He’s averaging well over 20 points per game and set the record for most threes in a single contest. He’s top-five in fantasy and No. 11 in ESPN’s “real plus-minus” tracker, for those of you who care about such things. Stephen Curry is still a phenomenal player by any measure other than Charles Barkley’s proprietary “How much of a man is he, Ernie?” metric.
So why does it seem like he’s off this season?
That’s easy. Everything in this Warriors campaign leads to what looks like an inevitable rematch with Cleveland in June. Curry wasn’t all that great in last year’s NBA Finals: 22.6 ppg (7.5 ppg below his season average) on 40.3% shooting (40.0% on 3-pointers), 0.9 spg (less than half his season average) and perhaps most damning of all, 26 assists and 30 turnovers in the series.
The consensus seemed to be that Curry suffered from a couple of things as the Warriors collapsed against the Cavs. First, he came into the series at less than full health — to a higher degree than the kind of lingering pain everyone deals with at the end of a long season. Second, the Cavs targeted Curry when the Warriors were on defense and roughed him up as much as possible when Golden State had the ball, thanks in part to the league’s strange habit of allowing the games to be officiated differently when they mean more.
Then he went and threw out a total stinker on Christmas day: 15 points (4-of-11 from the floor), 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers. He was used as a decoy in the final play of the game, and after watching his previous 37 minutes it was difficult to argue with Steve Kerr’s decision to entrust Kevin Durant with last shot duties instead of the reigning two-time MVP.
Kyrie Irving’s fourth quarter dominance provided a striking contrast. Especially when he hit the game-winner with Klay Thompson guarding him and Curry sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, either unwilling or unable to watch the possession.
This isn’t the Steph we know. And there are a few possible explanations for what has occurred in the second half of 2016, since they added Durant.
Possibility No. 1: Curry still isn’t right physically
This note from CSN Bay Area does a good job showing exactly how Curry is struggling (relatively speaking, of course). He’s known for making shots off the dribble that most players wouldn’t dream of taking, but that skill has fallen off a bit so far this season.
Last season, Curry shot 45.4 percent from deep — 43 percent on pull-ups (off the dribble) and 48.4 percent on catch and shoot triples. He made an NBA single-season record 402 3-pointers.
Curry averaged 30.1 points and 6.7 assists on 20.2 shots (11.2 3s) per game.
This year, Curry is shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc — 29.3 percent on pull-ups and the same 48.4 percent clip on catch and shoot. He is on pace to make just under 312 3-pointers.
Based on the good ol’ eye test, Curry isn’t cooking guys the way we saw with regularity — especially from the second half of the 2014-15 season through the 2015-16 regular season (and the first quarter of Game 1 against Houston, when he looked ready for a postseason-for-the-ages until he tweaked his foot or ankle). Sure, he’ll shake a guy like Jon Leuer with a series of moves and hit a three on occasion, but many fans/observers seem to think his lateral movement isn’t quite as sharp as it was during his ridiculous 2015-16 season. He never had surgery on his knee during the offseason, which could either indicate that it wasn’t a major injury to begin with, or surgery wouldn’t help and his knee will never quite be the same.
More offshoots to this:
- Maybe he’s fine physically, but the mental hurdle of putting his lower body into strenuous positions is too much to handle right now.
- Maybe the knee isn’t a problem at all, and the foot/ankle injury is what’s lingering.
Other than waiting for Curry to feel better, and putting faith in the Warriors’ training staff, there isn’t much anyone can do if this is indeed what’s holding him back.
Possibility No. 2: Curry is having another one of his “slow” starts
It’s easy to forget this after watching him start the season like a superhero a year ago, but before last season Curry made a habit of playing well in the first half before absolutely detonating after the All-Star Game. In 2014-15, he was a 39.9% 3-point shooter before the All-Star break (the exact percentage he’s at this season). He went on to make 51.7% of his threes afterward as he and the Warriors surged to a 67-win season.
Here are his career splits (numbers after the All-Star break are highlighted in yellow).
If this is the so-called problem with Curry, it’s not really a problem at all. The Warriors are 27-5, after all.
Possibility No. 3: Curry isn’t being used correctly
Marcus Thompson explained why using Curry off the ball negates so much of what makes him great, while Andy Liu bemoaned Kerr’s stubborn (my description, not Liu’s) refusal to move away from the team’s “movement and flow” based offense against the Cavs, which allows Cleveland to rough up Curry with their large stable of goons.
Liu suggests that the Warriors go with their greatest strength against Cleveland: the pick-and-roll. We know Curry is a great pick-and-roll player, as he pretty much spent Mark Jackson’s entire Warriors tenure running that play with David Lee and several others. And the mere thought of Curry running P-‘n-R with Kevin Durant, or with Draymond Green while Durant and Klay Thompson space things out behind the 3-point line, is enough to make any Warriors fan salivate.
Why wouldn’t Kerr make it easier for Curry — a rhythm player if there ever was one — to stay in rhythm, in effect making it even easier for the Warriors to score against their toughest opponent? One idea is that Kerr is a Gregg Popovich disciple (much more so than he is a follower of Phil Jackson), and he doesn’t want to play his hand this early.
Another is my own, crazy idea: the new CBA makes it incredibly difficult for Curry to turn the Warriors down when he becomes a free agent after this season (he can earn something like $70 million more if he stays with Golden State than if he leaves for another team, to go along with the built-in advantages the Warriors boast, both on the court and off for Curry and his wife). So, Kerr realizes that pacifying Curry isn’t a top priority. The Warriors don’t have Durant’s Bird Rights, and it may behoove them to get Durant to take a million or three less than the max to re-sign a player like Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston. Making him the focal point and deferring to him at all times might make more sense.
I know, I know. This is all probably a little too conniving for Kerr. And to the head coach’s credit, he sounded like he was focused on getting Curry rolling again.
“We’re 32 games into this. He made a clear effort in training camp to defer to Kevin (Durant). He wanted to get Kevin comfortable. We’re still learning as a coaching staff where to put pieces. What works, what doesn’t. We’ve thrown out three or four things that we thought might work that haven’t worked.
“I think Steph has probably had the biggest adjustment of all of our players with Kevin’s arrival. I think if you look at it from a practical standpoint, he’s doing great. His numbers are still fantastic … but he also happens to be coming off the greatest shooting season in the history of mankind last year. So he has set the bar so high for himself that it’s going to be a point of discussion.
“I think we can help him — I can certainly put him in a better position to get going, which I will. We’re still learning, we’re still growing. I’m not the slightest bit concerned … it’s just part of our progression as a team.”
If Kerr isn’t worried, then fans probably shouldn’t worry either. And if the Warriors knew Curry wasn’t right physically, they’d probably give him a night off here or there. But while it’s unfair to expect Curry to play the way he did throughout last season after a top-3 player joined the team, but it is fair to expect him to play better against the Cavs. That expectation alone could be the most interesting part of their next game against Cleveland in less than three weeks.