Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer
Wednesday night’s Houston Rockets–Golden State Warriors game (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a reminder of all the interesting storylines the NBA lost when Aron Baynes fell on Stephen Curry‘s left hand — including what promised to be a season-long question of whether Curry could or would play more like Houston’s supernova James Harden.
That storyline had layers. It would factor into Golden State’s ability to hang in the playoff race until a potential Klay Thompson return. It would tell us something about Steve Kerr as a coach. And however it unfolded, it would drive a lot of commentary about Curry’s place in NBA history.
Instead, Golden State’s season is over. In the long run, that is probably good. The founding fathers of this dynasty — Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green — could use a respite. The Warriors will keep the top-20-protected pick they owe the Brooklyn Nets via the bizarre Kevin Durant/D’Angelo Russell double sign-and-trade, and it could land toward the top of the draft.
They won’t get a Tim Duncan there. The eerie parallels with the 1996-97 Spurs are faulty in that sense. There are no Tim Duncans. Duncan is one of the 10 greatest players of all time. He was a superstar the minute he ambled into the league wearing jorts. (Duncan finished fifth in MVP voting as a rookie. Even for a 21-year-old rookie — old by today’s standards — that is a joke.)
But Golden State should have a chance to find someone who might contribute right away as a role player. Ironically, one of the justifications the Warriors offered for the Russell deal was that it presented their best and maybe only method of nabbing a player who was both young (Russell is 23) and ready today to help their veteran core.
They never imagined picking high enough in any of the next few drafts to find such a player, so they jumped at Russell. They sacrificed a lot to get him: Andre Iguodala, two draft picks, subjecting themselves to a cumbersome hard cap. It may prove a bad bet, but none of the alternatives available once Durant bolted — including just letting Durant walk — appeared to present any pathway to a player who might help Curry, Thompson, and Green as they age. Suddenly, this draft may provide one.
Count me among those who don’t see Golden State’s window as closed. Yes, the West is loaded. The Los Angeles teams look scary, and it’s unclear whom the Warriors will throw at LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George with Iguodala elsewhere and Green aging.
But the Curry/Green/Thompson trio is really good. They blitzed opponents when Durant was injured until last season’s Finals, and they might have won that series had Thompson remained healthy.
Thompson and Green are both 29, and Curry is 31; they should all have at least two more years of elite play left. Russell will either fit, or the Warriors will trade him for parts that do. Eric Paschall is good. The rest of their young players get this season to grow. The hard cap lifts. That pick is coming. They may not nab a player who can extend that championship window into the way-post-prime golden years of Curry, Thompson, and Green — as Kawhi Leonard once did for Duncan — but they might find someone good enough to prop it open a few more years.
In the meantime, we are robbed of seeing Curry try to recapture his pre-Durant magic. It was obvious early the Warriors would need that version of Curry, or perhaps something even more Harden-esque, to stay in the playoff race.
Some of the game’s old heads, the caretakers of its history, were itching to demand that from Curry. You are a two-time MVP. Put the team on your back. LeBron and Michael would.
Curry doesn’t look like LeBron and Michael. That is part of the challenge of contextualizing him in NBA history. He can’t physically bend the game to his will. When we think of superstars “putting the team on their back,” we think of post behemoths drawing double-teams down low or 6-foot-7 wings doing the same from the triple-threat position. This is essentially what Max Kellerman was talking about on my podcast when he argued Curry could only ascend to a certain historic place in a sport that “self-selects for height.”
But Harden has warped the geometry of one-on-one play. He isolates from Curry’s territory — beyond the top of the arc — which is why there was clamor for Curry to play like Harden.
Kerr has always resisted entrusting too much ballhandling to one player. Even in 2015-16, his unanimous MVP season, Curry ran only 32 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions — 70th in the league, per Second Spectrum. He attempted 160 step-back jumpers; Harden launched almost 700 last season, per Second Spectrum. Curry averaged only 4.3 isolation plays per 100 possessions in 2015-16, a minuscule number for a player of his stature; Harden approached 30 last season.
Curry is 6-3 and weighs about 185 pounds, and Kerr has long worried Curry could not handle the pounding of running every possession. “It’s a lot harder when you are 185,” Kerr told ESPN this week. “I’m not sure Steph is built for that.”
Curry also isn’t as fast as Harden going north-south, or as explosive around the rim. Even the 2016 version of Curry — the clip below is from that season — would pass out of drives where Harden might plow to the rim:
But Curry could absolutely veer more toward Harden’s style. He consistently ranks among the league’s most efficient isolation players. Defenders have to pressure him 35 feet from the rim, and Curry leverages that aggression against them:
Curry attempted his highest-ever share of shots from the restricted area in 2015-16, and his finishing — the variety, the touch — was next level:
So was his passing:
He could take more step-backs — 2s and 3s — against big men on switches, or just by juking his original defender. (He doesn’t get that shot off as easily as Harden, and teams would try to smother it with bigger defenders.)
Kerr is opposed to playing that way. “I’ve never been a believer in isolating your best player while everyone stands around,” he says. “Players need to touch the ball. They need to feel engaged. Putting Steph in a one-man offense takes away one of the things he does best — which is draw attention away from the ball. Ask any coach: Steph flying off a screen on the weak side is terrifying.”
He’s right, of course. Curry draws two and three bodies, and 10 enemy eyeballs, by running around. That attention unlocks opportunities for everyone else. But the path from Curry attracting all that attention to the Warriors scoring often involves at least two teammates making smart passes and cuts.
Several teammates who excelled at those little things are gone. The genius of a simpler system — like Houston’s — is that role players have very basic jobs: catch and shoot. Guys less capable of making snap reads don’t have to make them.
