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Explain One Play: We take Steph Curry for granted

In a quietly historic season, Curry bombs in 3 straight threes to seal the Warriors-Kings game on March 24, 2017.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Golden State Warriors
it’s fun to stay at the
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Curry’s quietly historic game

We take Stephen Curry for granted. Yes, I do too. Not as much as you do, but I wasn’t even going to write about a Curry play until the Warriors packed up a little too early and let the Kings get within 11 in the 4th quarter with plenty of time. Then Curry bombed in 3 straight threes and that was the game.

I mean, Draymond Green was even the CSN player of the game, and Curry just had a quietly historic night. You didn’t notice did you? Let’s look at Curry’s line tonight. (I’m using counting stats even though they only tell a part of the story, but hey all the players and announcers love them.) 27 PTS, 12 AST, 7 REB, 6 STL, 3 TOs. Good numbers, but they don’t have the sparkle of a triple-double, huh? Well with all the chatter about triple doubles, they really aren’t very rare. So how many players in recorded NBA history (since 1983) have met Curry’s numbers tonight in a game? 50? 20? The amazing answer is... one. It’s only been done once in history, by Micheal Jordan. Oh, also Curry did it in 33 minutes. (MJ took 40 minutes.)

Let’s quickly look at Curry’s flurry of threes, and then I’ll go back to ranting about Curry’s under-appreciated season.

Q4.5:10. GSW 99, SAC 88.

Curry back in, Kings effort having un-garbaged the game. It’s a BLOB (baseline out of bounds) play that the Warriors consistently use to burn opponents.

There are some variations, but the basic idea is Klay Thompson starts at the right elbow and cuts hard straight to the hoop. Sometimes he gets a backscreen, sometimes there’s trickery, like this one.

In that play, Andre Iguodala distracted Thompson’s defender with a fake screen. This is discussed more fully at Explain One Play: Winning out-of-bounds plays for Durant and Thompson.

This play works with amazing regularity. But you could blow up the play by moving Curry’s defender from right next to Curry (as in the clip above), to below the basket where he could intercept any passes to the rip cutter.

Tonight, that’s what the Kings do. The Warriors have Matt Barnes rip cutting down the lane getting an Iguodala backscreen. But there’s no possible pass due to Curry’s defender sinking back. But Curry decides he can take advantage of his faraway defender...

Curry quickly runs a give-and-go with Zaza Pachulia, and his defender is scrambling. Curry then uses Pachulia’s screen to get isolated on the big defender.

One thing Curry worked on in the off-season was shooting more daringly when his defender’s hands are down. You see it here, as the young big closes out with hands low, so Curry just shoots over him. Swish.

Q4.4:35. GSW 102, SAC 88.

The game is drifting out of reach, and Curry is about to jetpack this game away in 54 seconds of video.

First, you’ll see the Kings trying to run a play out of the HORNS formation (two bigs at elbows, two smalls at the corners, ball up top). (The Warriors are running a LOT of HORNS right now, so you should search the Mega-Index for “horns” for a refresher.)

The Kings will feed the left elbow big and the first option is a handoff, which is a fake that Curry doesn’t believe for a second. The second real option is a cross-screen under the basket. Here’s the play.

The cross-screen is destroyed when Iguodala and Shaun Livingston smoothly switch the screen. They flow into another option, where left big tosses it to right big and sets a down screen on Iguodala. Pachulia calmly steps back to let Iguodala by the screen. So, their play is in ruins and the Kings hoist a long two with 2 on the shot clock and Draymond Green guarding in isolation. The ball of course barely hits iron.

Q4.4:19. GSW 102, SAC 88.

I don’t usually have a lot to say about these amazing Curry plays. He pushes the ball at about 50% intensity but just in a subtly tricky way which causes, by my count, FOUR separate collisions between Kings defenders and gets literally the entire Kings team packed into the paint to stop Curry’s drive. It’s like Jedi-level sheep-herding.

Once Curry has herded the entire Kings lineup into the lane, he does a quick give-and-go with Draymond Green to pop out for 3, and that’s that. Notice the defender’s hands are down. As the Great Poets once wrote, “Hand down / man down.”

