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Behind MVP Stephen Curry, Warriors Defying Categories

Stephen Curry sparks the league’s most dynamic team…

The two primary current models of success are best represented by the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The San Antonio model, employed by teams like the Atlanta Hawks, is a system-predicated brand of basketball. In other words, the offensive side isn’t so much determined by individual matchups, star power and sheer strength, but rather by a complex scheme involving all parties on the floor. Both the Spurs and the Hawks go quite deep into their rosters—San Antonio a little deeper—but, more importantly, they seek to evenly distribute points and minutes. The other model is the star model: acquire two to three superstars and build a ragtag collection of veterans and specialty players around them. The Miami Heat of the last few years. The Cavaliers of today.

Basketball evolves. It’s quite fitting, in my mind, that the last four titles have been split between system-oriented teams (2011 Mavericks, 2014 Spurs) and star-oriented teams. (2012 and 2013 Miami Heat)

A couple concessions. First, these two models are, of course, gross overstatements. What’s actually going on in the league is much more complicated than I’m making it seem, but it might be a helpful way to think about two paradigms of success. Second, there’s a rigidity in this construction that doesn’t exist in real life. I.e., a number of teams float between the two models.

Which brings me, in my roundabout way, to the Golden State Warriors. What makes the Warriors so dynamic, so incredibly difficult to defeat, is that they boast both the depth and systematic prowess of the San Antonio Spurs and the nuclear-missile star power of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re the only team in the NBA who successfully accomplishes both models at the same time.

System: In Sunday’s Game 1 romp of the Memphis Grizzlies, no Warriors played more than 38 minutes. 10 Warriors played at least 10 minutes. Just as important as the numbers is the fact that players like Festus Ezeli, who only logged 11 minutes in Game 1, made palpable contributions. I remember an Ezeli/Curry pick-and-roll in which Ezeli, after screening Curry’s man, rolled to the basket, since the defender had gone to double-team Curry, who then laid it over the defense and into the soft hands of the big man, who finished in traffic. This was a fairly critical juncture in the game, when the Grizzlies attempted again and again to scrape away at Golden State’s lead.

The lesson is that Golden State’s reliance on short-term contributions from players—Ezeli’s 11 minutes, Marreese Speights’s 13, Shaun Livingston’s 16—isn’t just something that occurs in blowouts. We’ve seen it time and again this year. The Warriors throw so many players at you, you can’t keep up. Guys who not only fill specific roles but who impact the game in a number of ways, much like the way San Antonio can beat you with a different guy each night, whether it’s Patty Mills or Boris Diaw or Tim Duncan.

Then there’s the other way: sheer power. Take, for example, the Game 3 overtime victory against the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a game in which the Pelicans led almost the entire way. A game in which the Warriors mounted a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter, on the backs of the Splash Brothers. They combined for 13-30 beyond the arc (43 percent) and 68 points. No other Warriors scored more than 12 points. This was a game where the Warriors didn’t need a team; they needed a hero. They needed a dynamic duo to scrap the system, shoulder the burden and carry their team to victory. This is a luxury that San Antonio didn’t have in its series against the Clippers. This is a luxury the Atlanta Hawks don’t have, and it might cost them dearly.

Stephen Curry is the MVP of the league because he’s what makes the Warriors go: One night he can score 10 points and dish 12 dimes, sitting back and watching the wheel turn by the accrued momentum just from a simple kick-start. The next night, maybe there’s too much friction, maybe the other team is thwarting their schemes, maybe the Warriors are in foul trouble—and if all this goes wrong, Curry can be individually superior.

Five games into the postseason for Golden State, five wins. With the way they’re playing, with their dynamic depth and startling star power, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine them losing a series—maybe even a single game.

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