The greatest shooter of all time is having the most efficient shooting season of his career.
When Stephen Curry became the first unanimous MVP in league history two seasons ago, he did it mostly thanks to delivering what was easily the best shooting season ever. Although the 3-point shooting gets most of the attention — rightfully so given the manner in which he obliterated his own record for made 3s while finishing second in the league in 3-point accuracy — it was far more than simply dialing in from downtown.
He essentially shot the same on 2s as MVP Shaquille O’Neal and converted a higher percentage at the free throw line than Steve Nash, the most accurate free throw shooter of all time. Taking it all into consideration — the 3s, 2s and 1s — Curry finished with a true shooting percentage of 66.9, the best ever by a 20-points per game scorer. It’s hard to fathom anyone putting together a more complete shooting season.
And yet here we are.
Entering Saturday, Curry’s true shooting percentage sits at 67.5. He’s once again leading the league in made 3s per game and hitting over 40 percent, just as he has done every year of his career. Add in the unmatched gravity from pretty much anywhere inside the hashmarks and it’s clear that the 3-ball remains the key to unlocking everything else.
That’s not breaking news, but it’s also not the reason for his historic shooting season, if he keeps up this pace.
The 3-point king is having by far the best season of his career inside the arc, ranking eighth in the league in 2-point field goal percentage. The seven players ahead of him on average stand 6-foot-10 (LeBron James the shortest among them at 6-8).
Curry’s ability to finish among the trees isn’t simply significant within the context of this season either. Entering 2017-18, there have been 63 instances of a player making at least 60 percent of his 2s. Every one of them was done by a player standing at least 6-5, which gives the 6-3 Curry a shot at finishing with the best 2-point field goal percentage ever by a player of his stature (shoutout to 6-3 Brad Davis for making 59.5 percent in 1982-83 on 7.4 attempts per game).
In addition to unmatched efficiency inside the arc, Curry has added a significant wrinkle to his game by getting to the line much more. Entering this season, Curry averaged one foul shot for every 4.3 shot attempts. That’s historically low. In fact, it’s the lowest by any of the more than 60 players who poured in 20 points per game over the course of their career.
So far this season, Curry is taking a free throw for every 2.6 field goal attempts, a rate that slots him right in the middle of that 20-point scorers club and above the likes of Michael Jordan, who early in his career actually led the entire league in total free throw attempts. For a player shooting almost 92 percent from the free throw line — which, oh by the way, might end up being the best ever by someone who gets to the line as much as he does — that’s an especially big development.
Fueling Curry’s career season from inside the 3-point line has been a change in approach in the half court, namely a sharp increase in pick-and-roll responsibilities combined with fewer isolations. One of the benefits of utilizing Second Spectrum’s player tracking is that it not only captures result-based actions, but also every indirect action that doesn’t ultimately lead to a shot, foul, assist or turnover. It’s helpful to truly quantify what a player is doing on the floor.
According to this data, Curry is averaging about 40 half-court actions on the ball per game, a reduction of roughly two per game from his unanimous MVP campaign. That doesn’t include any transition opportunities or possessions in which he’s on the floor but never becomes involved. The percent of those on-ball actions that are run as a pick-and-roll ball handler has risen from 58 percent to 65 percent, while his isolations have dropped from 8 percent to just 5 percent. Considering that Curry ranks as the NBA’s single most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler, it’s a thrilling tradeoff for the Warriors.
Since he’s not shooting as well from deep, what has allowed Curry to maintain his overall shooting efficiency is a far more measured approach in terms of shot selection and a willingness to reel it in.
The hallmark of Curry’s 2015-16 campaign was a steady dose of rainbows from another zip code and heat checks off the dribble in transition. They were terrible shots for literally anyone in the history of the game except for him and apparently a junior in high school named Trae Young.
That season, Curry shot an outrageous 21-of-45 on attempts from 30 feet and beyond, shots that the rest of the league combined to make only 13 percent of the time if you take away desperation heaves from outside of 35 feet. Nobody else made more than three of them. Meanwhile, he managed to sink over 50 percent of his pull-up 3s in transition, the type of backbreaking shot that seemingly accompanied every other big Warriors run and led to helpless coaches signaling for timeout.
After coming back down to earth last season, shooting just 13-of-54 on 30-footers, he has eschewed them almost entirely. More than 20 players have taken a greater number of shots from 30 feet and out, as Curry’s on pace to finish with roughly a third as many attempts. He has as many makes from that distance the entire season as he had in three separate games in 2015-16.
When it comes to pulling up with the defense on its heels, Curry has been far more judicious in picking his spots.
We’ve seen more of these plays, where he uses his (and Kevin Durant‘s) gravity to get a good look at the rim …
Steph Curry takes the ball from beyond 3-point distance, drives to his left and sinks the lay-up while getting fouled for the and-1.
… and fewer of these:
Without hesitation, Steph Curry throws up a long-range 3-pointer with Enes Kantor in his face and connects.
(An incredible shot, but still.)
According to Second Spectrum, he’s 5-of-14 on pull-up 3s in transition and on pace for barely a quarter of his total makes from two seasons ago while taking fewer than half as many per 100 possessions. The head-scratching backbreakers are certainly still there, just not as often.
Going into Saturday’s game in Houston, which could very well be a preview of the Western Conference finals, it’s hard to argue that anyone’s playing better than the two-time MVP. Golden State has won each of its past 14 games in which Curry has played, during which time he has served up one reminder after another that when dialed in he’s still the most dangerous offensive player on the planet.
Yes, there are certainly complexities involved at every position and within every matchup on the floor. But Houston’s strategy in taking down the champs rests on the simple idea that the Rockets will take and make more 3s. But with the greatest shooter the world has ever seen delivering the best shooting season we’ve ever seen, maybe that plan won’t be so simple after all.