The Kings are so demoralized by this that they come back in disarray. You can see them pointing around. The left man seems to be pointing for the big to set a screen, the big is ignoring him, the right pair seem to be negotiating a cross-screen, Buddy Hield looks around and sees nothing happening, so he ends up attacking Livingston in isolation, which ends with a dispirited kickout three.

Curry then counter-attacks, gets a little dribble-pitch and fat screen from Green, and hits his third straight three.

I’m just including the whole 54 second sequence so you can get the full deflating feeling.

Good to see the off-the-dribble three-pointer firebending is back on.

Final thought: Curry is the MVP

I’m getting tired, so you only get the thumbnail version of the rant about Stephen Curry’s MVP season. YES I said it. He’s having an MVP caliber season that gets almost no love. The main problem, of course, is that he’s not as good as MVP 2.0 and isn’t as consistent as MVP 1.0 (nor as outstanding on defense). But it’s still MVP caliber.

The other main MVP candidates are great, but flawed. Russell Westbrook’s team isn’t that good and is hamstrung by his being a system player (the system: Russ controls the ball), and Russ stat-pads. James Harden has been spectacular on offense and in my opinion will win the MVP vote, but is still bad on defense (#75 out of 99 SGs by DRPM, also fits eye test). Kawhi Leonard has astounding robotic efficiency on both ends and plays for the second best, maybe best current team in the league. But his on-off numbers are amazingly bad. The Spurs do fine without him in the lineup, so how valuable has he actually been?

LeBron James was my MVP pick (until the Cavaliers starting stinking up the league), but he and Curry will never win it due to voter fatigue.

Now to our man Curry. For a good start, read Jeremias Engelmann, who pushed Curry for MVP at ESPN.

In short, Curry has the best plus-minus in the league, even better than Kevin Durant’s. This is simply the game margin when you’re on the court. In fact, Curry is on track to have the 4th best plus-minus season in history. (#1 Dray 15-16, #2 Curry 15-16, #3 14-15, #4 LBJ 08-09, #5 Curry this year right now.)

The Warriors are the best team in the league and Curry’s on-off numbers are much stronger than Durant’s.

In fact Curry’s on-off numbers is the highest of the MVP candidates, except for LeBron (+16.9), who is disqualified for mailing it in this last month. This shows how much better or worse your presence makes your team, measured in game margin per 100 possessions.

  • Curry +15.5
  • Westbrook +13.7
  • Durant, +7.4
  • Harden +1.9
  • Leonard +0.5

So, Curry is the most impactful player, leader of the best team, he made space for another great talent, boosted up Durant’s stats and let the public say Durant took over the team, and generally gave up his image/reality as the best player in the league, all for winning.

Now let’s look at these crass counting stats, straight out of a 1983 newspaper box score.

We won’t use the stats that really show off Curry’s impact, like advanced stats (Curry #2 in loose balls recovered, #11 deflections, #3 in Defensive Win Shares), hockey-style secondary assists (Curry #1 by a lot), screen assists (Curry #1 for guards by a lot). And no measures of shot difficulty.

First, despite an off-year shooting by his standards, Curry already has the third most three-pointers for a season in history, and will probably move into the #2 position, passing Curry 14-15, behind at #1 the alien who played as Curry in 15-16.

Second, Curry’s season line is 24.9/4.4/6.3/1.7. Kind of a bad year for Curry, right? I wonder how many players have ever put up a mediocre stat line like that? 50? 20?

Let’s list all the players who’ve ever had a season with those stats:

  • Clyde Drexler 1991-92
  • Dwyane Wade 2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09, 2009-10
  • James Harden 2014-15
  • Larry Bird 1985-86, 1986-87
  • LeBron James 2004-05, 2007-08
  • Michael Jordan 1988-89, 1989-90
  • Russell Westbrook 2014-15
  • Stephen Curry 2015-16

A handful of Hall of Famers (current and future) having very good years. But you can reach counting stats by just hogging the ball. Which of the great seasons above had shooting as efficient as Curry’s current True Shooting Percentage of .618? Half? A quarter? Let’s list them:

  • Stephen Curry 2015-16

Welp. We take Steph Curry for granted, don’t we?

If you want to read more video breakdowns — one for well-nigh every Warriors’ win since 2015 — check out the Explain One Play Mega-Index, searchable and sortable by player, play, team and date.