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Most Valuable Role Player

Seth Curry knew he’d never be the focal point of an NBA offense like his brother, Steph, so he modeled his career after his father, Dell. Through his own historic shooting, he’s become the perfect blend of the two: the role player that every superstar wants to play with.

Cody Pearson

When the Philadelphia 76ers take the court, they exchange pleasantries, find their places around center circle, and try their best to ignore the gaping void in the middle of everything. “You can see the glaring holes that he leaves us,” head coach Doc Rivers noted earlier this season. The overtaxed perimeter defense. The vacant rebounding. The uneven transition game. These are cutouts where Ben Simmons should be. Every deficit is highlighted, of course, by the fact that Simmons is not only absent from the lineup but has yet to be replaced. The ongoing stalemate between Simmons and the Sixers—or really, the Sixers and their potential trade partners—has entered its fourth month, leaving Simmons’s teammates with little choice but to stretch their games and make do.

For some, like Tobias Harris, that inherited responsibility now hangs like a curse—a reason for fans to boo him on his home floor simply for playing the way he always has. For others, like Seth Curry, it’s an opportunity to nudge beyond the limits of their usual role.

Curry was originally brought to Philadelphia by prescription, when Joel Embiid, one of the most dominant bigs of his generation, politely informed the front office that he would like to play with teammates who could actually space the floor. “I felt like we didn’t have what we needed, especially when it came to shooting,” Embiid said. So the Sixers traded for not only one of the best long-range shooters in the league, but in league history. When Curry has enough room to launch a clean jumper, he can go shot-for-shot with pretty much anyone—even his older brother, Steph, whom he outranks by a few points in career 3-point percentage. In fact, since he joined the NBA full time in 2015, only a single player (Joe Harris) has been a more efficient jump shooter than Seth.

All of which means there may be no one better suited to draw defensive attention away from their team’s best players. Before he cleared space for Embiid, Curry did the same for Luka Doncic. And before he teamed up with Doncic, he balanced the floor opposite Damian Lillard. If a franchise has a superstar already in hand, odds are that Curry’s name is already up on a whiteboard in the general manager’s office, rounding out a wish list of perfect fits should they ever come available.

The Rockets, then under the leadership of Sixers president Daryl Morey, were once such a team. Yet when Houston registered its interest in signing Curry as a free agent in 2019, he mulled his options and—after consulting his father, former Sixth Man of the Year Dell Curry, and his father-in-law and future coach in Rivers—chose to sign with the Mavericks instead. Curry lasted only a single season in Dallas before Morey took another pass, trading Josh Richardson and a second-round pick to bring the hyperefficient guard to the Sixers.

It was a seamless fit from the start; Curry, like his sharpshooting father, is wired to make basketball easy. Take the shot when it’s there, swing the ball when it’s not. Attack the mismatch in front of him, or find a teammate who can. “I don’t step on the floor thinking that I need to get this many shots up, I need to score this amount of points,” he says. “I think, ‘Every possession, what’s the best play for us to score?’”

But as long as Simmons is in trade limbo, that purely ancillary role doesn’t really exist. What made Curry so appealing to the Sixers wasn’t just what his shooting would open up for Embiid, but also all it could do for Simmons. Curry was a perfect bridge between two stars with competing games and conflicting styles—a mediator who gave Philly a chance to work out one of the more complicated puzzles in the league, until a frustrated Simmons flipped the table and sent pieces flying everywhere.

Now, there are shots for the taking. There is a chance for one of the Sixers’ supporting players to try for their own kind of stardom. The paradox of Seth Curry is that he’s the best candidate to expand his role for the same reason that he’s generally unconcerned with the possibility.

“I know who I am as a player,” he says. “I’m not looking, really, for outside glory or outside recognition to validate who I am.”

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

After a 2014 trip from cold Canton, Ohio, to colder White Plains, New York, Erie BayHawks coach Bill Peterson set up a makeshift film session for his star player on the couch in the lobby of their budget hotel. Curry had planned to play up to two years in the D-League, if necessary, but his patience for minor league basketball was slipping; all he had to show for slogging through his first season and change were some JV accolades and a few fruitless auditions with NBA teams. As he watched dozens of clips in the dispiriting glow of hotel Christmas lights, it grew harder and harder for Curry to envision a path to the highest level of basketball. So Peterson had him work backward.

“I know a guy when I see him who’s an NBA player, and you’re an NBA player,” Peterson told him. “What are we gonna do to get you in the NBA?”

