Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter in the history of basketball — which often clouds the fact that he’s pretty darn good at other things, as well.
Perhaps the most overlooked and glossed-over part of Curry’s offensive repertoire is his finishing. For his career, he has made 64.7% of his shots that come from within 3 feet of the rim, per Basketball Reference. That is a testament to the deadly combination of his off-the-dribble juice and the threat of his elite pull-up game.
Due to his small stature and limited verticality, Curry has always had things going against him in terms of basketball skill sets that generally require a modicum of high leaping. He has had to make up for such physical and athletic shortcomings through generating horizontal space, finding ways to create separation, and by beating defenders to his spots before they can effectively contest or block his shots.
Curry has famously solved the length and height problem with a fast release on his jump shot — perhaps the quickest trigger the league has ever seen. In lieu of releasing his shot at the height of his jump, his release is part of his upward momentum. That has made his shot difficult to block, because opponents are often a split-second too late to get a hand up.
In terms of his shots at the rim, Curry has made use of trickery, deception, and showmanship as his main tools. His extensive and varied dribble package makes use of all sorts of crossovers, hesitations, and fakes to get defenders off balance. Coupled with the threat of him stepping back and pulling up for an extremely makeable three, it has opened up driving lanes and allowed Curry to blow by defenders, even without possessing outlier burst and an athletic first step.
Once he gets close to the rim, Curry makes use of off-beat layups, astutely bumps his trailing defender to nullify block attempts, and also makes use of circus shots such as reverse layups and up-and-unders — with just the right amount of “English” and almost always calculating the perfect angle — to avoid the taller trees.
On some level, Curry will always have his shots at the rim be of a higher degree of difficulty compared to other elite finishers. His shot will get blocked from time to time. Some of his compensatory methods — the circus shots, the off-beat timing — are occasionally miscalculated. But such cases have typically been the exception rather than the norm.
This season is proving especially difficult for Curry in terms of finishing at the rim. He has never been a historically frequent rim shooter; approximately 20% of his shots this season have been within 4 feet of the rim, consistent with his career trends. In comparison, Damian Lillard — often compared to Curry because of his range and pull-up chops — has been going to the rim at a rate of 30% this season, per Cleaning The Glass.
Curry has been finishing at a rate that is below his usual standards. He has converted 58% of his shots at the rim this season, placing him at the 49th percentile among point guards. The last time he was below the 70th percentile in finishing was 2012-13 — 9 seasons ago.
His floater game hasn’t been as dependable — only 32% of his shots from floater range have been successfully converted, putting him in the 26th percentile among point guards, and a drastic drop compared to his 53% rate on floaters last season.
A look at some of the recent film during the last three games — during which the Warriors put up a 1-2 record against the Phoenix Suns (twice) and the San Antonio Spurs — has shown quite an alarming trend.
There have been the well-contested shots — during which Curry had to contend with vertical contests from taller and lengthier defenders — that have resulted either in blocked shots or impossible angles.
As is evident from the clips above, Curry has been having trouble trying to get his shots past rim protectors and help-side defenders. He has had no problem otherwise in terms of getting past his man at the point of attack, either of his own volition or through the usage of ball screens. But his attempts at using his usual bag of tricks — the angles, the body bumps, and the circus shots — haven’t been working.
There have been the shots that Curry usually makes — and, quite frankly, should’ve made — but simply failed to go in, either because of unnecessarily upping the degree of difficulty, or miscalculation on his part in terms of verticality, angle, and the amount of “English” applied.
This missed layup was especially egregious:
Whatever the reason behind his subpar finishing as of late — perhaps fatigue from having to deal with a physical Suns defense (one that did an exceptional job in limiting him during their first meeting) in a compressed period of time, as well as the emotional toll that a matchup between two of the league’s best teams has exacted — it hasn’t been the sole aspect of Curry’s game that has recently suffered.
After finishing off the Los Angeles Clippers in what was another emotionally charged matchup, Curry’s efficiency across the board in the three games that followed severely cratered.
Steph Curry in 3 games (2x vs. PHX, 1x vs. SAS) since he went in rampage mode to close the Clippers in Staples (Crypto?) Center:— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) December 5, 2021
20.7 PTS, 5.3 REB, 4.0 AST
18.5% on twos (5-of-27)
33.3% on threes (14-of-42)
83.3% on free throws (10-of-12)
41.7% True Shooting
His difficulties with finishing has been a significant contributor to his overall struggles in terms of two-point shots, where he’s shooting 48.5% overall — the lowest it’s been since the 2012-13 season.
It’s also noteworthy that Curry hasn’t been drawing fouls. His 4.5 free-throw attempts per game is a far cry from his 6.3 attempts per game last season, while his current free throw attempt rate (FTr) of .216 is a significant dip from his .289 FTr last season, per Basketball Reference.
As a result of his recent stretch of shooting mediocrity, Curry’s overall scoring efficiency has also suffered a significant drop — from 64.5% True Shooting after the Clippers game, to 61.1% True Shooting after the game against the Spurs.
Whether this is a start of a worrying trend that may speak volumes about the extensive mileage on Curry’s body, or just an anomalous stretch due to fatigue (which is the more likely explanation), this clearly isn’t the iteration of the two-time MVP that the Warriors will want to see going forward, especially if they intend to compete for a championship down the line.