After inking the largest contract in NBA history, Stephen Curry once again became the subject of a popular referendum on his value. Everyone weighed in on the two-time MVP’s “supermax” deal, from LeBron James congratulating his rival and arguing he deserves even more to the loud voices in the minority arguing the contract is too much.
The criticism lobbed at these giant contracts usually stems from an ignorance of market dynamics and players’ leverage, as Mike Conley can attest to after he signed a then-record breaking $153 million dollar deal, but the bashing of Curry’s $201 million dollar deal is part of something larger, a routine under appreciation of one of basketball’s transcendent talents who has irrefutably changed the landscape of the NBA.
There are a lot of ways one could approach the issue of Curry’s neglected impact on the court. Advanced statistics show what many Warriors fans intuitively believe about the two-time champion; that simply by virtue of being on the floor, he makes his teammates better offensively. Per ESPN.com, Curry is the league leader in Offensive Real Plus/Minus (ORPM), a pace-adjusted version of Plus/Minus that quantifies roughly how much better a team performs offensively with the player on the floor.
The metric, measured in points scored, indicates a team scores 7.27 points more when Curry is on the floor over 100 possessions. The next closest is Russell Westbrook, at 6.74, and the difference between Curry and Westbrook is greater than the difference between spots 2 and 4 on that list. All statistics, advanced or not, help paint a picture, but should not be relied on their own.
Game 1 of the Finals is a microcosm of Curry at his best and a close examination can provide in-game examples of the impact that ORPM and many other stats describe.
When quantifying Curry’s value, it’s easy to look at the spectacular, like pulling up from 35 feet in transition, a tough circus shot with the off-hand, or an incredible no-look pass, but the intangibles are equally important when considering his impact. Game 1 of the Finals has it all, a masterwork performance where the unanimous MVP dropped 28 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and converted six of his 11 three-point attempts.
While Kevin Durant led the team in scoring with 38 points, Curry finished with a game-high +20. Gravity is a word often associated with Curry, to the point of becoming a buzzword; but nowhere else in the Finals was his gravity on display, as Durant soared to wide-open dunks. The two major ways Curry’s gravity hurt the Cavs was on his screens and in transition, and each are worth a deeper dive.
The selected clips above offer a mixed assortment of the type of high-percentage shots Curry creates simply when he runs in transition. Two wide-open lanes for Durant to the rim and two open threes, one with no one within five feet, for Curry and Durant. A player’s gravity in transition does not exist in a vacuum; it is often a function of the opposing team’s ability to defend. The Cleveland Cavaliers had well documented defensive struggles in the regular season, but these are total breakdowns in transition, simply because of the attention paid to the two-time MVP.
Pay close attention to the Cavaliers defenders running in transition and how they communicate. I particularly enjoy the second clip for that reason, as it offers an alternative top-down view of the first Durant dunk. Draw an imaginary line from Durant to the rim and count two Cavaliers defenders cross that line to get to Curry, committing the cardinal sin of transition defense of not “stopping ball.”
Defending in transition, especially scramble situations where a team may be down a man, are a staple of NBA practices and defensive regimens. Curry is making professional basketball players on the most elevated stage in the sport look like high-school students lost on a defensive scheme. This isn’t because the Cavaliers are not good players or do not know their schemes well. This is because Curry has fundamentally altered the impact calculus in such a situation, where a defender has to think twice about stopping the ball or preventing a transition three.
In the 2016-17 season, Stephen Curry set 108 screens that led to baskets, a league-leading figure for guards. Take into consideration that he likely set many more that did not lead to baskets. While Kerr’s oft-maligned willingness to have Curry set screens off-ball certainly is a testament to the two-time champion’s gravity, it is also indicative of his willingness to sacrifice.
At the end of the day, he is 6’3” and 190 pounds; setting a screen on LeBron James, especially one that creates any meaningful degree of separation, is no easy task, but he puts his body on the line. Anecdotally speaking, I cannot think of another marquee guard in this league, especially one who has achieved Curry’s accolades who is both willing and proficient in creating value for his team by screening. Perhaps the Portland Trailblazers, which feature heavy weak-side action, but even then I cannot easily recall Damian Lillard putting his body on the line like Curry.
The first clip above shows Curry’s power as a decoy. As he sets a down-screen, LeBron James overcompensates to be able to cover, and Durant sneaks in for the back-door alley oop. As great players often do, James adjusts, and on the subsequent Curry screens he won’t be caught slipping again.
In the second clip especially, watch how long Curry maintains contact with James to ensure Durant gets the space he needs. While this may be an illegal screen according to a literal interpretation of the NBA rulebook, Curry has the benefit of the doubt because of the size disparity and he doesn’t sell out with the contact.
While James actually does a great job of fighting through Curry and getting in contesting position, he is fractions of a second late, as Durant has already set his feet and has the limited space he needs to drain the jumper.
The third selection doesn’t actually lead to a bucket, though a lane was created for Durant and a dish to ZaZa Pachulia may have lead to a layup, but I would rather the contested Durant floater over the Pachulia wide-open lane nine times out of ten. In any case, watch how Curry’s screen creates a sort of double-screen for Durant, as Kyrie Irving gets caught on James’ hip, clearing out even more room for Durant.
As long as I am heaping praise on Stephen Curry, one of my personal favorite past times, I would be remiss to not mention my personal favorite part of his game: bucket-getting. Part of a long line of MVP bucket-getters, Curry has the handle, the shot, the body control, and the supreme confidence to make any player look downright silly in isolation. It is not something he looks to do often, instead primarily trying to distribute and get teammates involved, part of his self-effacing nature off the court, but do not be fooled by his screen-setting and unselfishness. This man will kill you on the court.
The selected clips show the range of Curry’s repertoire, a lethal combination of handles and shot-making that force the defender to play up every inch. A simple up fake takes Kyrie Irving out of his shoes and creates an easy jumper, while Curry uses his handle and quick change of momentum to breakdown Tristan Thompson, a capable defender in his own right, and Kevin Love en route to the cup.
Not to gloss over the finishing ability, Curry can go up with either hand and use a variety of double-clutch and floaters to get the shot he wants. My personal favorite is the fourth clip, where Curry is operating at the three-point line and where he is especially dangerous. A simple inside out dribble catches LeBron James and leads to a wide open three pointer. The list of players in all NBA history who can consistently pull off that move is small, and most probably play in the NBA right now.
The history in this matchup adds another layer on top of the skillful display in the selection above, Curry was castigated, probably by no one more so than himself, for his performance in last year’s finals and he would not pass on the opportunity to exorcise those demons on the biggest stage. As Allen Iverson once said, “I was a certified serial killer, but [Stephen Curry] has it all” and because of that, he is $201 million dollars richer, and he deserves every penny.