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Stephen Curry and His Quest for Perfection

Stephen Curry announced the other day that he intends to make the upcoming season his best one yet, which would be a rather impressive feat indeed considering all that he accomplished in 2014-15.

“That’s always the motivation: Every single year, I try to find things I can do better,” Curry told SFGate.com. “There are things I want to try and different ways I want to attack, but as a point guard in this offense, it’s all about being consistent with how we run our offense and how we get our shots. Within our offense, it’s about being more explosive, more aggressive, more decisive and more making plays.”

Certainly off the top your instinct is to dismiss Curry’s statement for what it is, a mixture of hubris and cliche. But then you consider the source. Curry has his easygoing side, to be sure, and he can even be self-deprecating to deflect attention, but he’s been deadly serious about his craft from a young age, with maniacal faith in himself and the determination of a demented perfectionist.

On one level, Curry’s goal feels attainable. He is only 27, after all, so it’s theoretically possible he hasn’t hit his prime yet. Steve Nash is the pro he’s been most compared to, and he won his back-to-back MVP awards at ages 30 and 31. You’re probably aware that the Warriors recently recruited Nash to be a “player development consultant,” and there was an anecdote in the link above relaying an immediate tweak Nash made to Curry’s floor vision.

On his first day with the team, Nash showed Curry a couple of gems for reading defenses, and minutes later in a scrimmage, Curry was making the reads and completing the plays.

On the other hand, how much better can Curry possibly get? What he did last year, in terms of both production and efficiency was historic for someone of his physical stature. He had a PER of 28.0, the 56th-best single-season mark in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only two of the 55 superior ones came from someone shorter than the 6’3 Curry, and it was 6’0 Chris Paul both times, in 2007-08 and 2008-09 in his age 22 and 23 seasons for New Orleans. Curry had the 18th-best Win Shares-per-48 minutes mark of all time at .288, and again only Paul bettered him among point guards.

Just for context, realize that Nash himself never put up advanced stats of this magnitude. Neither did Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas or John Stockton. Paul and Curry represent an evolution of the point-guard position, the way Michael Jordan and LeBron James revolutionized their positions.

Asking for Curry to improve upon that seems both ungrateful and unrealistic, even if he’s the one announcing those expectations of himself. The thing is, there is a way for him to indeed achieve his goal, but it won’t involve anything physical like learning a fancy new dribble move or improving his floater in traffic.

Curry can’t get any better than he already is as a shooter, at least not at the volume he’s jacking them up and the degree-of-difficulty he’s launching them from. For his percentages to improve he’ll have to take more open shots and fewer contested ones. To improve his assist numbers his teammates will have to hit at better rates. And thus the more dangerous Curry can make his teammates, the more room he can buy for himself.

Both the numbers and our eyes tell us that Curry has far more room to get better as a playmaker than he does as a scorer. There’s excitement within the team about how much the offense can improve in year two of Steve Kerr’s system. Everyone should know where to be, where to cut, where to pass by now, and the counters to whatever defenses throw at them should come like second-nature.

When the game is played at its highest level, five guys move and think as one, the way the Spurs did in the 2014 Finals against Miami. It’s basketball nirvana, with the ball whipping around almost faster than your eyes can keep up with it and each recipient knowing what their decision is going to be before it even comes to them.

It kind of looks like this play, which the Warriors pulled off in their exhibition opener versus the Raptors. Curry both started and finished it, appearing to be in two places at once. Three rapid-fire passes in succession, boom-boom-boom, and the league’s best marksman had the entire right half of the court to himself.

Curry could’ve autographed that ball before he shot it.

Don’t bet against Curry pulling this off. Through two preseason games he’s scored 44 points in 45 minutes, hitting 9-of-14 threes to go with nine assists.

At 27, he’ll never be quicker or stronger or more coordinated than he was before. He’ll never be more physically skilled. The odds are that bell-curve is already sloping downward for him. He can think faster, however. He can see things unfolding two, three, four frames ahead of time, appearing clairvoyant and making everything else around him look jarringly slow.

Maybe the lessons Nash will impart will have less to do with the dusty old Suns tape and pick-and-roll tutorials and more to do with another famous Canadian athlete. Wayne Gretzky never skated very fast or shot the puck all that hard, but no one before or since has so singularly dominated his sport.

If Curry and his mates can learn to see the floor the way Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers of his prime saw the ice, there are no limits to what they can achieve.

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