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Stephen Curry Is Having a Season For the Ages

Stephen Curry is having a monster year – better than any of Steve Nash’s individual seasons, writes Nate Duncan.

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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:

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.

*Let’s call this the Kirk Hinrich principle. 

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. *

*Especially since the Warriors still had the number one defense while Andrew Bogut was injured for a month.

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.

*The protections on the pick, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst: Lottery-protected through 2020.

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.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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