Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
It has now been 100 days, and the slow but steady march through our countdown of the NBA’s top 100 players culminates with the two-time reigning MVP, Stephen Curry.
There will be those who disagree with his selection. And if you want to have LeBron James ahead of him, I certainly understand the logic behind that. But my choice to put Curry first came with much consideration, and I believe it is the right one, James’ superior Finals performance notwithstanding. It’s easy to look at one play, one game or one series and put too much weight on it, particularly if that is a Finals.
But if you think that Curry doesn’t belong here because Kevin Love defended his shot that one time, then we’ve got a problem. Using a single play to define a player is just outright disingenuous. So let’s set aside the “blew a 3-1 lead” jokes in favor of honest analysis.
The most frequent criticisms of Curry are that 1. “All he does is shoot threes” and 2. He doesn’t make his teammates better. Both of these charges are false.
First, let’s analyze this notion that he doesn’t make the players around him better. Here are all the Golden State Warriors and their effective field goal percentage when Curry was on the court with them and when they weren’t:
As a whole, when he was on the court with them, the Warriors’ effective field goal percentage was 8.9 percentage points better on 3,230 shots, meaning Curry’s “gravity” was responsible for roughly 573 points, or 7.0 points per game. That’s in addition to his actual measurable production. Curry does make his teammates better, quantifiably.
And as far as the “all he does is shoot threes? Well, here’s how he stacked up in total stats per 100 possessions last year, according to Basektball-Reference.com:
The only one who was more productive on a per-100 possession basis was Westbrook, and Westbrook’s efficiency (55.4 percent true shooting) trailed well behind Curry’s (66.9). When you include both production and efficiency, Curry was arguably the most well-rounded player in basketball last season.
And he made everyone on his team better (except Harrison Barnes, which, well…)
If Curry can maintain similar production and make even Durant better while he’s at it, another MVP is a possibility.
There are a few factors which could drop Curry. James Harden and Westbrook both look like they are going to chalk up massive numbers this year. Durant’s presence could steal MVP votes away from Curry. And the Warriors have gone from “underdog fan favorite” to “evil villain” status in a relatively short period.
Curry is going to put up his numbers, but the “perception” of him can take a hit, especially after his hobbled performance in the NBA Finals last year.
Curry doesn’t “just shoot” threes, but that is the foundation of his remarkable offensive ability. One issue with saying that it’s “all he does” is that it diminishes the significance of how well he does it. It’s not just that he shoots threes; it’s that he makes them off the dribble at an unprecedented rate. Here are the all-time leaders in treys off the bounce and how many games they took to get them:
Curry is already fifth all-time in pull-up threes. Last year, he notched 182. If he replicates that this year, he’ll easily pass LeBron James for No. 2 all-time, and he’ll be close to Steve Nash for first. But the rate he makes them is plainly ridiculous, as you can tell by the graphic.
While that sets up his offense, let’s not confuse it with his whole offense. He has tremendous handles and court vision, which allows him to create space for himself and open shots for his teammates, as is evident by the aforementioned quality of all his teammates shooting better when he is on the court.
And, it’s not like outside of the arc is the only place Curry scores effectively. His shot chart almost makes you want to laugh, it’s so green:
He is arguably the hardest player to guard in the NBA, and when you couple that with his selflessness and willingness to fit in a team construct, it makes him the league’s most dangerous weapon.
The other thing that he gets denigrated for is his defense. While it’s not All-Defensive team-caliber defense, as Russell Westbrook found out, it’s probably not a good idea to overlook the contributions he makes either. After all, he did lead the league with 169 steals last year.
Granted, steals can be an overrated stat, but they can be underrated as well. Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight wrote about steals and their significance a couple of years ago. He created a regression to predict how much teams would suffer when someone didn’t play. Steals made the most impact (9.1), while rebounds made the least impact (1.7).
So why do steals matter so much? According to Morris:
Steals have considerable intrinsic value. Not only do they kill an opponent’s possession, but a team’s ensuing possession — the one that started with the steal — often leads to fast-break scoring opportunities. But though this explains how a steal can be more valuable than a two-point basket, it doesn’t come close to explaining how we get from that to nine points.
So that’s part of it, but there’s also something else that sets steals apart, as Morris elaborates:
Think about all that occurs in a basketball game — no matter who is playing, there will be plenty of points, rebounds and assists to go around. But some things only happen because somebody makes them happen. If you replaced a player with someone less skilled at that particular thing, it wouldn’t just go to somebody else. It wouldn’t occur at all. Steals are disproportionately those kinds of things.
So, you take a team’s best rebounder off, and the team is still going to get most of those same rebounds. Shots are still going miss; the offensive/defensive rebound splits are still going to be somewhere around 30 percent and 70 percent. Sure some of the rebounds that are contested that the great rebounder would have gotten aren’t collected by the backup, but most are going to go someone on the same team.
But steals are different. They are almost entirely a skill to spot the opportunity and shoot the passing lane or get your hand in and take away the dribble. Morris calls this “statistical irreplaceability.” And according to him, 96 percent of steals are irreplaceable.
So does that notion bear out when applied to the Warriors and Curry? When he was on the court last season, the Dubs averaged 23.1 fastbreak points per 100 possessions. That certainly suggests those steals were paying dividends.
Another aspect of Curry’s defensive reputation is that Klay Thompson “always” guards the best ball handler. While there’s no real way to measure this, we can compare his defensive shots against with Thompson’s.
Curry’s “man” had a usual field goal percentage of 43.3 percent overall and 35.1 percent on threes over the course of the whole season. His counterpart shot 40.1 percent and 31.2 percent on threes when Curry was guarding him, meaning they shot worse when defended by him.
For Thompson, those numbers were 44.3 percent and 35.3 percent over the whole season, and 43.3 percent and 30.9 percent when he was defending the opponent.
So, Curry held his man to further below his overall shooting average, though, Thompson did better when the shooter was firing from deep.
This is more consistent with what the eyes say. They tend to switch a lot. Curry’s actual job is to shoot the passing lanes (because he’s so good at it), and he’s a respectable on-the-ball defender. All of this is also backed up by his Defensive Real Plus-Minus of plus-0.86, which was fifth among point guards.
And in addition to the statistical analysis, Coach Nick at BBALLBREAKDOWN has the video to prove it: