Stephen Curry and space warfare
Curry and the Warriors' ability to draw defenses out into space and destroy them there receives the ultimate vindication.
The statistical models loved the Boston Celtics.
Nate Silver’s 538 thought the Celtics were big favorites…
ESPN’s BPI was also high on Boston’s chances.
Nothing about the Warriors’ profile of players really screamed “Champions!”
Sure, we’ve seen them win a few times before but many people had attached some asterisks. They’d beaten the Cavs sans Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, then they had 7-foot superstar Kevin Durant. They’d also aged. Klay Thompson had yet to recover his athleticism from prior to the major injuries that cost him two seasons while Draymond Green seems more limited as a shooter and scorer every year.
We never really saw the full strength 2022 Warriors, which contributed to a diminished statistical resume. Klay missed the beginning of the season, Draymond and Curry were injured later in the year, and emergent role player Gary Payton II missed the second two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs with a fractured elbow. They didn’t put all the pieces together until the Finals.
Meanwhile Boston had a HUGE and athletic team, boasting 6-foot-7, 225 pound shooting guard in Jaylen Brown, 6-foot-9, 230 pound small forward in Jayson Tatum, 6-foot-10 Al Horford and Uber-bouncy 6-foot-9 Robert Williams inside, and then DPOY and 6-foot-3, 220 pound Marcus Smart at the point of attack on defense as the point guard. They’d already swept Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets and overcame a bad game 5 loss and won two in a row to take down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The Warriors were smaller, slower, and older…but they had Stephen Curry.
The greatest offensive player in basketball history.
The NBA crane-kicked once again
Remember the crane kick in “The Karate Kid?
That’s what it’s like watching NBA teams trying to figure out how to cover Steph Curry. In his recent reaction pod after watching his beloved Celtics lose the NBA Finals on their home floor, Bill Simmons compared Curry’s offensive game to some of the great forwards of NBA history.
Traditionally, the greatest players in the NBA are guys who use their overpowering size and athleticism to dominate teams by attacking the rim. The recent trend in the game is for point forwards, inspired by LeBron James, to use their ability to hunt out a mismatch (he’s too short, he’s too thin, he’s big enough but he’s too slow) and then attack the basket. As teams over compensate to stop him, the forward can then distribute to teammates and allow them to attack the defense at advantage.
Steph Curry operates more like a fantastic deep threat passing game in football. He’s not coming for points at the rim, or old-fashioned and traditional three-point plays, although he’ll take them if they’re there. Curry is always hunting space beyond the arc in which to get his lightning quick jump shot off. It’s a nightmare to defend because he has a deep bag of tricks to get enough separation to get the shot off and when he does, it goes in at a remarkably high clip.
He shot 31-71 in this series, a percentage of 43.7%, despite going an ice-cold 0-9 in game five. Meaning that in the other five games he shot 50% from beyond the three point line.
A 50% clip means when Curry attempted a three-point shot for the Warriors in these Finals it was worth 1.5 points per possession before factoring in fouls (the new school four-point play). For the Finals he scored 187 points on 137 shots, or 1.36 points per possession.
In Michael Jordan’s greatest NBA Finals, the Bulls’ 92 series win over Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns, he scored 246 points on 199 shots. That’s 1.23 points per possession.
The NBA has always been considered a big man’s game, but we’ve never seen someone approach the task of putting the ball in the basket like this before. The extra value of the three point shot changes the game.
If an NBA team wants to defend the paint from Michael Jordan, or even a bigger dominant physical presence like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq, Giannis, whomever, it’s a more straightforward task. It’s akin to defending a dominant running back.
“Sure he’s stronger and faster than anyone on my team, but we can always find him at a fixed point. He’s got to get the ball right there in the backfield and all of his angles and pathways start there.”
Good, disciplined defenses can stop a running game. It’s too hard for a running back to get out of the backfield and beat a defense without major constraints.
Similarly, you can stop a great scorer in the paint if you commit enough to it. Just put enough bodies in his way and some arms going straight up and you’ll drastically reduce his efficiency, then it becomes about his ability to either pull up and shoot, or better, to draw those defenders into the paint so he can pass the ball out to the perimeter where a teammate can take the most efficient of shots, the open three-point jumper. LeBron James and now Giannis dominated the game by attacking the rim while surrounded by capable three-point shooters.
Well Curry can bypass all those steps to get that three point shot. No one needs to overwhelm the defense in the paint and pass it, he doesn’t need to focus on a specific and congested area of the floor around the basket, and stopping him is MUCH more difficult than defending the paint.
Give him an inch of space between half court and the three-point line and he can jack up a high percentage shot which is worth more than a layup. Run out too hard on him and incur a foul and he’s shooting three gimmes at the line, or worse, he’s shooting one to create a four-point play.
