The Warriors finally had the kind of night everyone envisioned when Stephen Curry returned from his eleven-game hiatus.
Facing a young and inexperienced Atlanta Hawks team that is ranked 19th in defensive rating (110.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), the Warriors were presented with the opportunity of playing their brand of basketball and putting a stop to a six-game losing streak on the road.
There was plenty of motivation provided for the Warriors coming into their game in Atlanta. After losing six in a row away from the confines of Oracle Arena, they couldn’t afford to lose a seventh straight road game against a team that they could handily beat, given that they stayed focused and approached the game in a serious manner.
Perhaps another motivation was the fact that the Hawks were touted by some to be an attempt at imitating the Warriors’ vaunted culture and system. Former assistant general manager of the Warriors, Travis Schlenk, was hired by the Hawks to become their general manager. Chelsea Lane, former head performance therapist for the Warriors, was hired by the Hawks to serve as their executive director of athletic performance and sports medicine.
And of course, the Hawks have Trae Young, considered by some to be the next coming of Curry. The comparisons were inevitable — Young is a small and crafty guard who has virtually unlimited range. Much like how Curry drew comparisons early in his career to Steve Nash, Young also drew similar comparisons to the legendary Canadian point guard — but the comparisons with Curry have been more prevalent and pronounced.
As the night unfolded, however, the comparisons couldn’t be any more further from the truth: the Hawks have a long way to go before they can become even a tiny fraction of what the Warriors are.
Furthermore, Trae Young is not on his way to becoming the next Steph Curry. No one will become the next Steph Curry, and this game was a display of how Curry is his own unique player.
Young is currently shooting 24.8 percent from three-point range, and it is clear that he is struggling to adjust to the NBA’s three-point line. In spurts, he has shown the kind of potential that had many people calling him the second coming of “Threezus,” but it remains to be seen whether those spurts will eventually transform into a consistent stream of excellent shooting.
While Young is learning to become an NBA-level player, Curry gave him an up close and personal look at the kind of player that he is striving to become.
The return of Curry came alongside the return of the Warriors’ philosophy of pushing the ball in transition, posting a pace of 107.0 against the Hawks and scoring 16 fastbreak points, per NBA.com. In comparison, the Warriors posted a pace of 98.28 during their stretch of 11 games without Curry, having had to rely on a plethora of halfcourt sets without someone to push the pace.
A disciplined defense is often wary of the personnel on the floor, with defenders quickly attaching themselves to those who are immediate shooting threats in order to prevent open looks in transition. The Hawks, however, are far from being a disciplined defense. When an outlet pass is made to Kevin Durant, every defender’s attention is focused solely on him, leaving Curry all alone to do what he does best.
With the absence of Draymond Green, Durant has often found himself in the role of being the playmaker and distributor from the post. Another miss from the Hawks allows the Warriors to take advantage once more of their undisciplined defense that is lacking in awareness and switching. Durant passes to Curry in the corner, who uses the screen from Andre Iguodala to make the Hawks pay.
Curry takes advantage of the Hawks’ nonchalant defensive tendencies by being a nonstop perpetual motion machine. Defenses who fail to keep track of him after he has given up the ball are defenses that have often been left in the dust. What makes Curry unique among shooters — and also among the elite players in the league — is his tendency to never stop moving during an offensive possession.
Curry — often labeled by critics and detractors as being “just a shooter” — shows off his elite ability to finish at the rim with his off hand. In this possession, he could have opted to pull up for a three after using Iguodala’s screen, but instead he chooses to penetrate inside and score using his “weaker” extremity.
No one in the league can command the kind of gravity that Curry does, including Durant and Klay Thompson, despite being accomplished shooters in their own right. Becoming the next iteration of Curry must also involve obtaining the same kind of reputation that he has earned as someone who is capable of shooting any kind of shot — catch-and-shoot, off the dribble, pull-up, etc. — from anywhere on the floor.
If Young eventually receives the same kind of treatment that Curry receives from defenses on a nightly basis, then it will only serve to open up the rest of the floor for easy drives to the basket. When Durant brings up the ball in this sequence, the defenders are spread out along the perimeter, leaving the paint wide open for Curry to cut inside for the uncontested layup.
Continuing to feast on the Hawks’ defense, Curry buries this three when the Hawks’ big man makes the crucial mistake of dropping back instead of stepping up to hedge Curry in order to run him off the line. While Curry may have ended up running past the defender anyway for a drive to the basket, it would’ve been a better option to make Curry drive inside and force him to finish at the rim in lieu of giving him a wide-open look from beyond the arc.
A high screen is set for Curry to get loose for another three, but this time the defender steps up to Curry, who elects to blow by him for a layup. This is what makes Curry so dynamic — he often forces defenders to pick their poison. Choose to stay back even for a tiny bit, and Curry hits the three right in your grill; step up to him and run him off the line, and he drives inside for the layup.
Curry personally teaches Young this particular lesson in trying to create a three-point look using screens. He passes the ball to Looney near the elbow and proceeds to give a slight nudge to Young, enough to direct him toward Looney. Through his deft use of Looney’s screen, Curry relocates to the left, receives the ball back, and pulls up for the three.
Finally, Curry’s last three-point make of the night is a classic example of his bravado and confidence in himself. There are many stars and superstars who are given the green light to shoot wherever they want, whenever they want. But Curry has the brightest and most vibrant shade of green that there is and that there ever will be.
The media often pushes narratives to their utmost extreme — the narrative of the Green/Durant feud was a recent example of an issue persisting for a while, before the flames were fanned out to something that resembled smoke. While the media often forgets or sets aside such dramatic narratives for future use, comparisons between two players — past, present, or future — stick around for much longer.
“Honestly, it’s getting old,” Curry answered when asked about the comparisons between him and Young.
“When I was a rookie, Steve Nash’s name was being thrown out there a lot. You take that with respect and understand that it’s flattering, but at the end of the day, that’s not going to carry you through the league. It’s what you do with the opportunity you have right in front of you ... you expect Trae to carve out his own lane. He doesn’t have to be anybody but himself.”
Young’s label as the next Steph Curry is something that will stick with him for years to come, and with it comes massive expectations that may end up being too heavy of a burden for him to carry on his shoulders. To be compared to an all-time great such as Curry — during his first year in the league, no less — is daunting, maybe even unfair.
So perhaps the greatest lesson that Young can receive from watching Curry is to not try to be the next Steph Curry, but instead be the first and only Trae Young.
Because no one can become the next Steph Curry. Just like the greats whom Curry has looked up to in the past, such as Reggie Miller and Steve Nash — and the current greats whom he is playing against or alongside with in today’s league, such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant — he is studied and often imitated.
But he can never be duplicated.
Twenty-five down, 57 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.