Curry Makes The Warriors Go
Much has been made of how well Kevin Durant has played in the first two games of the NBA Finals, and during the whole 2016-17 NBA season. Pundits, already working under the assumption that Durant is the Warriors best player, have started to argue now that he’s surpassed LeBron James–a few days ago, two of ESPN’s top headlines featured that debate.
Durant has been excellent, but this is clearly clickbait, manufactured drama; like Zach Lowe, we can all acknowledge that this is ridiculous. But when you dive in, it becomes pretty clear that Durant isn’t the best player on his own team. For the past few years, Steph Curry has been more impactful. In fact, when you look at his on court and on/off splits plotted against those of the best players since 2000-01, Curry’s last four seasons are historic.
He’s been the best player on a 67+ win team for the last three years, and his teams have been far better with him on the court. As Benjamin Morris points out (this article is basically a hat tip to his), the better a team is the harder it is to have a meaningful on/off court impact–when your backups are Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford (impossibly overrated) and a 39-year-old Paul Pierce, the drop-off is a lot starker than when it’s Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala. (It’s worth mentioning that Draymond Green, while less traditionally productive than Curry, has had a pretty similar impact over the last few years; their minutes are often paired.)
How is it possible, then, that Curry has been so overlooked this year, and so generally disrespected by pundits and peers? Surely, some of it has to do with last years Finals, when an injured Curry didn’t look as impressive as he had during the regular season. But there is a tendency to conflate how good a player is with how good a player looks in isolation matchups, and cross that with available heuristics like raw, measurable athleticism, and freakish size. We focus on a player’s ability to beat guys one-on-one, make the impossible seem ordinary, and make defense seem impossible. Under this construct, ball domination and bad-shot making become more important than good-shot creating (see: Irving, Kyrie), and a player’s shooting is more important than that of the players with whom he shares the floor.
All of which is to say, we shouldn’t look only at a player’s ability in isolation. Basketball is a context based sport, a complex algorithm. There isn’t a clean individual metric; one piece on the chessboard affects all the others. Durant himself may have a better true shooting percentage than Curry, but the Warriors offense is much better with Curry on the floor.
Even though he had a “down” year statistically, Curry is the ingredient that makes the Warriors the Warriors, at least offensively; Green and Durant are the icing on the cake. When Curry is on the court, regardless of whether Green and/or Durant are sitting, the Warriors play at a their trademark, unique frenetic pace, and score more points per possession. And while he is not renowned for his defense, the Warriors (in part due to their personnel) are strong enough defensively when he’s on the court to maintain an incredible scoring differential that they can’t keep up when he sits, even if both Durant and Green are both on the floor.
Why are the Warriors so much better offensively with Curry on the floor? Simply, the team takes much better shots. He’s the best shooter ever by some margin, he’s an excellent passer and dribbler, and unselfish to boot–not just as measured by assists, but by his willingness to play off the ball and do little things that open the game up for his teammates. Curry is aware of the gravity he has because of his shooting ability, and uses it to create more space for everyone else on the floor. As soon as the Warriors get possession of the ball, he sprints the other way, immediately creating confusion and cross matches. His constant movement and off-ball screens wreak havoc on defenses.
When Curry is on the floor, over 70% of their shots come from inside of three feet or from 3-point range. When he’s off the court, less than 60% of their shots do, and instead over 40% of their shots come from the inefficient mid-range spots on the floor–no man’s land in today’s NBA. He opens things up for everyone else, and as a result, his teammates flourish even when he doesn’t.
Kevin Durant is an unbelievable player, but for the past few years–including this season–Steph Curry has been better.