Why the NBA Loves—and Fears—Stephen Curry
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
It’s something of a curiosity, then, that one title Curry cannot claim without argument is that of the world’s best player. Figures within the NBA and observers of the league alike are hesitant to dethrone James, who has held the unofficial honor for a decade. If this may be ascribed in part to inertia, it also reflects a lingering suspicion of what Curry represents. He and the graceful, jump-shooting Warriors diverge from the brawny historical models of great players and teams, and there’s the sense among some in the sport’s establishment that they have not so much mastered the game as solved it, bringing about a basketball revolution that is not wholly welcome.
* * *
Fans had spent all of January 25 looking forward to the season’s first game between the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. It wasn’t only a meeting of the two best teams in the league, but also a clash of methods. Compared with the Warriors’ blink-quick pace and intricate patterns, the Spurs’ tactics seem almost hokey; they play forbidding defense and generally prefer the short jumper to the long one. For Golden State, it was the latest in an endless series of tests, and for the viewing public, it was appointment television.
Curry took his first shot from a spot closer to the Warriors’ center-court logo than to the three-point line, nearly 30 feet from the rim. It dropped cleanly, proving something of a thesis statement for the evening. Curry spent the next three quarters—the Golden State lead grew so large that he sat out the fourth—evading San Antonio’s defense in every way imaginable, skipping down the lane for one-handed layups or popping into open space for jumpers. What was predicted to be one of the season’s best and closest contests ended up like so many other Warriors games have this season: as little more than a demonstration of the Curry phenomenon. He scored 37 points in 28 minutes that night, but more to the point, he inverted the odds of the game, making the most difficult shots look like the easiest.
Curry has, these days, a folk hero’s following. In Oakland and in arenas across the country, fans arrive early to Warriors games to see his fabled warm-up routine, wherein he dribbles two basketballs at once, whipping them between his legs and behind his back, hits strings of shots from near the midcourt line, and often tosses in one final shot from far out of bounds just before disappearing into the locker room. Curry’s jersey is the NBA’s top seller. He has reached a sphere of celebrity that allowed President Obama, during the Warriors’ recent White House visit, to allude playfully to his and Curry’s golf rivalry.
* * *
Two nights after the Warriors’ victory over the Spurs, ESPN’s NBA Countdown crew was covering the recent firing of Cleveland’s head coach. In discussing LeBron James’s role in the move, Doris Burke, the show’s host, used the accepted honorific: “the best player in the world.” Despite the fact that Curry won last year’s MVP award and the near-assurance that he will do so again this season, Burke’s label didn’t raise any eyebrows. Indeed, James’s continued place atop the basketball world remains a matter of fact to many.
James himself used the phrase last June, when his Cavaliers trailed Curry’s Warriors three games to two in the Finals, saying, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world.” Opposing coaches regularly resort to the phrase to drive home the enormity of their task when facing James. Writers at Grantland and the Wall Street Journal have featured it in their opening paragraphs. Considering James’s unprecedented combination of strength, speed, and intelligence—he’s a linebacker-sized Swiss Army Knife—putting him atop basketball’s hierarchy is a defensible position.
But it’s not so obvious that it doesn’t need defending. Curry, not James, is currently the irreplaceable component of the NBA’s best team and reigning champion. Curry leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating, a catch-all statistic that James once topped for seven seasons in a row. Curry prompted the esteemed Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to proclaim, “[He] is changing the way the game is going to be played in the future. I’m sure of it. That’s a historic thing.” The prevalent unwillingness to call Curry basketball’s best player, then, seems less like certainty that he isn’t than anxiety that he is.
Like every sport, basketball has recently undergone a statistical overhaul. A new generation of analysts has pored over the game and come to conclusions about the efficacy of certain players and techniques. Their findings have met mixed acceptance from the old guard of coaches and executives, but at least one of their takeaways is now visible every night in the NBA. The three-point shot, for much of its history a novelty or minor part of teams’ strategies, has become an essential component of almost every team’s offensive attack. As recently as 2012, the average team took about 1,200 threes over the course of a season; last year, that number ballooned to over 1,800.
The Warriors fit this environment like Michelangelo fit the Renaissance. They have the best shooting assemblage in the game at their disposal, beginning with, but not limited to, their star. If a defense lapses in its attention to Curry for even a moment, he rises for a shot from most anywhere inside the midcourt line; if he’s marked too carefully, he slips the ball to any one of the handful of shooters stationed across the court.
To anyone reared on the sport in previous decades, the Warriors seem to play bizarro basketball. Their leader is a scrawny trickster, not an imposing high-flyer. They’re more dangerous the further they are from the basket, and they have little use for certain common player types. Their most effective grouping, unofficially and enviously known as “Death Lineup” or “Nuclear Lineup,” features no player taller than 6’7” and achieves a state of delirious ball and player movement that resolves in an open long-range shot almost as a matter of course.
Prior to the Warriors’ championship win in June, objections to their style were based on purported strategic pitfalls. Charles Barkley, a former low-post bruiser and current TNT analyst, asserted last season that a jump-shooting team like Golden State would fall short in the rough-and-tumble world of the playoffs, when buckets sometimes have to be gotten by more tenacious means. Since their style has proven itself to be the NBA’s most successful, though, the type of objection has changed. It’s concerned not with the team’s effectiveness but with its effect.
Even after their Finals victory, Barkley sees in Golden State evidence of a league gone soft through a combination of rule changes curbing defensive aggression and finesse-oriented ideologies. “That Bulls team would kill this little team,” he said, referring the 1995-96 Chicago squad led by Michael Jordan that set the record for most wins in a season, a mark the Warriors presently chase. “They would love playing the way the Warriors play. It’s a much easier game now. Could you imagine how many points Michael would average if you couldn’t touch him?” Mark Jackson, Golden State’s former head coach and current ESPN analyst, said, “To a degree, [Curry’s] hurt the game. And what I mean by that is I go into these high-school gyms, I watch these kids, and the first thing they do is run to the 3-point line.”
So Curry and the Warriors are, in certain spheres, less the historical greats that their accomplishments suggest than an opportunistic and homogenizing presence in the basketball landscape. The fear is that they’ve disrupted the sport’s equilibrium and capitalized on its design flaws. That they’re forerunners of a slick, soulless future.
* * *
That perspective makes enough sense on a radio show or in an article. Turn on the Warriors, though, and your skepticism gets tested. You get swept up, especially if you’re watching a Golden State home-game broadcast from the rapturous din of Oracle Arena. A neat little aesthetic trick of the Warriors’ marksmanship is that, no matter what the statistics teach you to expect, the shots still look daunting, and so they still surprise and thrill, all the more in sequences of three and four in a row, with the bench saluting and the crowd roaring and the opposing team looking like it has just tangled with a poltergeist.
In the middle of all this, Curry doesn’t seem anything like an avatar of basketball’s decay. The ball magnetized to his palm, his sneakers moving in odd-angled darts and backpedals, he burrows around the court at the height of his defenders’ stomachs. He gets them stumbling or grasping at air and then lifts off the floor for that atom-pure jumper. It’s magical to watch.
Historically great teams get people thinking in historical terms, so it’s tempting to try to position Curry in basketball’s lineage and to try to discern what he will mean to it going forward. Is he an anomaly or a prototype? Does he expand possibilities or impose a doctrine?
Depending on your perspective and investment, these questions are either interesting or dull, but eventually they become moot. For all the chatter they produce at the periphery, sports eventually turn to the games themselves. And playing, Curry is as captivating a presence as the NBA has seen in a long time. He may not have proven himself as the word’s unquestioned best player yet, but he can make you forget, for a moment, that there are any others.