Yes, it’s just the preseason, but...
With the way Stephen Curry has played so far, all signs point to a legitimate run at a third MVP award.
Curry is looking healthy, extremely mobile, and as sharp as he’s ever been from beyond the arc. Like all great players, Curry makes it a habit to stay healthy and in shape during the offseason:
For three hours a day, six days a week, Payne took Curry through intensive sessions designed to strengthen his core, work on his breathing, improve his lateral quickness and even hone his back-to-the-basket game. Earlier this month, when Curry toured Asia and Europe with Under Armour, Payne tracked down gymnasiums free of autograph-seekers.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, Curry posted a stat line of 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. He shot 5-of-10 from the field (4-of-7 from three). For a player of Curry’s caliber, this stat line is something you’d assume would be accomplished by the end of the first half — he managed to accomplish it at the end of the first quarter.
During his limited 12 minutes on the floor, Curry razzled and dazzled the crowd with his usual offensive repertoire of moves that have been examined and analyzed to death. But the sheer joy and entertainment of watching an all-time great such as Curry will never be considered a needlessly repetitive exercise.
This rings true for teams who already have a cornucopia of footage and scouting reports on Curry — it is never a needlessly repetitive exercise for them to keep watching footage of him to best assess how to stop him, besides merely holding on to him or mauling him off the ball.
It is with this thought that I present a few lessons that opposing teams should take note of when defending Curry.
Lesson #1: Go under staggered screens, or call a switch
Naturally, having the best shooter in the history of the game should be taken advantage of by creating a system that caters to that particular characteristic. Steve Kerr likes to run a lot of off-ball pindown action for Curry, and rightfully so — per the NBA’s advanced stats tracking, Curry shot 43.2% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, with an effective field goal percentage of 65.2% on overall catch-and-shoot possessions.
One such catch-and-shoot play type is the classic Floppy set, where a shooter runs under the basket, behind one or multiple staggered screens, and pops out beyond the three-point arc for a wide open shot. The Warriors run it for Curry here:
Curry does a good job of using Damian Jones and Draymond Green to get free from Lonzo Ball and pop out for a three. Ball makes the mistake of trailing Curry and opting to go over the screens.
A better adjustment for Ball would have been to go under the screens instead of directly following Curry, which would have allowed him to catch up to Curry on time — assuming that Curry doesn’t flare to the corner for an open three. Another viable option, especially if Curry did choose to flare to the corner, would’ve been for Ball to call for a switch — specifically switching onto Green, and Green’s man, Kyle Kuzma, switching onto Curry.
Here’s another Floppy set for Curry, this time as a sideline out-of-bounds play:
Curry runs through a gauntlet of screens set by Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney. The Lakers respond correctly after the first screen — Curry’s initial defender switches with Bell’s defender, who takes over the job of chasing Curry. However, when dealing with the second screen, Curry’s man gets hung up on Looney’s screen. They fail to switch, which allows Curry all the breathing space he needs to make the three.
Lesson #2: Stick to Curry like white on rice
Curry never stops moving after he passes the ball, and that makes him such a unique player. It’s one part of his game — among several — that elevates him above other point guards in the league, some of whom — after passing the ball to a teammate — prefer to stand, gawk and watch them waste away a possession.
Curry penetrates, but his path is cut off by Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee. He quickly hands the ball off to Jones, but as soon as he gives up the ball, he immediately relocates beyond the three-point arc. Beasley takes his eyes off of Curry for a split-second and fails to follow Curry. By the time he realizes that Curry is wide open, he scrambles to him and falls for his fake — Curry simply relocates a few feet inside the arc and buries the jumper.
The Warriors like to run a lot of split action from the post, where an entry pass to a post player is made, and two perimeter players set screens for each other to create shooting and/or cutting opportunities. They run a really basic split action in this sequence:
Again, the lesson to be learned here is to never, ever drift away from Curry. The entry pass is made to Green, and Alfonzo McKinnie doesn’t even elect to set a screen for Curry, instead attempting to cut toward the basket. Despite this, Curry’s defender still runs into McKinnie, failing to stick close to Curry’s body. Luckily, Curry bails the defense out with a rare miss from the corner.
The Warriors run another basic split action — unlike last time, Curry makes the Lakers pay:
Curry’s defender fails to immediately stick close to Curry the moment he crosses over the mid-court line. When Curry passes the ball to Green on the post, he immediately runs to the corner, with Klay Thompson screening for him. Curry’s defender is drifting far away from him, and as a result, gets hung up on Thompson’s screen — Curry lays down the punishment thereafter.
Lesson #3: In transition, look for Curry immediately
Curry has always been one of the most dangerous players in the open court — not because he is the type to use athleticism and strength to take it all the way to the rack — but because of his ability to pull up for a three-point shot in transition. It is absolutely imperative that defenses are mindful of him when the Warriors are running the floor.
Off of a miss, Curry gets a head start without anyone covering him. Green, who hauls in the rebound, somehow has multiple pairs of eyes on him, which draws away attention from Curry. Green passes the ball to Curry — a Laker defender makes a last gasp attempt at intercepting the pass, but his gamble fails, leaving Curry wide open for the three.
In this next sequence, it looks like the Lakers do learn their lesson. They pick up Curry in transition:
But they forget that Curry isn’t the only player on the floor. As soon as Curry crosses mid-court, as many as four pairs of eyes are trained on him. Meanwhile, on the weak side, Jones almost casually strolls to the basket, ignored by his man, who for some reason is fixated on Curry. Jones calls for the lob, and Curry makes the no-look pass to Jones for the alley-oop.
Which leads to....
Lesson #4: Just accept that Curry is too good, and move on to the next possession
Curry passes to the strong side wing and immediately makes a shallow cut over to the weak side and receives the ball back. This flows into a pick-and-roll with Jones — Curry draws two defenders onto him, including Jones’ defender, leaving Jones free to catch and dunk the ball.
Was it the right decision to double Curry and leave Jones alone? The intent was perhaps the right call, but the attempt to hedge and double Curry was a weak one. Curry picks apart defenses that attempt to double him by passing the ball to the man left open; it is a testament to his status as an elite playmaker to be aware of who’s open on the floor and subsequently making the accurate pass to punish defenses who leave such gaping holes on defense. Opponents are left to wonder how they could’ve done better to defend him. Sometimes, the answer is to just accept that you’ve been bested and to try to do better the next time around.
Curry finishes the preseason with averages of 20.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, with shooting splits of 56.5/51.9/100. He has made an exceptional 14-of-27 three-point field goals. Again, it is an extremely small sample size, and it is just the preseason. But even so, it’s tempting to think that he is in for another out-of-this-world MVP season. Despite only playing in 51 regular season games last year, he still managed to post a true shooting percentage of 67.5%, which is higher than that of his 2015-16 unanimous MVP season (66.9%).
The key to Curry winning another MVP is staying healthy — if he can do that, then voters will most certainly have to consider him as a serious MVP candidate. Unlike some previous winners, being the best player on the best team in the league should be a significant criterion of winning the award, and as we all know, Curry has — for the most part — been the best player on the best team in the league.
Until that discussion comes up later in the season, Curry will keep taking defenses to school and teaching them endless lessons.