As point guards, Steph Curry and Chris Paul couldn’t be any more different.
Paul is arguably the last of a dying breed. When you think of what the term “floor general” means, he is the personification of that definition: someone who monopolizes the decision making on the floor, directs his teammates to the spots where they need to be at, and — on a psychological level — calms them down while simultaneously dishing out mental torture to their opponents.
Curry also dishes out his share of mental torture — but in a different, more frantic way. His backbreaking distance shots — and the threat of him making those shots — puts defenses into a frenzied panic. His fast-paced style of moving around with and without the ball warps the geometry of the floor in ways that were never seen before he evolved into his all-time-great form. While he can also monopolize the ball and distribute as a traditional floor general, he arguably does more damage as a whizzing magnetic pinball drawing one or more defenders to him and opening up attacking lanes for his teammates.
The dichotomy between these two point guards — two of the greatest to have played the position — has been clear for years. It has caused on-court friction between them in previous battles, with Paul initially coming out on top during the early 2010s and Curry finally surpassing him as the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty kicked into full gear.
But with his acquisition by the Warriors, Paul is now working with his former protégé who many previously thought would not surpass his standing as the best point guard in the league. That can be a shaky proposition for several reasons.
The stylistic clash is one thing: Paul wants to play the half-court game, to take things slow and break down opponents in a deliberate and precise manner; Curry, on the other hand, is the face of a team that has sliced apart opponents using structured randomization and organized chaos. Paul wants to make sure there’s solid ground before he moves forward; Curry has no qualms about sprinting on a tightrope.
Such stylistic differences between the two could not have been more pronounced than on the Warriors’ 130-102 dismantling of the New Orleans Pelicans.
For instance: Paul taking stock of what he’s up against in the half court. He gets the matchup he wants against Zion Williamson, to the point where he waves off Trayce Jackson-Davis trying to set a screen for him to get Matt Ryan instead.
Paul is content with breaking Williamson down off the dribble:
(Credit must also be given to Jackson-Davis above for setting the early offense drag screen to force Williamson to switch onto Paul. From then on, Paul directs things on the floor to orchestrate his one-on-one breakdown of Williamson.)
Jackson-Davis had an impact on this game: 13 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks. The Warriors outscored the Pelicans by 11 points during his 20 minutes of playing time. As he is wont to do, Paul had a huge hand in elevating the rookie’s performance.
Paul has a knack for making athletic leapers into roll threats, simply because he knows how to make use of the one thing they do best when paired up with them. Jackson-Davis may be a rookie, but Paul made him into an effective pick-and-roll partner against the Pelicans.
Paul used Jackson-Davis’ talents as a screener and roll-gravity generator to get to his sweet spots on the floor:
While also setting him up for a dunk down the lane:
(Again, credit to Jackson-Davis for flipping the angle of his screen above against the Pelicans’ “ice” coverage — forcing Paul sideline and denying his path toward the screen — by changing it to a flat screen, a screen parallel to the baseline.)
Last season had too many moments of the Warriors playing with fire and getting burned. They needed a presence who could make sure to organize pieces on the chessboard in order to gain the most desirable outcome, especially in end-of-quarter situations.
Paul ended up being that presence, to the surprise of several people. But it hasn’t been a surprise that the very thing he was expected to do — orchestrate an efficient half-court possession — is being done right before our eyes.
When Paul sees that the Warriors have the last full possession of the first quarter, he slows things down to a crawl and calls out “Stack” — the play call for what is more commonly known as “Spain” pick-and-roll action:
With Brandin Podziemski setting the back screen on Williamson, Paul drives inside and draws two defenders. He kicks out to Podziemski up top, who is left open for a window. But in Curry fashion, Paul relocates to the left wing after making the pass and makes himself available for an extra pass from Podziemski. With the Pelicans’ defense in rotation, they can’t stop the Paul three from going in.
These moments of tempo and pace control from Paul are what the Warriors needed after last season. But they truly cannot be the Warriors if they shy away from their roots — which is what Curry is there for.
In transition, Curry immediately commands a defense’s attention. Defenders scramble rapidly in an effort to close out and crowd his space. Accordingly, he makes use of that opportunity to attack fast and put pressure on the rim, eschewing slowing things down in order to weaponize chaos:
Curry doesn’t only create chaos in transition. When it comes to half-court pick-and-roll coverages, he defies convention — and in turn, defenses resort to all sorts of unconventional coverages in an effort to prevent him from pulling up.
Contrast the “ice” coverage the Pelicans played on Paul with this one on Curry:
When Curry calls for double ball screens, take particular note of how the defenders guarding both screeners are lifted up high to account for Curry around the screens, which leaves an open driving lane for Curry.
Playing drop coverage against Curry is untenable, which is why most teams opt to go to their aggressive coverages against him. Whether it’s an “up-to-touch” screen-level step-up by the screener’s defender, a hard hedge-and-recover, or an outright double team, Curry has seen it all.
It’s also grounds for the defense to make mistakes in communication, which breeds coverage confusion. When Dyson Daniels is thinking “ice” and Williamson is thinking “hedge,” Curry blows past the point of attack because of the lack of someone dropping back to contain. Larry Nance must rotate to contain, but Curry gets into floater range:
Whereas Paul opts to take his time in breaking down his man on mismatches, Curry is like a box of chocolates — he can either take his time:
Or pounce without giving the defense any time to take stock of what’s happening — or to shore up against a mismatch:
A question prior to this season, ever since Paul was acquired by the Warriors: Will two of this generation’s greatest point guards mesh together despite the stylistic clash? What people may have underestimated was Paul’s adaptability and versatility on offense — just because he has preferred to be deliberate for most of his career, it doesn’t mean he can’t and doesn’t want to acquiesce to playing how the Warriors want to play.
Even with Draymond Green on the floor — someone who may eat up some of the ball-handling reps he would get — Paul finds ways to be useful. When Curry sees a double coming his way, he doesn’t have a direct line to his typical short-roll release valve.
Which is where Paul comes in:
Paul “shorts” the pick-and-roll — that is, acts as the release valve for the release valve by finding Green on the short roll. The low man is compelled to help on Green, who then hits the open Gary Payton II for the open corner three.
With Paul and Curry on the floor, Paul understands that Curry is main man. As such, he uses every bit of his playmaking chops to make sure that Curry sees the shots he should be seeing:
Paul makes sure to get the ball to Curry in “21 Nash” action (a pass to the man coming from the corner, followed by double side ball screens) above. Herb Jones makes the mistake of ducking under both screens, which Curry promptly punishes.
The sample size is still small, but what Paul has done with Curry on the bench musn’t be ignored. The Warriors outscored the Pelicans by 15 with Paul on the floor and Curry resting; the Warriors outscored them by 17 in all of Paul’s 25 minutes of playing time.
He has been a cumulative plus-46 in four games — which leads the team.
The fears and concerns of a stylistic and philosophical clash between two point guards who represent two opposing ends of the point guard spectrum have been unfounded.