Stephen Curry still off, still great

December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the basketball against Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 121-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the basketball against Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 121-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

Last season around this same time of year (almost to the day), I was compelled to write about the meteoric start to Steph Curry’s 2015-16 season. Through the first 25 games he was averaging 32 points per game on a nearly 69 true shooting percentage. He was taking over 11 3-pointers per game and making them at close to a 46 percent clip. It warranted a micro-view, a closer inspection. A year, a historic playoff collapse, Draymond indiscretions, and Kevin Durant later, Curry is nowhere near those legend status stats.

Through 32 games, Golden State is 27-5 with an average margin of victory that exceeds last year’s 73-win season. The growing pains of integrating the great Kevin Durant into what was already a seamless offense have been, on paper at least, non-existent. The team appears to be on an unobstructed bullet train speeding towards the Cavs in the third part of their Finals trilogy. And yet, Steph Curry, the mouth guard-chewing golden boy of Under Armour and the NBA and children around the world, is enduring the worst three-point shooting season of his career.

Coming into the season, Curry was shooting 44 percent from deep for his career on over seven attempts-per-game which was good enough for the third most efficient rate in league history. Along with Damian Lillard, Curry is the only player to average over seven 3-points attempts and the only player to ever average at least three 3-pointers made per game. Any analysis of his current performance comes with the caveat that a career-worst Steph Curry is still historically great — which is part of the reason a sub-surface view is worthwhile.

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Feel free to get as caught up in that Curry grid as you’re comfortable. We’re looking at Curry this season (the top row) and the previous three seasons, broken out in 25-game chunks with playoffs included. The highwater mark, which is somewhat foretold by the end of 2014-15, was Curry’s first period of 2015-16. Look at all those gaudy numbers highlighted in green. His pre-playoffs (games 51-75) last season were equally impressive as his 3-pointers made reached 5.5/game which is incomparable even by his own measures, but this period is also when we saw Curry at his most aggressive as he was taking over 21 shots per game and generating 54 percent of his total points on 3-pointers.

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Attempting to use the previous season’s playoffs as a lead-in indicator of things to come worked during the last 25 games of Curry’s 2014-15 season, but it’s not applicable as a bridge from 2015-16 to this season. Between Curry’s injury against the Rockets and Golden State’s roster changes, we’re comparing apples to asteroids.

The expectation was always that everyone on Golden State would have to sacrifice to incorporate Durant and Curry’s seen his usage drop from 32.6 percent last year to 28.1 percent this season while he’s taking three fewer shots each night. By comparison, Klay Thompson’s shots are equal to last year while his usage decreased slightly and Draymond Green is taking less shots with less usage — though not as much of a drop as Steph. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how both Green’s (minus-7 percentage points) and Thompson’s (minus-4.5 percentage points) 3-point accuracies have taken a hit consistent with Curry’s (minus-5.5 percentage points).

According to, through 32 games this year, Curry’s not taking any more open (nearest defender within 4-6 feet) or wide open (nearest defender within six-feet) 3s this season. The slice of the pie with which he’s taking wide open 3s is up, but this data doesn’t tell a full story.

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Frequency places all attempts into one of the four categories above and then assigns a percentage to each. What it doesn’t do and this is where the effect of the roster changes begin to reveal themselves is in measuring the opportunities that have been passed up. Before we get into that piece, it’s worthwhile to look at the percentage of Curry’s 3s that are very tightly contested this season: 13.2 percent — which is higher than at any point in the previous two seasons plus playoffs. Surrounded by more highly-skilled players than at any other point in his career, Curry is taking incrementally more tough 3s than his previous two seasons. He’s shooting them better, but it can speak to elevated confidence from previous success feeding into greater risk taking.

The above segues nicely into explorations of judgment. Against the New York Knicks on December 15, the Warriors tallied 41 assists on 45 field goal makes. The NBA’s stats website allows us to see all passes that resulted in assists, but it doesn’t isolate passed up opportunities. In watching a handful of assists from Steph, I counted two 3-point opportunities that would’ve classified as open or wide open that he passed up in favor of moving the ball. In both cases, the recipients of the pass (Klay for 3 and a beautiful drive-and-dish to Durant) made the bucket and all was well in Oracle. But there are other occasions where Curry, and other Warriors, appear to force the pass.

From my view, it’s not because they’re looking to tally assists, but because they’re relishing the moment, the flow, and the exploration of the beautiful. As an exceptionally amateur basketball player, even I am familiar with the pull of the unspoken connection between teammates. You play a pickup game with strangers and without ever discussing it, someone sets a pick on your defender and they roll hard (!!!) and you recognize it and hit them with the pocket pass as if you’ve practiced it your entire lives. The flipside of that experience is when everything goes as planned and they roll, but the pass isn’t there and yet, because you’re communicating and in synch with one another, you force the pass because you’re caught up in the moment and so desperately want to express that acknowledgement – “I see you!” What I just described is the most micro of microcosms of what I see when the Warriors force these passes and ignore perfectly appropriate open looks.

And the above isn’t unique to this season, but adding another world class player to the mix seems to have only increased their collective penchant for flair. It doesn’t translate into more turnovers (their turnover rate is slight down from last season and has them ranked near the bottom third in the league like last year) and their effective field goal percentage is nearly dead even with the previous season.

But to take it back to the 3-point declines from Curry, Green, and Thompson, it doesn’t feel off-base to view the desire for the extra pass as creating moments of indecision which can easily throw off shooters. Looking at Curry’s declines from his runaway unanimous MVP season, the 3-point line is where the declines are most evident which is why I’ve spent so much time in this piece examining what’s happening beyond the arc.

For Curry at least, the world inside the arc has remained impressive even if it’s off of last year’s pace. He’s shooting 55 percent on 2-point field goals including a robust 66 percent inside five-feet which slots him around notable bigs Hassan Whiteside, Kristaps Porzingis and LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s getting to the line over five times-per-game while hitting a league-best 93 percent of his free throws. Despite the relatively off shooting, he’s still playing at an elite level. Per, for just the 21st time in league history, Curry is in contention for an average of over 24 points per game and with true shooting percentage above 63 for the season.

If we distill Curry all the way down to Golden State’s win/loss splits, his performances are night and day (though it’s worth acknowledging that we’re comparing 27 wins to just five losses) and align closely with the team’s struggles in losses. The table below, which looks at performance in losses compared to wins and calls out performance declines, implies that as Curry goes, so goes Golden State. Spot checking the same splits for KD, Klay and Green, it’s interesting to see how Green’s and Durant’s performances in losses improve while Klay’s drop-offs are similar or worse than Steph’s. Most notably, Curry is shooting 43 percent on nine 3-point attempts per game in Warrior wins against 23.5 percent on over 10 3-point attempts per game in losses. The table below focuses specifically on Steph and the team:

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Last year’s Curry is gone and likely not coming back. There’s simply not enough shots on a nightly basis and it’s easier to get higher percentage shots for Durant or Klay than it is for Curry to pull up from 30-feet. But this collection of Golden State talent is still heavily dependent on the threat of Curry. As Steph goes, so goes Golden State. If last season’s Finals weren’t enough to make that clear, then Curry’s Christmas Day performance where he shot 4-11 from the field and 2-7 on 3-pointers while being benched for the final defensive possession of the game should be the emphatic obviousness.

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Curry is not averaging 30-points again and it’s entirely possible we’ve seen the best of his career, but for Golden State to reach their full potential, they need a version of Curry that is consistently aggressive, that trusts his greatest-of-all-time jump shot to be the answer instead of hunting the great play, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it is to himself or how much he might seek approval from Kevin Durant.