Steph Curry Is Disrupting The Geometry Of Basketball
While retired basketball legends like Oscar Robertson grumble that Steph Curry wouldn't last in the rough n' tumble NBA past, the sweet-shooting Golden State guard is redefining the game's spatial limits.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
It's cliché to say, but Stephen Curry is breaking basketball. Whether it's stories about the difficulty of making his NBA 2K video game simulacrum match his real-world performance, or just the simple, ongoing absurdity of a player who routinely makes long-distance shots that few other players would even dare to take, contextualizing and cataloging Curry's greatness has become a virtual cottage industry.
Naturally, as Curry's fame crosses over from the relatively insular world of the sports-obsessed into mainstream culture–thanks, Prince, and you're right about this Curry kid!–there has been some backlash. Only not from casual fans. Rather, the grumbling has come a bunch of retired players, wondering what all the fuss is about:
●It's Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, ripping simplistic modern basketball and insinuating that today's coaches are basically too stupid to extend their defenses to guard Curry.
●It's non-Hall of Famer Stephen Jackson claiming that the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors, a mighty No. 8 playoff seed, could beat Curry's historically-great team, all while fellow non-Hall of Famers Rip Hamilton and Raja Bell discuss how the manly-man teams of yesterday's NBA would have "put [Curry] on the floor."
●It's NBA Garbage Time/Cherry-Picking Hall of Famer Cedric Ceballos (!) asserting that the 1993-94 Phoenix Suns could beat Curry's Warriors, in part because Curry would be no match for Kevin Johnson (!!).
Strip away the "back in my day, uphill both ways in the snow" bitterness of the above, and the Curry backlash boils down to the notion that a relatively small, slender and unathletic–that is, by freakish NBA standards–player shouldn't be able to do this. You can tell what the old-timers are thinking: Bump him. Check him. Play some damn defense. Just look at the guy!
Of course, this sort of criticism misunderstands the fundamental change caused by Curry's unique skill set.
What do I mean? Think of the iconic scene that comes late in the film Hoosiers, when Gene Hackman's Normal Dale instructs his awestruck underdog squad to take the court's dimensions as they stare in awe at the size of the venue for the Indiana state championships. The message is clear: it's the same court. The basket is still 10 feet tall. The free throw line is still fifteen feet away from the hoop. And so on.
Curry destroys this geometry. Not literally: the lines don't move when he plays, and the hoop is still just 10 feet from the ground. But, at least when the ball is in Curry's hands or he is in a position to receive it, the playable area of the floor—and all of the tactical and strategic decisions that are made within it—becomes instantly larger.
It's hard to overstate how disruptive that is.
Last season, Curry led the NBA in total distance of shots both made and attempted: 9,922 feet and 22,943 feet, respectively. This year, he's doing the same thing, and by even larger margins. He shoots more often and from further away than any other player, and crucially, he does so effectively.
While the exact yardage of shots varies according to data source—distances recorded in SportVU player-tracking logs might differ slightly from official play-by-play estimates, which in turn occasionally diverge from official shot charts—we can say this: according to shot log data through Curry's incandescent Saturday night performance in Oklahoma City, the Warriors guard has attempted 233 shots from between 26 and 35 feet. He has made 108, which means he's shooting 48.4 percent on those attempts.
Now, let's put that into context. Only two other NBA players have even attempted more shots from that range this season than the 108 Curry has made. Only Portland's Damian Lillard–the closest analog to Curry in terms of dangerous deep shooting off the dribble–has hit more than 40.
So, from areas of the floor where few other players in the league even need to be guarded, Curry is scoring roughly as efficiently as Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan does at the rim. And Jordan, whose offense basically consists of dunks, is only the most efficient player in NBA history in terms of field goal percentage.
Think about what this means for opposing players and coaches—and for the game of basketball itself. The area of the floor a team generally has to defend is around 1,100 square feet. Curry's range effectively expands this by 25 percent or more. Tall, long-armed, space-filling, high-flying alley-oop finishers like Jordan, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond expand the playable area of the court upwards. Curry does the same with horizontal space—and he does so without needing a teammate to set him up with a well-placed pass.
Keep in mind that when opposing defenders do manage to get close enough to Curry to prevent these long shots, he makes great use of the extra space left between the defender and the basket. This season, Curry has been one of the league's best scorers on drives to the basket, with only Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard being more effective than Curry's 1.14 points per attempt when attacking the rim off the bounce. Oh, and if a defender overplays too much in order to keep the ball away from Curry in the first place, he's an accomplished backdoor cutter, averaging 1.4 points per play according to data from Synergy Sports Technology.
The extra space generated by Curry's shooting doesn't just help him: it helps his teammates as well. Roughly 250 square feet of extra space allows Draymond Green to utilize his passing acumen in situations that often resemble half-court fastbreaks. It allows Harrison Barnes to shoot three-pointers with no defenders in the same zip code. It allows the Warriors, an unselfish bunch, to scramble the coordinated player rotations at the heart of modern NBA defenses.
A few days ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban openly wondered if the time has come to move the three-point line back a few feet. Cuban wasn't directly discussing Curry, but he was talking about floor spacing, and how a change could benefit players who lack Curry's otherworldly range.
"I think it'd open it up more so guys with different skill sets could play," Cuban said. "It would open up play for more drives. Guys with midrange games would be rewarded and that would stay in the game. There would be more diversity of offensive action in the game."
Here's the problem with that suggestion: unless Cuban is proposing the halfcourt stripe as the new arc, such a change would paradoxically reduce the usable areas of the court. As the distance increase, fewer players are competent shooters, and a 33 percent shot worth only two points is exactly the kind of low efficiency look a smart defensive team will gleefully concede. The bulk of teams will be forced to deploy at least one (and often several) players who can be defended in the manner the Warriors choose to cover (or not) Memphis' Tony Allen during last year's playoffs and Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson on Saturday. Without the three-pointer being a viable threat, defenders would barely need to leave the paint, where they would be well-positioned to contest both drives and midrange shots.
Meanwhile, someone like Curry—and to a lesser extent, Lillard—would become that much more valuable, given that the ability to stretch a defense at all would become more rare.
In the here and now, Curry is valuable enough. Imagine a game of tag where the boundaries expanded by a quarter when you're "it." This is what faces defenders charged with stopping the Warriors. What Robertson and the other grumbling old timers don't get is that today's defenders are neither stupid nor soft. The issue isn't effort. It's geometry. The reason nobody has found much of a way to even slow Curry down is that he's playing on a different court than everyone else.