Stephen Curry Is Having a Season for the Ages
Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry’s 51-point game against the Dallas Mavericks last week led me to this observation during the game:
Steve Nash was a great player. Steph Curry right now is quite a bit better than he ever was.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) February 5, 2015
It provoked quite a bit of response on both sides, including from analysts who worked with Nash in Phoenix. To be clear, the comment was not meant to denigrate Nash in the slightest. As the quarterback of some of the greatest offenses of all-time, he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Rather, the point was to provide some scale for how amazing Curry has been this season. Coach Steve Kerr often compares Curry’s game to Nash (with the obvious differences that we’ll get to), and the comparison is a logical one since they are two of the few point guards in the NBA who have combined such levels of shooting and passing.
The biggest difference between the two players is defense, although we should avoid falling into the trap of overrating it for point guards.* While it is important at all positions, a team’s defensive fortunes rise and fall much more with its big men. Nonetheless, it does matter. Curry has become a good defender this year (although he has had lapses in certain games). Nash was well below-average his entire career.
Curry has always been a steal maven, and has upped his steal rate to 3.1 percent of opponents’ possessions when he is on the floor. Nash never managed even half that in his prime. Nash’s only strength defensively was taking charges, as he was annually among the league leaders in that category. But Curry’s quick hands and foot-speed make him a much better help defender than Nash.
More importantly, Nash almost never guarded the other team’s point guard in Phoenix if he were any sort of a threat, both because Nash was a poor individual defender and to save his energy for offense. This was most notable in Phoenix’s titanic clashes against the San Antonio Spurs in 2005, 2007 and 2008, when Nash would usually be hidden on Bruce Bowen or someone like Brent Barry. That forced Shawn Marion, usually the team’s power forward, to guard Tony Parker out on the perimeter. Although those Phoenix defenses were a little underrated in that they managed to be average rather than terrible as is commonly believed, Nash essentially never played on a good defense in his career. Although he did not exactly benefit from amazing defenders behind him much of the time, almost no one would argue that Nash was good defensively.
To date, the Warriors have by far the number one defense in the NBA by over 1.7 points per 100 possessions, per Nylon Calculus. While much more of the credit for that should go to his teammates rather than Curry, it is very hard to imagine they could maintain that level with Nash in Curry’s stead. *
In terms of individual box score statistics, Curry’s 2014-15 has Nash beat. His 27.4 PER is over three points better than any Nash season. Nash four times recorded a better True Shooting Percentage than Curry’s .624, but never at anywhere near Curry’s 28.7 usage percentage. Nash was certainly a much better passer as one of the best of all-time, but Curry is no slouch in that area. And Curry turns it over significantly less often than Nash, whether measured by turnover percentage, turnovers per 36 minutes or turnovers per 100 possessions. Curry is also a much better rebounder this season than Nash ever was in his prime.
On film, Curry does a lot of things that Nash simply couldn’t. He is much more dynamic off the dribble, making defenders look silly a few times per game. And his jump shot is more versatile, especially from three-point range. Curry gets his shot off much faster, and can do it easier one-on-one. Teams periodically had a little success slowing down Nash by switching the pick and roll, but a big man on Curry is absolute suicide.
Nash was one of the greatest shooters ever, but it took him awhile to load up his release since he used his legs a little more. Curry’s volume and versatility from beyond the three-point line is a completely different animal for defenses to guard. The Davidson product is also much more deadly using screens off the ball or shooting off dribble handoffs, roles in which Nash was not used nearly as much if at all.
The most common Twitter defense for Nash was that his offenses ranked number one in the league every year in his prime, and it’s a good one. And even that probably understates how good those offenses were, since they often were two points/100 or more better than the number two offenses in those years. Clearly Nash’s effect on his team exceeded mere box score stats. He was certainly an enormous part of that. But he does not deserve anywhere near all of the credit. From the beginning of his run as an All-Star in 2001-02 through 2009-10, Nash played with perhaps the league’s best ever pick and roll big man and the league’s best ever pick and pop big man. And the argument that Nash made Amar’e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki is not a good one. He certainly helped their efficiency, but they were no slouches on their own. Stoudemire was awesome in New York before his body betrayed him, and Nowitzki achieved even greater heights after Nash’s departure.
Nash almost always played with either a shooter or a wing at the four, such as Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Channing Frye. And those Suns teams in his prime had a ton of shooting around him along with some excellent wings like Jason Richardson and Joe Johnson. Nash certainly improved the three-point shooting of guys like Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell by helping them get more open shots. But even hitting 40 percent on open threes is a huge skill in the NBA – they helped space the floor for him as well.
Curry has never played with an offensive big man anywhere near the caliber of Stoudemire or Nowitzki, or even young (and skinny) Boris Diaw. Klay Thompson is having his own breakout season this year and is a better shooter than anyone Nash played with, but even the Warriors themselves would acknowledge a lack of additional shooting beyond Thompson and Curry on the roster. Nevertheless, Golden State’s offense has been awesome this year, especially with Curry on the court. Per NBA.com, they are scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him out there, and only 100.3 with him on the bench. Overall, their net rating with him on the court is a crazy 17.3 points/100, and that 114 points scored per/100 is 3.4 better than the league-leading Clippers. Although Curry is not the passer Nash was, Curry’s gravity and his own higher-usage scoring is pushing the Warriors to nearly the same levels as the Nash-led Suns. Curry currently leads the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, which measures a player’s on-court impact while adjusted for the effect of his teammates and the opposition.
