Stephen Curry’s distance shooting is far more tough to guard than it looks.
Stephen Curry is not, in fact, unguardable. The plays he makes can be stopped or contained if a defense dedicates itself fully to those particular ends, much in the same way that any action on a basketball court can be. The distinction lies in the cost. Curry operates in a fashion that makes the necessary means of defending him counterproductive to the very enterprise—a spatial frustration that makes the reigning MVP, for all practical purposes, impossible.
This was apparently lost on NBA great Oscar Robertson, whose context-deaf response seemed to ignore the fact that Curry poses a greater threat farther from the hoop than any player in basketball history. So fearless is Curry and so trusting is Warriors coach Steve Kerr that shots well beyond the arc have become standard. Curry will pull up giddily from 30+ feet if left to his own devices. NBA defenders are learning how lonely that depth can be, and how hopeless the effort to deny Curry has become.
Consider the sheer ridiculousness of these shots and the defensive resources it would take to prevent them:
Hover over the image to view video of Curry's makes from 30+ feet.
The NBA three-point line is 23¾ feet from the hoop at its furthest point. On shots attempted at 26 feet or more, Curry is a remarkable 112 of 234 (47.9%), per Basketball Reference. Of shots attempted at 30 feet or more, Curry has made 11 of 22 attempts. That kind of range is completely unprecedented and completely damning; those opponents that dare pressure Curry at 30 feet or more risk giving up an even easier shot in the process.
NBA coaches have thrown everything at Curry, but the same strategic bind endures. Give Curry the respect he deserves on the perimeter and he’ll beat you easily by working backdoor:
Defend his pick-and-rolls (which often start well above the three-point line) with a hedge and he’ll let the offense run through a downhill Draymond Green:
Pick up Curry in transition at the range he’s proven effective and get roasted in the process:
Chase him hard on the perimeter and Curry will dart inside, breaking down a defense from within:
There’s simply no way to introduce more defenders into the frame without gifting the Warriors some other significant opportunity. The post can be doubled, even if doing so leaves open a certain window to the perimeter. A standard NBA pick-and-roll often pulls in a third defender, though a smart scramble in rotation can close the gap in coverage quickly.
There is no similarly successful means of throwing an extra body in Curry’s path when he’s doing so much from so far away. So little help can be provided when the offensive player doesn't need to approach the three-point line to be effective, much less the lane. Even a single defender guarding him closely opens up all kinds of clean passing angles to attack from the top of the floor:
Coaches around the league would better contend with Curry if he weren’t as terrific a ballhandler or passer. That he is gives him an escape route against any coverage; all he has to do is beat a single defender at distance, after which he can drive or pull up as he wills, or exploit some trapping big well beyond his comfort zone.
The openings he finds aren’t due to some lack of ingenuity in scheme or lack of pride on the part of the defenders. Curry merely has a way of creating quandaries without the slightest hope of a satisfying conclusion. There comes a point at which players and coaches would rather lose to a 28-foot pull-up than a compromised interior. It’s then that the best player in basketball has his opponents right where he wants them—conceding, hopeless, and in their own way, defeated.