Down by nearly 10 in a game that they would eventually lose to the Utah Jazz, Steph Curry uses the threat of two screens to squeeze past the defense and into the lane.
Set up by some good spacing between Patrick McCaw and Javale McGee, it looked like Curry was about to flash open in the lane, where Andre Iguodala could hit him with an easy pass for an open layup.
But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — Curry does not make it cleanly through the lane.
In this instance, Alec Burks reaches out a hand and grabs across the front of Curry’s chest, preventing the play from developing. It slows Curry down so much, that Curry reverts to something like the swim move that an NFL pass rusher would use to break through the line. Curry’s unable to completely dislodge Burks in this case, who then wraps both arms around Curry and pulls their bodies back together.
No whistle. All right in front of the baseline referee.
This isn’t a unique incident.
The myth of the “Steph stopper”
The trope almost certainly started with Matthew Dellavedova, who stepped into the Cleveland Cavaliers starting lineup in game two the 2015 NBA Finals after Kyrie Irving went down with a knee injury. Known for his aggressive defense “Delly” was widely credited with Curry’s struggles after the Warriors star shooter went 2-15 from deep en route to a two point loss.
Of course, Curry went on to average 26 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and nearly two steals per game on his way to the first of two NBA Championships - but the trope was set: if you want to shut Curry down, you have to play him physical, “body him up.”
Far and wide across the NBA landscape, pundits and ex-players all chimed in about how they would lock Curry down, generally by playing “physical defense” - code phrase for fouling the hell out of someone.
It’s a myth, of course. One that ex-Warrior Andrew Bogut perfectly roasted:
As our very own Jason Lee wrote last year: “Looking at Curry’s top 10 lowest scoring games this season, he averaged 13.1 PPG. However, the Warriors have a 7-3 record in those 10 games. In those seven wins, Curry averaged a +/- of +20.7.”
In other words, he’s not getting stopped by those guys. What he is getting though, is roughed up.
Time and time again, we see Curry grabbed off the ball. And infuriatingly for us fans, the referees seemingly turn a blind eye to something that appears to happen nearly every single play.
So I went ahead and asked the NBA Referees official Twitter account about it...
Tweeting the NBA refs about the problem
I stole the clip from some forgotten source, and I’m sorry for that, but you can see the play here that opened this article:
@OfficialNBARefs Any chance you could explain how the baseline ref didn't call anything on this "defense" on Curry last night? I'm not trying to antagonize, just looking for a bit of explanation on something we see a lot. pic.twitter.com/sjRyWY4QjW— Duby Dub Dubs (@GSOM_Duby) January 31, 2018
Their response was the highlight of my Friday morning - explaining perfectly what went on in this example. Note that this is exactly the sort of exchange that makes Twitter such a great platform - there was no other way I was ever going to get someone in a position of knowledge respond to my question like this without the access that Twitter has given us, and a league like the NBA that embraces this sort of thing.
Thanks for your question @GSOM_Duby. This should be a foul. When the baseline official rotates, he should be refereeing this play. Here, his eyes first went to the ball, then back to Curry. By then, Curry was pushing the defender’s arm away. We missed that one. https://t.co/FTOhEtOGtn— NBA Referees (@OfficialNBARefs) February 2, 2018
Ok, so it’s a “my bad” on a missed call - but what about the bigger picture? My theory...
Here’s where the story starts to get real interesting... because this was the official account of the NBA referees association, some of their 20,000+ followers chimed in. Many of these follow-up questions were something about the frequency of these missed calls - because while my initial query was answered, it begged the question of why this seems to be such a reliably missed call.
To be fair, Curry is averaging 6.6 free throws per game, well above his career average of 4.0; and his free throw rate (free throws attempted per field goal attempt) of 37% is likewise well above his career average of 24%. But it feels like the referees are still missing a lot of fairly blatant grabbing.
I’ve never bought into any sort of “the NBA is fixed” theories - no, not even those questionable calls in the Lakers/Kings playoffs in 2002. I tend to think that reffing is hard enough, and fans biased enough, to sufficiently cloud the issue beyond any objective reality.
If you read their reply, it basically comes down to that baseline ref got caught ball watching. Could be one of the unintended down sides of all our ball and player movements. Harder to track than just an iso guy getting hacked on a drive maybe?— Duby Dub Dubs (@GSOM_Duby) February 2, 2018
SO? Any merit to this take? It’s hard to say. But one thing worth noting is that my follow-up answer got one very interesting like:
NBA Referees liked your reply
Is it an unintended consequence of this offense? It makes sense on a lot of levels, but maybe the account holder just liked the fact that I wasn’t jumping on the “flame the refs” bandwagon.
Unfortunately, this is where my analysis ends - for now. Ideally, I’d want to look at the ratio of calls that players get in iso versus off-ball movement situations; maybe compare players in ball movement heavy systems like the Warriors and Spurs, as compared to an iso team like the Rockets or Thunder.
Kevin Durant is an interesting case, but any conclusions based on his career-low free throw rate this season have to be tempered by the overall pattern of decrease he’s shown in this aspect over the past four seasons, a decline which stretches back into his days with the Thunder.
But it’s an interesting wrinkle to think about: does Kerr’s system facilitate these missed calls? One way or another though, it’s important to get these issues out into the public domain so we can get more eyes on the problem.
For now, it appears as if Curry will have to practice his swim move.