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Player perspective: Looking back at how Steph Curry’s usage has evolved

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Using detailed Synergy data, let’s review what play types Curry has been using the most over the years

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Media Day Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As the preseason starts, it’s a fantastic time to take a look at how the players have been playing. But I’m not one for the one-time snapshot review of a season. Instead, let’s take in each players’ performance not just as a static image, but as the evolving players that they are.

First up, Stephen Curry, point guard God

Curry is a razor scooter to the ankle, a small Lego to the bare foot of the NBA at midnight. His game-bending impact is at odds with his small size, and that’s a big part of what makes him such a fascinating player.

True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is generally regarded as one of the best measures of offensive efficiency because it counts all the points that a player scores (including free throws) and in case you missed it, Curry had the highest such mark of his career last season with an astounding .675. Curry is astronomically good in a lot of aspects of basketball, and it all sort of comes together in this one number.

As per the always perspicacious Sleepy Freud, there are only six players in NBA who have averaged more than 20 points (per 36 minutes) with at least a .600 TS% over their careers (min 10,000 minutes played).

1. Stephen Curry 24.1 pts / .621 ts

2. Adrian Dantley 24.4 pts / .617 ts

3. Charles Barkley 21.7 pts / .612 ts

4. Kevin Durant 26.3 pts / .611 ts

5. James Harden 24.5 pts / .608 ts

6. Kevin McHale 20.7 pts / .605 ts

He now ranks fifth all time, and as you can see from last season’s rankings this is a who’s who of elite scorers (plus a smattering of the “layup/dunk-only” big man crowd). Keep in mind that his 42.3% from deep last year was the second-worst of his career, which would seem to be at odds for what we’d expect out of the most efficient scoring season for a guy who shoots so many threes. Let’s take a look at what Curry has been doing differently in his game - because what ever it is, it’s working!

Evolving offensive game: Shooting

One of the first things you’ll notice when looking at the trends in Curry’s shot selection is that he has taken progressively fewer and fewer two-point attempts. Since coming in as a rookie and shooting approximately two-thirds of his shots from inside the arc, he’s been on a steady decline ever since — down to a career low of just 42% last year. Here’s a pie chart, just to provide a sense of scale here.

And here is the entire shooting profile over his career. We showed the start to finish end-points in the pie chart above, but it’s even more interesting to see the gradual evolution as his shot selection skews towards more threes. Remember, this table is showing the percent of shot attempts that Curry took from various distances.

You can see that he backs off slowly, with a big dip in two point attempts in his third season, as he realizes how effective his shot from deep can be. And then it took just a year after the coaching change for the entire balance to shift - with Curry now attempting more threes than twos. This makes a whole lot of sense given that Curry shoots like... well, like Curry — but beyond just “making sense” this sea change explains to a large degree how Curry has maintained his high scoring efficiency even as his three point accuracy has dipped a bit.

Evolving offensive game: Play type

Looking deeper at the more detailed information from Synergy data, you can see the punch and counter-punch happening as defenses try to figure out the Warriors, and the Warriors adjust further. With defenses now keyed in on running out on Curry to force him off the three point line, his spot up shooting attempts went down, but Kerr has responded to this by running Curry off of more screens.

Here are the pick and roll percentages since 2010; can you tell where Steve Kerr took over?

(Also interesting to note: check out the slight rise in this play type over the past two seasons, as Kerr grudgingly gives a nod to the effectiveness of the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant pick and roll duo. This is an adjustment to the arrival of Durant and will be one of the more interesting trends to watch over the upcoming season.)

So, why don’t we see more pick and rolls? Fans have been asking this question with increasing volume during both of the last two seasons. The answer is equal parts frustrating and enlightening: this is Kerr’s coaching philosophy.

“The thing for me, philosophically, we could do Steph-KD pick-and-rolls all season long and get open shots, and I understand that. But that’s, think about our team — if we were built like Cleveland, and we had Kyle Korver and [Channing] Frye and [Kevin] Love, that makes perfect sense. Now you got the floor spaced and you just have three-point shooters everywhere. But we have playmakers everywhere — Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala. I want those guys making plays. I want them with the ball in their hands.

”I learned this with Phil Jackson and the triangle. When everyone is involved, touching the ball and cutting and screening, there’s a magic that happens, there’s something special where guys feel empowered, their defense gets better because they’re involved.

So how has Kerr been utilizing Curry? Let’s go back to the Synergy data and look at the various play types employed. I pulled out the isolation play data in the chart above, so here are the other three main play types employed:

Rise in play types under coach Steve Kerr

For this one, you are seeing the division of plays as two distinct eras, with the Kerr era coinciding with a rise in these motion-based play types. As above, there is a pretty evident adjustment as Kerr modifies his play strategy to adjust for the arrival of Durant.

In addition to the rise in pick and rolls shown in the previous graphic, you can see here that Curry is also being run right off screens into shots more often over the past two seasons. This is the evolution of Curry — once Kerr saw how adept Curry was scoring as a ball handler, I think he’s begun to work harder to get Curry open looks.

How things could change this season

One of the big changes this year is the youth movement at center. Presumably these younger players will be able to free up Curry using the same tactics, but setting screens is as much of a skill as any other aspect of basketball. Watch Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, and Damian Jones early in the season (and the preseason). If they can effectively set screens for Curry, it will make Kerr’s job easier. Obviously the eventual availability of DeMarcus Cousins will throw some of this up in the air. We’ve all known that the Kerr Warriors are fond of setting screens, but now at least we have a bit of a visual to see exactly what they’ve been doing with Curry in these various sets.

Up Next: Kevin Durant

We’ve got the numbers for Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson all coming up soon. For the next installment, we’ll be looking at Durant’s plays - with a stronger emphasis on how he’s been used by Kerr over the past two seasons.

Author’s note: Much of this article is inspired by the really cool player overviews that Eustacchio Raulli (who many of us around here know by his work at Fear the Sword under the pseudonym of EVR1022 ) has been doing for Cleveland Cavaliers players; you should definitely check out his Twitter. He was kind enough to help me out with the data underlying much of the analysis, which mostly alleviates his heinous crime of rooting for the Cleveland Cavaliers.