For all intents and purposes, Stephen Curry will most likely be out for the rest of the regular season.
After a loose-ball incident in the second quarter of the Warriors’ game against the Boston Celtics, Curry was diagnosed with a “left-foot sprain.” Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there is optimism that Curry could return in time for the playoffs. In the meantime, Curry has sought out consult from specialists who may have a better grasp of the nature of the treatment his injury will require.
There is no realistic world that the Warriors are a championship-caliber team without Curry. The on-court product will be drastically different, to say the least. At worst: they will be relegated to a bottom-five offense (107.7 ORTG in 1,161 minutes without Curry on the floor).
At best? A middle-of-the-road offense that moves the ball plenty enough, with sufficient shot-creation and floor spacing to make up for all the advantages that a singular force such as Curry generates on his own. Pair it with a defense that should make things tough for opponents, and the Warriors may squeak out of this stretch run with a decent record and at least with the no. 3 seed in hand.
There’s no doubt that it’ll require a collaborative effort. But there’s no substitute for someone who can create scoring in a pinch. The playoffs — a no-man’s land chock full of half-court possessions — is an ascending ladder of difficulty; the higher you ascend the ladder, the more likely teams are equipped to stop what you’re trying to do.
The Warriors’ motion offense is exquisite — but like any other system, it has its weaknesses. We’ve seen the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, the 2018 Houston Rockets, and the 2019 Toronto Raptors execute the appropriate gameplans to slow down what was once considered an offensive juggernaut.
Each of their approaches had slight differences, but the general rules were more or less similar:
- Switch most on-ball and off-ball screens.
- Be highly physical and tread the thin line between accepted physicality and fouling.
- Slow the pace down to a crawl and make it a half-court battle.
The counter to all of the points above is having someone who can act as the sole pressure point. That pressure can take several forms — individual scoring off of isolations and/or pick-and-roll; or passing to an open teammate after an advantage is created, mostly through rim pressure.
Such concepts aren’t novel to the Warriors. Curry has been such a pressure point in the past, most notably during the 2015 Finals and the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. Kevin Durant changed the tenor of the Warriors-Cavs rivalry through his individual scoring prowess.
But Curry will be out for who knows when. Durant is plying his trade in Brooklyn. Primarily relying on Klay Thompson to be an on-ball miracle worker isn’t the best use of his offensive talents. Draymond Green has every component of a reliable on-ball creator, save for one thing: actual scoring.
If recent trends are to be believed, the Warriors may have found their (temporary) answer to that problem in the form of Jordan Poole, who has been on a recent 8-game tear: 24.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, on a 58/53/85 shooting split and 74.5% True Shooting.
Poole’s 53% mark on threes is probably the most eye-popping number from his shooting splits, but his 63.6% on two-point shots deserves an equal amount of praise. Around 25% of his shot attempts over that stretch have been at the rim, and he has made a blistering 76% of them — 100th percentile (!!!) for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
Small sample size? Zoom out to his overall success at the rim for the season, and it’s at 67% — 89th percentile.
Furthermore, Poole is posting a 69.2% mark on shots on drives over the last 8 games. That is the second-highest mark among 93 players with at least 40 drives over that period.
With someone of his skill set and caliber at the point of attack — possessing a quick first step, a dazzling dribble package, varied ways of finishing at the rim, and a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to attacking inside — Poole may very well be the Warriors’ best rim-pressure option.
Effectiveness at the rim and as a perimeter shooter often go hand in hand. The more versatility you have as an outside marksman, the more defenders will try to crowd your space in order to discourage your shot. But the closer defenders are, the more likely they can be shaken loose with a burst of speed, a sudden shift in direction, or with a series of dribbles that garner separation.
Poole’s uptick in shooting has forced defenders to guard him tightly — which, with his skill set, has also translated to an uptick in him touching the painted area more often. Rim pressure begets a compromised defense, and Poole’s mid-attack processing and decision making has given rollers, dunker-spot residents, perimeter spacers, and cutters plenty of opportunities to eat.
Guarding Poole tightly has become quite an adventure. The very reason Curry himself has made it difficult for defenders to guard him tightly — his various ways of leaving his man behind through constant movement — has been the same reason why Poole has become such a deadly offensive weapon, and a significant reason behind his elevation from a scoring role player to a bona-fide pressure point.
This possession against the Celtics comes to mind:
The first thought that may come to your mind upon seeing the clip above: Poole has elite manipulation chops.
Poole makes mincemeat of Marcus Smart — an elite perimeter defender — in the possession above. Smart “ICEs” the screen to force Poole sideline, but a crossover freezes Smart. Poole sidesteps to his left, pump fakes, and draws a close-out and contest from Smart. Poole lets Smart fly by, pitches the ball to Looney, relocates, and receives a pitch-back from Looney. Smart tries to recover, but the separation created by Poole is enough for him to drill the three.
Or, for instance, this possession:
The Celtics — unquestionably the best defensive unit in the league — shut down the side two-man action above between Poole and Juan Toscano-Anderson. But instead of drawing out the possession and resorting to an isolation, Poole refuses to settle. He sees Toscano-Anderson relocating to the weak-side corner, kicks out to him, and relocates to the corner.
Toscano-Anderson hands off the ball to Poole and wipes out Grant Williams on a screen. Poole gets the breathing room he needs to bury the corner three.
If that doesn’t make you see the amount of Curry influence in Poole’s game, I don’t know what will.
Despite Poole serving as a Curry doppelganger, it still isn’t an ironclad guarantee of Poole perfectly replicating his stylistic mentor’s influence on offense. The on/off metrics aren’t in Poole’s favor: opponents have outscored the Warriors by nearly 2 points per 100 possessions in 1,671 non-garbage-time possessions with Poole on the floor without Curry.
Adding Thompson (306 possessions, minus-6.2 net rating) or Green (466 possessions, minus-5.1 net rating) hasn’t particularly helped either, which all the more proves Curry’s everlasting value. They need Curry on the floor, and while Poole has shown flashes of imitating what Curry can do, the fact of the matter is that Poole will never be Curry.
But this is a grand opportunity for Poole to show what he can do when given the keys to the offense. Putting his own stamp on a team potentially finishing the regular season without its offensive engine will go a long way, not only toward the Warriors surviving enough for a favorable playoff position, but also toward increasing his value in future contract negotiations.
Poole doesn’t need to be the next Stephen Curry — he only needs to prove that being the first Jordan Poole means something. And if this recent stretch is anything to go by, his name may eventually reach the stars.