They talked about the practical things that scouts needed to see—namely his commitment on defense, and an ability to navigate around screens. Curry had to show talent evaluators in the NBA that he had enough physical strength to hold his own in the most uncompromising basketball league in the world. To that end, Peterson made an odd suggestion for Curry’s pregame workout routine. “If you don’t mind,” Peterson said, “let’s do some push-ups out there.” Curry, who had just played three seasons at Duke before going undrafted, responded with a skeptical look. “You could do those at night at your house, and it wouldn’t matter,” Peterson told him. “But just the fact that people see that gives a different perception of you and what you’re all about.”

Curry tried it: a set of push-ups in Westchester, and another in Santa Cruz. After just a few weeks, the BayHawks got a rare visit from a scout with the Spurs, who after watching Curry warm up, came to ask Peterson about the push-ups. It was a gimmick, sure, but it was also a conversation starter about Curry’s training and development. It was an opening in the battle against perception. Curry didn’t make his way from the D-League to the NBA based on some huge breakthrough in his development. He simply had to convince NBA scouts and team executives to see what was already there.

“I had to play at a certain level and be consistent for one-and-a-half, two years, honestly, just showing the scouts who I was,” Curry says. “That I wasn’t no blip on the radar.”

Teams would call Curry up on a 10-day contract only to cancel all their practices and barely put him in games. His easygoing manner didn’t exactly pop; the value of being a low-maintenance professional, after all, doesn’t much register in a week and a half of work. So Curry would join an NBA club with the intent to fit in and not make noise, and then be quietly sent back to Erie without much chance to show anything at all. “That’s kind of the story of my entire life,” Curry says. “My entire career. I had to prove it instead of being handed an opportunity.” Despite the name recognition that came with his father’s NBA pedigree and his brother’s rising star, Seth wouldn’t get a real NBA shot until he was 25 years old.

Peterson remembers pleading with the Magic, the BayHawks’ parent club, to give Curry an honest look. Orlando was awful that season, with one of the worst guard rotations in the league. “I argued with my boss,” Peterson says. “I don’t want to put his name out there ’cause he’s still in the NBA. I got really heated for about 30 minutes. I said: ‘You don’t know what the heck you’re doing.’” Orlando, instead, gave consistent minutes to Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon, and Willie Green in their final NBA seasons, when all three were well on their way to retirement. The closest Curry ever came to actually playing for the Magic was suiting up for them in training camp. The coaching staff largely had him stand off to the side.

When Curry finally got his first full-season contract, with the Kings, in 2015, he made it his mission to carve out a role and never give his team reason to cut him. He didn’t want a job; he wanted a career. “I was just preaching to myself: You’ve gotta be consistent,” he says. “You’ve gotta do it every night.”

Although Curry’s circumstances have changed dramatically since then, he still thinks like a player who made it to the league through the backdoor. “A guy at my level, I don’t have the ball in my possession the majority of the game, so I can’t just waste possessions,” Curry says. “I’m not gonna have it 20, 30 times a game like Steph or James [Harden]. I’ve gotta make my 10 to 15 efficient and be smart with it.” Sometimes that means passing up borderline looks that his coaches and teammates would rather he take. The lobbying began behind the scenes when Curry played in Portland, where members of Terry Stotts’s coaching staff would encourage him to indulge his more daring side. Longer, earlier 3-point attempts were welcome. The Sixers have taken that campaign aboveboard. “He probably leads our team in turning down open shots,” Rivers told reporters last season. “I was a horrible shooter. But if I had his shot, you never would have had that stat with me. It’s funny. We show him. We encourage it. We want him to let it fly.” Yet Curry’s 3-point attempts, by minute and by possession, remain essentially the same.

That’s true in part because Curry, more than ever, is leveraging the threat of that shot to hunt other kinds of offense. “I know the respect I’m gonna get whenever I catch the ball and look at the rim,” he says. Defenders hug up and fly by, leaving themselves completely exposed. Where his brother might sidestep that kind of pressure into another quick 3, the natural tilt of Seth’s game takes him inside the arc for safer looks. The results are pretty much unimpeachable; Curry is shooting 58.2 percent on midrange jumpers this season, the highest mark ever recorded in the NBA Advanced Stats database. (Dell Curry, it should be noted, is also in the top 10.) That is a consciousness-expanding figure that breaks the math of NBA offense, far ahead of even the most decorated midrange shooters of all time. It’s also cause, yet again, to wonder why Curry isn’t taking even more pull-up jumpers than he already does, sliding up his usage in ways that could help Philadelphia’s offense to better sustain itself.