NBA.com only has on/off data going back to the 2007-08 season, but from that year through 2010 the Suns were right around 115 points/100 with Nash on the floor. The Suns performed at similar overall levels going back to 2004-05, so it is reasonable to assume they were playing at a similar level with Nash in the game back then as well. The point is, the Nash-led Suns only performed about 1 point/100 better on offense with Nash in the game than this year’s Warriors are with Curry playing. Now, that must be normalized for the fact the league’s offensive environment was worse in many of those years, but we also must consider that teams these days are much better at using the new rules defensively and dealing with spread pick and roll. But even more importantly, the offensive talent on the 2014-15 Warriors pales in comparison to those Suns teams. Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are skilled passers and screeners, but neither qualifies as an above-average scorer. Andre Iguodala is in the same boat, while David Lee has played few minutes with Curry this year, can’t shoot threes and is not having one of his better years. The biggest flaw in the pro-Nash argument is that it seems to give almost no credit to his teammates. Nowitzki and Stoudmire are two of the best offensive power forwards ever, while Marion should probably also join them in Springfield one day. The rest of the cast included a number of very good offensive players. Curry’s supporting cast doesn’t come close to measuring up offensively.
So Curry is pushing the Warriors to nearly Suns-esque heights even with a much worse offensive supporting cast. Add in Curry’s vastly superior defense and rebounding, and it is clear to this writer at least that Curry is now playing at a higher level than Nash ever achieved.
With that said, it must be noted that the comparison was just a snapshot between what Curry is doing right now compared to any particular season of Nash’s career. Nash’s longevity is very unique in NBA history, as only John Stockton managed to maintain such a level of effectiveness late into his career at point guard. Curry has an incredibly long way to go to match Nash’s career. But it must be noted that Nash did not even have his first good season until 2000-01 in Dallas at age 26. If Curry’s shooting ability allows him to age anywhere near as well as Nash did, he could eventually eclipse Nash. That, however, is an extremely tall order; only another 10 great seasons to go.
Payne Trade Positions Hawks for Off-Season
As noted on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2015 offseason is complicated by the fact they only have the Early Bird rights of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, meaning that they may have to use salary-cap space to re-sign those players. In that piece, I speculated that Atlanta might try to dump salary to facilitate those re-signings or use the space for outside players if Millsap and Caroll are willing to fit their salaries within the Early Bird exceptions. Atlanta’s trade of Adreian Payne for a 2017 lottery-protected first-rounder from Minnesota today gives them a little more breathing room in case Millsap and Carroll’s market is a little better than anticipated. His $1.9 million for 2015-16 and $2 million for 2016-17 is now on Minnesota’s books.
Given how little Payne was playing, the fact they have Mike Scott under contract for another two years after this one at a bargain $3.3 million per and the fact Payne is already 23 and has had health issues, Atlanta surrenders little in this deal. Since they are unexpectedly contenders this season and probably expect to be next year as well, Payne wasn’t helping a lot. The 2017 pick is a lot more useful, as by then Millsap, Korver, Horford and Carroll will likely be out of their primes and some rebuilding will be necessary. Although discounting the 15th pick of the 2014 draft for a worse pick in 2017 or possibly later is a bit of a disappointment, Atlanta’s changed circumstances meant they just weren’t going to have a use for Payne. They also may have seen enough of him in practice that they realized he wasn’t that good. In that case, it was time to cut bait immediately before his value was further degraded by sitting on the bench.
From Minnesota’s side, it seems pretty clear that Flip Saunders sees little hope for Anthony Bennett. Saunders brought in Thaddeus Young to play over Bennett in a disastrous trade of Miami’s top-10 protected first rounder to Philadelphia (part of the Andrew Wiggins deal), and Payne is yet another stretch four. Hopefully the Wolves can find a trade market for Young, a potential free agent after the season, and find some time for both Payne and Bennett.
But there is some good news in this trade for NBA fans. Since the pick is lottery-protected rather than at some arbitrary number within the lottery, NBA fans will be spared the prospect of the Wolves tanking to keep their pick. NBA watchers will recall the annual tradition of Minnesota tanking down the stretch in the late 2000s after they attached a top-10 protected first-rounder to Sam Cassell so they could acquire Marko Jaric. No need yet to bring in Mark Madsen as an assistant starting in 2016-17.
NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks
David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.
Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.
The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.
For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.
He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.
“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.
But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.
“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”
In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.
Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.
But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.
“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”
Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.
“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.
Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.
“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.
“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”
At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”
NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA
Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte
The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.
So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.
Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.
“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.
With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.
“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.
The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.
After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.
“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.
While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.
“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”
On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.
“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.
Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.
Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.
“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”
Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.
“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”
Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.
Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.
“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”
The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return
Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.
Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.
Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.
Then, it happened.
With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.
Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.
His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.
To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.
After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.
Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.
And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor
That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.
Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.
For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.
With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.
But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.
In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”
Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.
And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.