Here’s another deadly component. When Curry has the ball, which he tends to because he’s the point guard, he’s a greater threat beyond the arc than your dominant center or point forward is when he has the ball in the paint. What about when he doesn’t have the ball?
He’s an equally great threat.
Not only is he a brilliant catch and shoot artist, but he’s constantly moving without the ball and running around screens, so that any teammates who do have the ball around the paint are made deadly in a fashion similar to a player like LeBron because they can always kick it back out to him.
Consequently he’s always commanding defensive attention from all over the floor.
Teams aren’t built for this
I went back and studied Texas Longhorn great Vince Young a time or two, either to write my book or to produce offseason content at Inside Texas. In doing so I was struck by the degree to which his skill at quarterback wasn’t particularly great, what made him so terrifying was that he was a dominant athlete who had quarterback skill in a context which defenses weren’t accustomed to facing.
The Oklahoma Sooners tended to give him more issues than most, because Bob Stoops had won a National Championship by pushing forward base nickel defense that got more speed on the field. The Ohio State Buckeyes were ravaged in Columbus against him in 2005 by his run/pass ability from Texas’ spread offense. First they played a base 4-3 defense with freakish big and athletic linebackers and got killed. Then they downshifted into an ultra-aggressive nickel package designed to corral him as a runner…and he torched them with simple passes to spread out receivers.
The USC Trojans had nothing in the National Championship. By the end of the game they had 5-foot-10, 180 pound Ryan Ting on the field as a nickel when it was clearly established that freshman linebacker Brian Cushing couldn’t help them. Ting wasn’t one of their best 11 defenders and certainly not a guy you wanted at the point of attack on a crucial drive with a Championship on the line.
These teams weren’t built to handle an offense that used spread spacing and put a powerful athlete at quarterback. They just didn’t have answers. Their rosters weren’t designed to handle the stress, playing their best players meant being disadvantaged in trying to handle what Vince Young was doing.
You could see the same dynamic at play in this series between the Warriors and the Celtics.
One of the favorite methods of modern defense, designed in part to prevent issues like what Curry presents, is to switch screens. When one offensive player comes to set a screen for Curry beyond the arc, rather than trying to just deal with it the Celtics had the team athleticism and size to try and switch it. So whichever defender was brought over would switch and defend Curry if the player he was assigned to came and set a screen for the Warrior legend.
What the Celtics could do exceptionally well this season which was brutally tough for all the big point forwards they faced throughout the playoffs, was switch virtually any screen. You wanted to get Marcus Smart switched on against a bigger player? No problem, the DPOY is as physical and tough as they come and has some heft at 220 pounds and some length with the wingspan of a 6-foot-9 defender.
You wanted to try and make the Boston big men chase a smaller guard on the perimeter? Robert Williams and Al Horford were up for it, both are exceptionally spry and athletic for big men.
But Curry was a task beyond.
The Warriors hunted Al Horford for switches and then Curry would toast him often by drawing him out into deep space beyond the arc only to then go by him for the traditional play of getting points in the paint with a layup at the rim.
Even one of the most modern defenses in the NBA couldn’t handle Curry and the stress he presents on the floor. Eventually someone is going to go truly small-ball to counter them and then they might have a chance.
There was really no debate when Curry was named Finals MVP after his 34 points in game 6 to clinch the title.
Amusingly, it was Curry’s first Finals MVP. Why?
Most teams didn’t even try to defend him like this. They would blitz and trap him to get the ball out of his hands. The threat he presented beyond the arc was so great teams reasoned it was better to not even try to stop it except by stopping it before it could start by doubling him.
Then what? He’d pass the ball to his teammates, who excel at cutting, passing, and screening, and they’d play 4-on-3 or whip the ball around a few times until Curry could work off a defender and get back in the action. The attention he absorbed makes life much easier for his teammates, even Kevin Durant during his spell in Oakland, and lead to his teammates having big series in the Finals and subsequently being crowned MVPs. But it was really always Steph.
Space warfare and infiltration
Much of this mirrors what I’ve been writing and will write about the spread offense and particularly about deep threat receivers and the importance they play for an offense.
The end zone is the critical point in football, you need to stop someone from getting the ball from getting to the end zone. In the NBA it’s the basketball but with the added wrinkle that a player doesn’t have to accompany the ball through the hoop for the points to count.
It’s amusingly hard for statistical models to capture what’s really a geometrical truth. The teams on the field and the coaches managing them understand the stress at play even if it isn’t always captured in the models. You can’t let a dominant receiver be open on the back end of your defense if the quarterback has any capacity for getting it to him and you can’t let someone like Curry have an inch of space beyond the arc.
Controlling space is the winning strategy and the greatest players are the ones who allow you to do so.