The Whiteboard: Is Stephen Curry all the way back?

Photo by Ezra Shaw/undefined
Photo by Ezra Shaw/undefined /

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I fully recognize that the headline to today’s newsletter is a bit strange to be asking the morning after Stephen Curry scored a career-high 62 points. It was a sparkling performance full of all the usual norm-bending creativity and shot-making that has defined his career. But this 62-point explosion against the Blazers also followed a somewhat difficult beginning to the 2020-21 season.

After missing all but five games last year with a broken hand, Curry was 13-of-38 from the field in his first two games of this season, and 18-of-56 (32.1 percent) from beyond the arc in his first five. In addition to shaking off the rust of a mostly lost season, Curry is adjusting to a dramatically remade roster, the presence of Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr., the absence of Klay Thompson (who is out for the season) and Draymond Green who missed the first three games and has only played limited minutes in the last two as he recovers from COVID-19 and a minor foot injury.

All that is to say Curry is exploring a vastly different dynamic than the one he last played in. And while his 62-pointer against Portland establishes that his ceiling is as high as ever, the real question for the Warriors is what his baseline will be this season.

What’s been different for Stephen Curry this year?

In his last two fully healthy seasons, playing with Kevin Durant, Curry had evolved into a role that was more balanced between on- and off-ball responsibilities. So far this season he’s had the ball in his hands for an average of 6.4 minutes per game, about the same as LeBron James and Ja Morant and a significant increase from 2018-19 when he clocked in at 4.8 minutes per game, about the same as Blake Griffin and Zach LaVine. His average touch length and dribbles per touch have also increased by about 16 and 22 percent, respectively.

We can see the change in Curry’s shot distribution as well. He’s averaging a career-high 10.8 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions, a huge jump from his previous career-high of 8.9. He’s also averaging 13.1 2-point attempts per 100 possessions, his highest since 2013-14. He’s also driving far more often (11.0 per game compared to 7.7 in 2018-19) and passing out on a much lower percentage of those drives.

We can even see it in the specific numbers from arguably the best game of his career. In his 62-point game, he made just eight 3-pointers, something he’s done 48 other times in the regular season. The difference in this game was 10 made shots inside the arc, the second-highest mark of his career, and a career-high 19 free-throw attempts.

Looking up and down the roster, there’s no real reason to expect these patterns to change or regress. His basic per game averages are skewed by a 62-point game at the end of a six-game sample but Curry is going to be much more of a primary creator this season than we’ve become accustomed to. There will be development on this roster, both from individual player growth and collective familiarity, but there isn’t anyone else who looks prepared to really share the load for offensive creation or to maximize the team’s collective outcomes by playing Curry as an off-ball threat and decoy.

The way Curry will be used this year seems fairly locked in but it’s tough to project his effectiveness from just these six games. Something approximating career-highs for scoring volume seems like a safe bet, although his efficiency may regress from insanely elite to very, very good. How this season works out for the Warriors in terms of wins and losses though will probably depend a lot more on the health of Draymond Green and the success of Oubre and Wiggins than it will on Curry’s true shooting percentage.

Still, it’s going to be fun to watch Curry evolve. His unique greatness is so well-defined and so familiar at this point that he’s often treated as a static basketball quantity. What he’ll be asked to do this year isn’t just “play like he did when Mark Jackson was the coach” because his own skillset and confidence have expanded so much since then. We’re going to get to see Stephen Curry try and be something else entirely.

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