There was an unusual amount of buzz going into Wednesday’s Golden State Warriors-Portland Trail Blazers game about the extremely unlikely chance that Steph Curry would make 15 three-pointers. That would have caught Ray Allen for the all-time career record and also beat Klay Thompson for the single-game record. But Curry attacked in the first half like he wanted the record at home (and because, well, he’s Steph Curry playing the Blazers), and put up 12 three-point attempts, sinking four. But it’s not that out-of-character for the baby-faced assassin this season.
Curry is taking 13.3 long-range attempts this year, which would be a career-high for a season. It’s a slight uptick from last season, despite his overall field goal attempts being slightly down (20.3 shots per game, down from 21.7 last season). Overall he’s taking almost two-thirds of his shots from outside the arc, 65.6%, after staying in the 58-60% range for five seasons. And while his efficiency is suffering at the rim, Curry is still driving nearly as much. The difference comes from him almost completely abandoning the long two, with only one out of every thirty Curry shot attempts coming in the 16-25-foot range. That’s half as many long twos as last year, and less than a third of his rate playing alongside midrange king Kevin Durant from 2016-19.
So is this a problem? Not to Steve Kerr.
Kerr argues that the Curry threes are more essential, given the team’s other personnel, and that the team as a whole is shooting more threes. That’s true, as the Warriors take the third-most three-pointers in the league, and 6% more than they did last year. Andrew Wiggins has also traded long twos for threes, and he’s taking and making more three-pointers than ever in his career. At the same time, he’s also dunking more. He’s tied for 3rd among wings in total dunks, trailing only Anthony Edwards and dunk champ Zach Lavine, and even with OG Anunoby.
Team-wide the Warriors have three players among the top 50 dunkers in the NBA, including Gary Payton II and the ground-bound mound of rebound, Kevon Looney. They’re the league’s most efficient team in the restricted area, converting on a whopping 70.6% of their attempts. Curry might not be scoring at the rim, but his teammates certainly are.
It may be philosophy, or it may be personnel, but the Warriors have shifted team-wide to an analytics-friendly shot distribution. They take the third-fewest shots in the paint, outside the restricted area, and sixth-least shots in the mid-range area. Obviously they don’t have a conventional scoring big. Their tallest player, Nemanja Bjelica, takes 47% of his shots from three-point range, and 6’8” Otto Porter Jr. is launching 72% of his shots from beyond the arc. But they do have a ton of athleticism off the bench. Those guys can get to the rim and score, in part because Curry bombing from the arc (and sometimes well beyond) stretches out the defense.
Is this going to change as the year goes on? Curry may be bombing away a little more right now because Ray Allen’s record is so close. We have to imagine the team-wise long-distance shooting won’t be quite this extreme. With James Wiseman returning and Jonathan Kuminga earning more trust from Kerr, there’s going to be more minutes for these bigs - though 6’3” Payton is still the NBA’s most efficient scorer at the rim. Curry may be blitzed continually this year by teams still content to have anyone else to beat them, but teams are going to have to start closing out harder on Wiggins if he keeps shooting over 40% on triples. Oh, and there’s a guy named Klay Thompson who’s going to open up more and more spacing any day now.
The team should be slightly concerned about its free throw rate, where they’re only 13th. Part of Curry’s struggles at the rim probably have to do with the lower foul rates across the whole league. For a smaller player like Curry, the uncalled bumps and hacks likely make a bigger impact than on a player who’s scoring with brute force and not elaborate angles and flip shots. But at the same time, Steph Curry is 33, and the Warriors are 20-4. No sense sending him on commando missions to the hoop in December when the important basketball is happening in April and May.
It’s also important to remember that the first part of the season is traditionally worse for Steph’s shooting. For his career, he shoots 41% in November and December. Those are solid numbers for a mortal man but for Curry, it’s almost a slump. But for January he shoots 44%, and after the All-Star break, Curry’s a 45% career long-range shooter.
So does Curry need to mix up his offensive approach and take more twos? Not until the playoffs. After all, the dunks-and-threes offense works great in the regular season, but in the postseason, you need to be able to switch it up and get some twos. Just ask the Houston Rockets.