Nylon Calculus: Stephen Curry might be having his best season yet

This probably went in. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
This probably went in. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Kevin Durant hit the 20,000 point milestone a few days ago, prompting a cacophony of adulation. Durant is so widely praised these days that Basketball-Reference might add “world’s second-best player” to his nicknames list. Of course, the de facto title of best player belongs to LeBron James, who has his own chorus of MVP-backers now. Before James, the newest basketball flavor this year was Mint Giannis before James Harden took the reigns as the MVP favorite. Meanwhile, Golden State’s wispy little guard is breaking basketball again.

You probably didn’t notice, but Steph Curry is challenging his 2015-16 season for historical absurdity. Halfway through the year, he’s flame-throwing like he wants a Marvel spinoff. Last week, he booked 38 points in under 30 minutes. Twice. (He had 45 the second time.) In his last 14 games, he’s averaging nearly a point per minute on 70 percent true shooting. But those are cherrypicked examples. What does the data say?

Through Jan. 11, Curry’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus – ESPN’s blend of box score and plus-minus data – is near its annual +7 mark. His free throw rate has jumped – he’s taking 7 per game now – and his per possession scoring is only 4 percent behind his 2015-16 season. He somehow leads the league in scoring efficiency while sitting second in scoring rate. There have been 28 seasons in NBA history with a scoring rate above 30 points per 75 possessions, and only one had true shooting at least 10 percentage points above league average: Curry’s 2016. He’s on pace for No. 2 this year.

But unlike two seasons ago, he’s sharing the court with Kevin Durant now. When we tease out his Durant-free minutes, we can see how nuclear hot Steph has been burning. Below, I’ve plotted Curry’s scoring rate, estimated creation and true shooting relative to league average (rTS) with Durant on the court (solid orange) and without Durant (dotted orange) from 2016-18. Durant’s blue lines compare his numbers with MVP teammates (Curry or Westbrook in 2015-16) to his on court minutes without a fellow superstar:

Curry’s scoring rate without Durant for 324 scorching minutes is literally off the charts. (I had to shift the axis on this graph that I used frequently for my GOAT series just to fit his number). And his scoring spree hasn’t come at the expense of efficiency, but because he’s been so efficient. Everything about the Steph-led Warriors is somehow better than what it was in 2016. Because we’re only halfway through the season, it’s a small sample, but it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. (Adjusting for luck brings the Curry-only net rating 2.5 points closer to the team’s net rating with Durant and Curry.)

Next: Nylon Calculus -- Introducing Player Impact Plus-Minus

One final number to drive home Curry’s unprecedented pace in his first 28 games this year. In my game-level WOWY database, there are only eight controlled samples in which a team played below a 4-SRS clip without a player for at least 20 games and then above 8 SRS with that player back in the rotation. So far this year, Curry and Durant have played 21 games together, and Golden State’s posted an 11 SRS with a near-record offensive rating. But in 13 games without Curry, they’ve plummeted to a Wizards-esque 1.9 SRS with a league average offensive rating. Oh, and if you’re wondering how the Warriors have fared in seven games without Durant when Steph was suited up, they blitzed opponents by nearly 19 per contest with a 119 offensive rating.

The samples are small, but Curry is quietly on track for one of the great seasons ever.

Ben Taylor is the founder of backpicks.com, where he’s currently running an 18-week series on the top-40 players in NBA history. His book, “Thinking Basketball,” is available on Amazon.