If ever there was an opportunity for Curry to channel his inner Steph, this would be it. But Seth has never really wanted that. When Davidson recruited him to follow his brother’s lead, Seth went to play at Liberty, where he became the highest-scoring freshman in the country. Then he gave it all up—sacrificing shots and touches to transfer to Duke, where he could play alongside higher-level talent and against tougher competition. Seth needed to make his own way.

“We had different journeys, different paths for us to get here,” Steph told Shams Charania of The Athletic. “Obviously I’m checking his numbers, watching his games every night that I can. He’s playing the best basketball that I’ve ever seen him play.”

During his time in Philadelphia, the Sixers are 25-5 in the regular season and the playoffs when Curry scores at least 20 points. After one such game against the Hawks last postseason, he wore a sweatshirt that read: DREAMS BLOSSOM IN TIME. Some of that scoring is a symptom of good team offense—the kind of rhythm that would move the ball around the floor and into Curry’s hands for an open shot. The net outcome, however, is far less debatable. Adding a third significant scorer to flank Embiid and Harris turns the Sixers, currently ninth in offense, from a decent team to a dangerous one.

Striking that balance is more complicated than it seems, given that it’s never entirely clear whether Curry’s primary job at a given moment is to take shots to score or to simply space the floor to project that he might. “Obviously we wanna get a high volume of shots up,” Curry says. “We want to make shots at a high clip. But it’s about the threat of our offense and keeping that continuity.” Missed jumpers clank a bit louder when you share the court with a dynamo like Embiid, as every errant shot is one that could have gone to the unstoppable center just a pass away. As fellow Sixer Georges Niang put it: His charge, as a shooter, is to “make sure my guy doesn’t get in Joel’s way so Joel can go and score.” But Curry isn’t Niang, or Danny Green, or Furkan Korkmaz—he’s both the best shooter on the roster and an increasingly vital creator off the dribble. He shares playmaking responsibility with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, and now has the ball in his hands almost twice as much as he did in Dallas. When things got weird in the playoffs, it was Curry’s usage that jumped, in part because he was pretty much the only perimeter Sixer who could be trusted to take more than a few dribbles at a time.

Consider that an omen. The ball will find Curry again and again in games that matter for one exceedingly simple reason: The Sixers—and Embiid—need it to.

Toronto Raptors Vince Carter and Dell Curry, 2001 Playoffs Getty Images

When Seth sees himself on video these days, he can’t help but see Dell. Sometimes it’s in a facial expression. Sometimes it’s in the way he moves. “And the older I get,” he says, “the more I act more like him.” Seth fell in love with the game while tagging along with his dad to Raptors practices, where he would shoot against Steph and goof around with Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. What he didn’t know then was that Dell had built his entire career from the margins, after spending his first three seasons bouncing between teams and searching for his place in the league.

During that stretch, Dell found patience. He learned how to work. He carved out a niche as a designated shooter, spacing the floor for bigs like Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, and later for slashers like McGrady and Carter.

“I think at a young age, he just thought: ‘Hey, my dad’s in the NBA,’” Dell says. A 10-year-old Seth couldn’t know what it really meant to earn that job and to keep it. Years later, after Curry finally broke through from the D-League into the NBA, he posted a picture of himself in his dad’s no. 30 Raptors jersey, one of three Dell throwbacks that he owns. When the time came to start his own NBA career with the Kings, Seth wore the same number in a slightly different shade.

Dell’s number was already spoken for when Seth was traded to Philadelphia, so Curry opted for the next-best thing: no. 31. That choice has proved auspicious; for the first time in Curry’s professional career, he was able to return to play for the same team in consecutive seasons. To commemorate the occasion, he had his trainer play the role of Embiid in workouts last offseason. A smaller, slighter Joel teed him up for dribble handoffs, and set the stage for pick-and-rolls. Stand-in screeners imitated the sorts of off-ball action that the Sixers are so fond of running, not only now but in its various forms dating back to the Larry Brown administration. Some players spend their summer channeling Kobe, or Dirk, or Hakeem. Curry tailored his regimen to fit around the superstar he already works with.

It’s an effort toward complementary perfection. “In our handoff game and in our two-man game, pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, we have multiple ways that we can hurt you,” Curry says. “I can get into the paint and finish. Both of us can score from the midrange. Both of us can shoot 3s. It’s just a tough dynamic to guard.”