Kerr would argue he does not have the shooters to play that kind of system. The Rockets didn’t either. They turned marginal guys into workable shooters by using Harden to get them easy catch-and-shoot looks.
The Warriors could use Curry the same way. They would just have to space the floor differently: Curry up top, one good shooter (Russell for now) flanking him in the slot, two lesser shooters in the corners, and one big man in the dunker spot under the rim.
Help rotations become much more difficult when Green is in the corner — as he is on this Curry drive from last season’s conference semifinals:
Here’s a variation from this season, with Green in the corner and the dunker spot empty because Green is playing center:
Help converges earlier when Green is in his usual spots along the perimeter, or cutters zip around the paint:
Green doesn’t want to chill in the corner. It’s a waste of his playmaking. Relegate him to PJ Tucker duty, and he might not defend with the same ferocity.
“Draymond’s playmaking is important for us,” Kerr says. “When he’s engaged on offense, his defense gets better. Standing him in the corner would be counterproductive.”
But the old way wasn’t working. Kerr knew. “Even if Steph stayed healthy, we were going to experiment with our offense,” he says. “We were already doing that.”
Golden State could use more pick-and-roll to keep Green active while Harden-izing Curry; that is probably more realistic than Curry isolating at Harden’s rate anyway. Play Green at center, and use him as Curry’s screener in spread pick-and-rolls on repeat. Stick a lob-catching center — Willie Cauley-Stein — in the dunker spot as Green screens for Curry, and have Green hit him for alley-oops. We’ve seen that hundreds of times.
There is a huge stylistic middle ground between Curry’s last three seasons and Harden’s. Curry’s MVP campaigns fall into it. It was time to tap back into that — and perhaps go even further.
Maybe Curry would wear down under that sort of ballhandling volume. He’s almost 32, with tons of mileage. Maybe Durant joining Golden State used up Curry’s remaining potential years as a Harden-level fulcrum, and inadvertently complicated Curry’s legacy in the process.
We won’t see for at least three months, and by then Golden State will have no incentive to overtax Curry. But if the Warriors had sputtered to something like 35 wins, the skeptics would have crowed. They were already starting to as Golden State ate blowout losses.
But this team is so thin and inexperienced. According to research our Kevin Pelton provided, the Warriors entered the season carrying only five players with at least five career wins above replacement level. Since 1995, such teams — and there are more than a hundred — have won an average of 35 games and made the playoffs only 31% of the time. One of those five players — Thompson — is out. Another — Cauley-Stein — did not play until the game when Curry broke his hand.
LeBron’s 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams in Cleveland finished those seasons with eight and 10 5-WARP players, respectively. San Antonio’s thinnest teams around Duncan — the 2000-02 iterations that rode out the Lakers’ three-peat before Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili arrived as stars — featured eight, seven and six such players, though a few were aging out of the league.
Of course, those San Antonio and Cleveland teams all won at least 50 games. A few of those five-by-five WARP teams featuring some of Curry’s historic peers made the playoffs: the 1995-96 Jazz with John Stockton and Karl Malone, and the 2009-10 Suns with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. Golden State appeared headed for a much uglier fate, though with an even shallower roster. The best comparison might be Minnesota’s 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams with Kevin Garnett as Curry. Those teams featured five and six 5-WARP players, respectively, and won 33 and then 32 games.
No player wins a title alone. Only a handful of players in league history could single-handedly lift a mediocre or worse roster toward 50 wins. It’s quite possible Curry is not one of those players — that his size and physical limitations mitigate against it. It’s also possible Harden is “better” and more equipped than Curry to raise the floor of a middling team.
But Curry is probably better at raising the ceiling of a good team, and that might have more value in building toward a championship. His shooting and skill moving off the ball amplify other great players the way Harden amplifies role players. That in and of itself is a skill — a talent. Thompson and Green are not the stars they are without Curry. (The same people who were ready to make this Warriors season a referendum on Curry should have done the same with Green.)
Before Durant, those three came together to make a team something more than the sum of its parts. They won 67 and 73 games, and one title. Curry propelled that success with two seasons that broke everything we knew about basketball. All the evidence — plus/minus numbers especially — suggests Curry was the undisputed driver of those teams.
We are still struggling to place those seasons, and Curry, in league history. Players his size don’t really enter the “top 10 all time” discussion. Curry is already one of the two or three most decorated 6-3-and-under players ever, and probably has the brightest prime among them. The only other candidates are Jerry West, Allen Iverson, Bob Cousy, Russell Westbrook, Isiah Thomas, Stockton, Chris Paul, and Nash.
That entire group (not including Curry) has five combined MVPs. Nash has two, and played like something of a proto-Curry. Curry surpassed him. Stockton never averaged more than 17.2 points or finished higher than seventh in MVP voting. Thomas never finished higher than fifth. West never won MVP, though he finished second four times and made first-team All-NBA 10 times. (Curry has made first-team only three times.)
Maybe a player Curry’s size just can’t crack the very highest echelon of individual greatness in basketball. There are smart people within the league who argue that it’s impossible for any sub-6-5 below-average defender — and Curry is that, despite smarts and effort — to bust into the top-10-of-all-time discussion. Curry is still building counting stats, and he famously has not won a Finals MVP in five trips. Bill Simmons recently slotted Curry at No. 24 all-time.
But Curry’s pre-Durant peak was as transcendent as anything the sport has ever seen. His shooting translates to team-level greatness in ways we are still understanding. A few more seasons like that, and Curry would elevate himself toward the top-10 discussion. This season could have been one. One way or another, it would have taught us something about Curry.