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Steph Versus The Goliaths: An Appreciation for Curry's Defense

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Curry has been outstanding at defense this season. This is not an April Fool's joke. We also break down several clips of Curry fighting against much larger players in the post.

Curry gums up the passing lane.
Curry gums up the passing lane.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Curry Is Outstanding At Defense

Curry has been outstanding at defense this season. This is not an April Fool's joke.

His reputation is still catching up, of course. For instance, ESPN rated Curry #12 out of 30 starting PGs in defense (Chris Paul was #1).  This is probably as misguided as the 27 out of 28 ESPN Panelists who did not pick the Warriors to win the West -- Ethan Strauss being the lone accurate prophet.

Objective stats are more favorable than the old conventional wisdom.

Okay. Here is a good scouting report on Curry's D by Ron Adams from an outstanding article by Scott Howard-Cooper:
He's got lateral quickness, he has very good hands, he's able to deflect balls at the point of the pass, which is very difficult for a lot of people to do. He's proven he can guard bigger players, more physical players, than him. And I think he has one really strong suit. I don't think it's as developed as I would like to see it, but he has a really good understanding about what's going on on the floor.


The Warriors Defense's Big Weakness (In Theory)

For today's video dive, I want to look at an under appreciated slice of Curry's defense. We see the steals and the interceptions. However, he does his part to cover a weakness in the Warriors Defense (read this in depth explanation in a previous post if you want an introduction to the W's defense).

In short, one big principle of the Warriors' defense is freely switching (that is, switching assignments of men to cover when you are knocked out of position by a screen). The Warriors have a number of rangy, long, quick, midsize defenders who can switch on to small guards and big players: Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Justin Holiday, Shaun Livingston. And when Bogut gets a mismatch problem, the W's freely go small with Green at center.

So the weak link is... Steph Curry.  In theory, teams should be able to force Curry to cover a big man by having the big set a pick on Curry, and forcing Curry to switch on to the big, causing a horrible mismatch and automatic two points, right?

Here's a fun fact:
Okay, we're talking about a small number of actual post-up shots (something like 20) and quite a few more post-ups without a shot. In any size sample, this kind of success is really amazing. How does Curry pull his own weight in the Warriors Switching Defense?

First of all, he has become very good at getting around screens, so he is rarely forced to switch!  That is the absolute best approach to this scheme vulnerability.

However, sometimes Curry is forced to defend a big guy.  What does he do (and how does the team support him)?

1. Scrap Like A Junkyard Dog

Here is an example from the last Clippers game. Chris Paul gets enough of a screen from Blake Griffin to force David Lee to cover him. So Curry has to switch to cover Blake.  Blake ends up with a free throw face-up isolation on Curry. In theory, Blake should be able to leap over Curry and dunk, right?  Let's see.

Blake spins and tries to knock Curry back. Instead, Curry plays Blake tough with surprising physicality and does not give any ground. Blake throws up an awkward half-hook shot which bounces around the rim and fortunately for him goes in.


2. Front The Post Like A Tasmanian Devil Chair

In this clip, Curry is forced to pick up the bigger Khris Middleton.  Watch Curry do everything in his power to get between Middleton and a potential entry pass. As Middleton tries to post him up, Curry uses his head (literally) as a lever to force him out of the post, then Curry gets in front of him and sits on him (literally) to get as much leverage as he can with his lighter weight, and you can see the rest...


When Curry sits on Middleton, he tempts Michael Carter-Williams to look for the lob pass. Middleton fights back with his weight, which pushes both him and Curry towards MCW until suddenly Curry switches onto MCW. Notice the quiet roles of Green (guarding behind Middleton for the lob) and Shaun Livingston (switching seamlessly onto Middleton).

Here's another example. In this clip, the Spurs force Curry to switch onto Kawhi Leonard (Green has to jump out to prevent an open three pointer).  Curry uses his "power sitting" to front Kawhi and slowly force Kawhi out of the paint area. Kawhi pushes and pulls the chair and pivots and does a few tricky moves to get away from Curry.

But Kawhi's too tricky, as he steps out for a jumper just as Duncan lobs it over Curry to no one. Curry deflects the pass (unnecessarily as it turns out).

3. Steal the Entry Pass

In this clip, the Hawks run a cute little action where Curry is hung up on a Paul Millsap screen and Green has to come out to meet Jeff Teague. By now you know what the Curry power-butt move looks like so it won't be a surprise.  Watch him hound Millsap from the elbow high post all the way out to the three point line.


Except there was a twist. After a few physical bumps, Curry sneaks around and deflects the entry pass. Millsap manages to sort of hang on to it, but he never fully gets under control and he throws the ball away.

4. Give Your Big Friends Time To Help

On this one, Curry is caught on a switch onto Ersan Ilyasova and the Bucks call a play to post up against Curry. He plays physically, power-sitting on Ilyasova, and fronts the post to make the entry pass difficult.  Look how long it takes the Bucks to take advantage.

In fact, he switches onto Ilaysova with 16 on the shot clock, and by the time they can maneuver around to get the entry pass, there's only 8 left on the shot clock.

Also, when you have to use a high lob to enter the ball into the post, it gives your big friends time to give help while the ball is in the air. In this case, David Lee (whose own defense seems improved this year) helps while the lob is in-flight.

Between the pressure of the shot clock winding down, and Lee in his face, Ilyasova gets out of control and gives the ball up.

Conclusion

I really enjoy these clips. I see Curry as a man who is proud of his defense, who fights with great energy and physical force, who uses angles and leverage cleverly, who turns post-up mismatches into steal opportunities and shot-clock-burning temptations, and who does not give up when faced with much superior size. This slice of his defense is a microcosm of the changes in his defensive approach this year. His new intensity has made him one of the best point guard defenders in the league.

Bonus Conclusion

In conclusion, Steph Curry is MVP. Didn't see that coming, huh? But look, he has become an outstanding defender, and certainly a stronger defender than Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

People talk about Curry's great supporting cast, but Curry's gravity has made the cast great. His firepower has allowed Klay to blossom into a max-ish level player (remember what an overpay that seemed at the time?), and a starting lineup of Barnes (almost out of the league), Green (limited offense besides spotting up off Curry kickouts) and Bogut (barely can shoot any more and still a net negative Offensive Real Plus Minus) to be the starting lineup for the best offense in the league. That is incredible.  That has allowed Lee and Iguodala to supercharge a fairly ordinary bench, which allows Kerr to mix and matchup against every team in the league.

So here are my awards:

- Player Whose Playoff Team Would Suck The Most Without Him: Harden & Westbrook

- Vine MVP (above the rim): Westbrook

- Vine MVP (below the rim): Curry

- Most Unstoppable When Healthy: Lebron James

- Most Quietly Stupendous Stats: Anthony Davis

- Most Valuable Contributions on Offense and Defense: Stephen Curry

- Player Who Takes A Borderline Playoff Team Without Him To One of the Top 20 Best Regular Season Teams in NBA History: Stephen Curry

- Most Double-Teamed Player: Stephen Curry

To me, that last point is a big one. If Curry's teammates are so awesome, how come he gets double-teamed more than the other MVP candidates?  The coaches of the league have voted, and Curry is the guy whom you can't afford to let beat you. MVP.