without its best wing defender. In the wake of Thompson’s injury, Kerr hoped to build “a top-10 defense.” To get to those heights, the Warriors will need to take advantage of all of the athletes they’ve brought in—especially Wiseman.
Wiseman is raw and needs to be more aggressive as a defender, but he has had some great moments using his 7-foot-6 wingspan around the rim to block shots.
An improved Wiseman, along with solid play from Wiggins and Oubre, would bode well for Golden State’s future as soon as next season. The Warriors will also receive a top-three-protected first-round pick from the Timberwolves in 2021, or an unprotected first in 2022 as part of the Wiggins trade. Even if Golden State continues to struggle this season, there are reminders of future promise.
Ultimately, the Warriors will need to rely on the same trio of stars that’s taken them to this point, and because of that, there is a sense of urgency. Curry will turn 34 next season, and Thompson and Green will turn 32. Thompson will be able to stroke 3s when he’s an old man using a walker, but what will his defense look like post-Achilles injury? Can Green return to near-prime levels on defense? And will Curry stay as healthy as he did during their title seasons?
The Warriors need to change, and it needs to happen now to give themselves a path to the Spurs-like dynasty owner Joe Lacob once said he desires. In the meantime, they need to start winning games. This team has too much talent to be a .500 team. Their problems today are warning signs that more change will be required for the organization to sustain its winning ways and give Steph the stage for more unbelievable, joyous moments deep in the playoffs.