Steph Curry has always been a point guard — but since Draymond Green was forced to sit out 23 consecutive games, Curry has had to become more of a true point guard.
A rough definition of a “true” point guard is someone who primarily seeks to set up his teammates. While a pass-first-score-second skill set has always been within his wheelhouse, his nature as a scorer who can get flaming hot in a matter of seconds has always taken precedence; if defenses sell out in an attempt to douse his flame, passing to a teammate left open was a welcome byproduct, but almost never the primary intention.
Green was always considered the bona fide set-up man. Having someone of his playmaking chops, with the court vision and pass-delivery skills rarely seen from a forward and occasional center, allowed Curry to roam off the ball and create chaos and sow discord within opposing defenses.
It goes without saying, but without Green, no one else on the team can perfectly replicate his synergy with Curry, nor do they have the requisite knowhow to punish defenses who opt to ignore them and focus their attention on Curry and other more immediate threats.
Which is why — in Green’s absence — Curry has taken it upon himself to go the more traditional route and be the initiator and on-ball playmaker.
Before Green was forced to sit out (October 19 to January 5), he led the team in assist percentage (32.8%), with Curry right behind him (27.6%). In the 23 games that Green missed (January 6 to February 24) Curry has taken the team lead in assist percentage — 31.7%.
Against a Portland Trail Blazers team in rebuilding mode, Curry made Portland his playmaking playground. His 14 assists came on a variety of looks, both in the half-court and in transition.
The half-court dishes were mostly of the ball-screen variety. While the Warriors continue to be among the teams who run the least amount of pick-and-roll possessions — their 14.1 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game is the second fewest in the league — it’s virtually mandatory to run an increased diet of ball screens for Curry whenever he becomes the primary initiator.
Ball screens for Curry place most defenses in a conundrum. Playing more conservative coverages such as various levels of drop and/or switching is virtually giving Curry control of the matchup, which almost always leads to him scoring. On the other end of the spectrum, aggressive coverages such as blitzing and hedging shifts the decision-making responsibilities away from Curry and toward someone else who is less capable (if their name isn’t Draymond Green).
Green was often the release valve whenever Curry attracted aggressive coverages around ball screens — perhaps the best release valve in the league due to his sublime playmaking as a short roller — but without Green, whoever sets the ball screen for Curry has needed to become more decisive and forceful off the catch.
To their credit, Kevon Looney and Otto Porter Jr. were noticeably more decisive and forceful against the Trail Blazers. As Curry’s empty-corner pick-and-roll partners, setting a ball screen forced the Blazers to have to make a choice.
Double Curry around the screen, and you’re left with a rolling big with no strong-side help due to the empty corner, while counting on low-man help from the weak side that may or may not be sufficient — because of size limitations, mistimed rotations, or both — to stop the roll man from scoring.
Switch the action, and Curry will have himself a favorable matchup to isolate against. Which is why empty-corner ball screens are often a pick-your-poison endeavor; defenses will have to choose which option is the least poisonous, but either way, they will be made to pay in some form.
If defenses fail to score and fail to force the Warriors into taking the ball out of the basket, they will most certainly have to deal with a fast-paced transition attack, aimed at taking advantage of a non-set defense. Curry is adept at seeing leakers, trailers, and cutters in transition; add in the element of having to account for a potential pull-up jumper from any point of the floor, and defenses are almost always giving something up by taking away the most obvious option.
Failing to get back in time and setting up a proper half-court defense will result in looks such as these:
Often himself being the recipient of off-ball “pin-in”/exit screens, Curry has the luxury of letting someone else take the role of the mobile shooter. Having Klay Thompson return to his old moving self allows Curry to set him up for spot-up attempts that are born out of secondary/weak-side actions.
The obvious caveat behind most of these assists is that the Blazers are the third-worst defensive team in the league (114.0 defensive rating). The absence of Jusuf Nurkić and a reliable big man to absorb Nurkić’s minutes forced the Blazers to play the Warriors’ game of fast-paced small ball — a battle that not even better teams are equipped to win against the Warriors.
But if Green continues to be sidelined for a few more weeks, the Warriors may not have a choice but to lean fully into their small-ball lineups. Anyone not named Draymond Green as a small-ball five isn’t a sustainable option going into the playoffs — but as a stopgap measure, playing fast with Curry as the decision maker plays more into their strengths.
As long as Curry keeps the dimes flowing and the turnovers limited, the Warriors’ fast-paced offensive blitzkrieg may suffice until reinforcements arrive in time for the playoffs.