A successful NBA role player needs to do one of two things: either make your team’s best players even better, or help your team survive in their absence. The very best supporting players do both. Curry is already an ace in the first category, as was Dell. “You still have to have guys who can spread the floor and, when the double-team comes, put it in the basket,” Dell said in 2001. “That’s what I do.” That part of the job is the same as it ever was. Yet in the decade-plus between the two Currys’ careers, the value of floor spacing has intensified. Whatever defensive attention Dell drew to the wing was mitigated by the hand-checking and physicality of the ’90s; a driving lane isn’t really a driving lane when a defender can hold and steer the player with the ball at every step.

The way the game is currently played and officiated, however, allows role players like Curry to influence the action on a much more profound level. NBA offenses have grown more dynamic over time, and defenses—drawing off zone principles—have become more amorphous to counter them. The parameters have evolved beyond Curry’s assigned defender deciding whether or not to double-team Embiid. There is now a constant swirl of rotating and switching defenders forced to keep tabs on Curry at all times, which means there is a constant swirl of things that could, and will, go wrong.

Dell was a specialist by his own admission—a shooter, he jokes, with a two-dribble limit. Seth is something more. One false step and Curry gets a shot, free and clear. One moment of hesitation and Embiid winds up with an and-1. It’s not really about scheme anymore. A shooter like Curry—the few that exist—will materially change the way a defense thinks.

This is what gives Curry some room to grow as a creator in his own right as well, if he could ever be coaxed into taking a wider, more aggressive array of shots. Curry’s size (listed at 6-foot-2) adds a degree of difficulty in manufacturing those looks, but what would happen if he spent his minutes without Embiid bombing away like Fred VanVleet, an All-Star-level guard of similar size, speed, and shooting mechanics? And if he did, could he still be the same Seth Curry who oriented his game to best fit alongside his superstar teammate in the first place? It feels impossible to separate the player from his worldview.

“Honestly, I feel like what’s the chances of me being a 10-time All-Star?” Curry asks. “A max player? I have a better chance of being a niche guy, sticking it out in the league, and playing a role.”

Any attempts to scale up Curry’s offense always bump against his most fundamental truths. The fact that he’s a shooter burdened by conscience is what makes him such a perfect counterpart to someone like Embiid to begin with.

Philadelphia has structured its entire playing rotation with that in mind. In games that both have appeared in this season, Embiid has played just 59 minutes without Curry, and Curry 125 minutes without Embiid—compared to the roughly 1,000 minutes the two have played together. (Curry is currently day-to-day with an ankle injury.) “That’s how Doc tries to line it up,” Curry says.

The ties that bind Curry and Rivers are a bit more complex than those between a typical player and coach. Seth and Doc’s son, Austin, shared a backcourt together at Duke. Seth and Doc’s daughter, Callie, married in 2019—roughly a year before Curry was traded to Philadelphia. (Callie Curry is a contributor to The Ringer’s reality TV podcasts.) “Actually,” Seth says, “my wife ended up telling me I got traded first.”

Thus began a perfect marriage. Curry’s presence has an amplifying effect on Embiid’s scoring efficiency, and Embiid’s enormous picks have unlocked Curry as the NBA’s most effective scorer off a direct ball screen this season, according to Second Spectrum. When Embiid plays the role of massive point guard and starts a fast break, he can go harder to the rim knowing that he has Curry—a lights-out transition shooter—as a bailout option. The gravity that Curry exerts on defenders has made room for Philadelphia to post up more than any other team this season, per Synergy Sports, while managing a low-turnover style that runs counter to everything we know about modern post play. Their intersections on the court are completely unswitchable; you can see Embiid call for a two-man action with Curry in the heat of the game, whenever he feels like sowing some chaos.

“It’s just been fun playing with him,” Embiid says.

And that, right there, is the job. Curry is savvy enough to know that playing a role isn’t just a matter of playing well. It’s playing in a way that’s compatible with the most important people in the entire organization. It’s making a superstar want to play with you, whether they demolish defenses like Joel, pick them apart like Luka, or fire over the top like Dame.

“As a fifth to ninth man in the league, you’ve gotta adapt to the role they want you to play on that team more than that team is gonna adapt to you,” Curry says. “Instead of complaining about situations or touches, I figure out what’s best for the team. Whether that’s coming off the bench, starting, spreading the floor, making plays off the dribble, guarding point guards, guarding wings, whatever it is.” Every game is just another chance to find perfect harmony. Beyond all else, Curry is a player who sees himself in context.

“For me, I’ve just embraced my role, no matter where I’ve been,” he says. “I think growing up with a Pops who played 16 years in the NBA and was never a starter—I looked up to him just as much if not more than the All-Stars and the max players in the league. I wanted to have a long career ever since I was young.”

Some things we inherit. Some we make for ourselves.

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