Honoring Stephen Curry's MVP campaign and his impossible talents.
The reality of basketball development is that some ranks of skill can never be achieved. One could spend thousands of hours practicing their handle and never be able to navigate the floor as creatively as Chris Paul. A player could learn every one of James Harden's moves and never be able to employ them with the same prescient lure and timing. The best inspire league-wide trends with their play, though even in imitation they're never made redundant.
This is the truth at the heart of Stephen Curry's game. The NBA has never appreciated the value of shooting more than it does at this moment in time and never been so thoroughly stocked with shooting capability. Curry is a standout atop that new wave—feared but not guardable, admired but not replicable. He proved to be the single best player in the NBA over the course of this season, a fact affirmed by the NBA's announcement that Curry has been voted 2014-15's Most Valuable Player.
Consider all that must go through the mind of an opponent as he attempts to guard Curry. A shooter like Curry demands attention even when standing still. Wandering a few steps away gives Curry all the time needed to pull the trigger on a three-pointer, upending opposing defenses. Because of that, the man guarding Curry can no longer be fully responsible to the standard defensive help principles. Big men generally get all the credit for defensive rotation, but such processes only hold true because perimeter players step up or slide down to help as needed.
Curry is so dangerous without moving and without touching the ball that he breaks those basic defensive bonds. With either he's all the more lethal; any opponent guarding him has to take those same rotational concerns into an account against the game-speed threat of Curry's cuts and curls. Every screen he works around has the potential to dislodge his defender, bringing the same complicated response patterns to all those he comes in contact with. The dilemma compounds. Not only does Curry's assigned defender still have to lock and trail closely when Curry moves without the ball, but those defending any screeners then have to decide to what extent they'll offer help. Hedging out to bump or derail Curry risks leaving the screener wide open. Staying too close risks Curry popping open as his defender watches helplessly.
Once Curry actually makes the catch, his dance with the defense assumes an even more challenging rhythm. This season Curry shot 42.3% on pull-up three-pointers, per SportVU—a mark that would have registered as the sixth-best overall three-point percentage in the league. This should be impossible. It's one thing for an elite marksman to hit long range shots at that clip with set feet after spotting up on the perimeter. It's quite another for Curry to pull up at the ridiculous speed, distance, and angles he does and manage that kind of conversion.
Opponents know this, yet they're force to reckon with the fact that Curry can—and will—pull up at any given point after crossing the halfcourt line. The Warriors have empowered Curry to chase the limits of his game. He's responded by breaking the basic pick-and-roll choreography of almost every team in the league. Broad basketball schemes are not built to handle players who can do what Curry does, if largely because the NBA hasn't seen anything like him before.
Curry's quick trigger demands its own unique game planning. Even with that, a cast of defenders is forced to make sense of one of the trickiest ball handlers in the league. Should they manage to stick with Curry or even make him uncomfortable, Steph consistently finds the man left open. Curry cannot be guarded by a single opponent and yet he penalizes those who dare overcommit in their pressure against him.
There is no right way to guard Curry. There are only defenders better suited for keeping up with him than others and tweaked strategies that attempt to cut off angles they might otherwise leave alone. Curry takes everything thrown at him in stride by firing up shots and generating offense in ridiculous volume. In doing so he defies the relationship between usage and efficiency. Curry ranked second in the league in effective field goal percentage while attempting more total shots than all but five other NBA players. Those who shoot with the frequency (and implicit difficulty!) that Curry does have no business being so efficient. But, again: here we are.
Curry's play this season has been a credit to how the Warriors are run and how effective they are within that chosen style. Golden State's flow is predicated on moving Curry around the court to see how opponents respond. The ball finds Steph when it needs to. But along the way it may find three or four other Warriors, catching and making passes in a flow synced to the way Curry navigates the court.
Curry's season will undoubtedly be remembered for its dazzling moments. No player in the league embraces spectacle in quite the same way. But layered beneath every behind-the-back setup or try at gunslinging glory is the complicated context of time and space that made them possible in the first place. Stephen Curry is an impossible player, and today he earns the NBA's highest individual honor for all the ways that impossibility makes the Warriors great.