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Introducing Stephen Curry: Defensive Stopper

The greatest shooter in NBA history is emerging as an impact defensive piece.

The 2021–22 season has been a blast from the past for Steph Curry and the Warriors.

Golden State enters Tuesday leading the Western Conference at 15–2, on pace for the best record in the West for the fifth time in the Steve Kerr era. The Warriors are the only team to rank in the top three of both offensive and defensive rating, and no team sports a better home record. Curry is a favorite to win MVP once again. He’s on pace to surpass 400 threes with ease. Yet there is one notable difference in Golden State’s current round of déjà vu: The greatest shooter in NBA history is emerging as an impact defensive piece.

Lauding Curry as an ace defender was almost laughable a decade ago. He entered the league listed at 181 pounds as opposing teams hunted him on switches and post-ups ad nauseam. His 3.9% foul rate in his second season ranked sixth-worst among qualified guards. Shielding Curry onto a nonthreat was commonplace in his first few seasons.

Curry evolved into a passable defender by the time Golden State kickstarted its dynasty. He posted defensive ratings under 100 in both 2014–15 and '15–16, the same seasons in which he led the league with a combined 332 steals. Curry became a reliable defensive cog as he darted into passing lanes and perfected scrambling to a new assignment off switches. Yet he was still a consistent target on switches in the 2016 Finals against Cleveland, spending much of the series hunted by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. 

Perhaps we’re nitpicking to a degree. The two aforementioned stars are among the greatest offensive stars of their era, and the 2016 Finals concluded a long two-year run that included a 73-win season and a comeback for the ages against the Thunder. As Curry carried a historic offensive burden, a diminished defensive output is understandable. But regardless of the circumstance, the Curry of '21 isn’t getting pushed around by anyone.

“I think he looks stronger physically than he ever did before,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “You look at him now compared to seven or eight years ago, he’s much stronger now; he’s much more capable at fighting through screens and battling bigger guys.”

Curry is in the midst of his best defensive season by most statistical metrics. He sports a career-best 96.9 defensive rating entering Saturday night, and he ranks in the top 20 in the league in both steals and deflections. Curry isn’t being hid solely on the worst offensive guard. He’s succeeding defensively irrespective of lineup, even in Golden State’s more diminutive duos. Curry and Gary Payton II—the most delightful defender in basketball, for the record—are allowing a stingy 81.9 points per 100 possessions. Curry and Damion Lee sport a 92.6 defensive rating, and the Curry–Jordan Poole rating is plus-15 points per 100 possessions with a healthy 101.9 defensive rating. Pairing Curry with another small guard was previously a combination Golden State avoided whenever possible. Such a look isn’t just surviving in 2021–22. It’s thriving.

Curry’s improved frame is central to his impressive defensive campaign. He’s displayed an increased effectiveness in space against larger guards and wings, now more adept at walling them off on headstrong drives to the basket. Nets star James Harden was among the league’s players who used to hunt Curry. The act is familiar to even casual fans across the last decade. Harden would engineer a switch on the perimeter, then use his size advantage to either rise above Curry or bruise his way to a layup or foul call. Curry would fight admirably in these possessions but often to no avail. The tables were turned in a battle on Nov. 16.

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Curry’s leap extends past his work as an isolation defender. He’s even being deployed as a pick-and-roll drop defender in spurts, a position he’s more natural in than one would think. Curry excels at tap dancing between an incoming ballhandler and a diving roll man, taking a page out of Draymond Green’s playbook in the process. Curry is fighting through screens like never before. When not dropping, he’s even a shot-blocking threat as he trails opposing point guards. The player we see today is a far cry from the skinny kid that entered the league 12 years ago.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer at every level,” Curry says. “So it has been a conscious effort to take advantage of every offseason, get bigger, get in better shape.”

A stronger version of Curry has paid dividends outside of the defensive end, too. The dynamic point guard takes his fair share of punishment each night as he faces a swarm of defenders, receiving bumps, grabs and shoves as he dances around a stream of screens. The nightly attention leads to a natural attrition, not to mention increased injury risk. After battling a stream of ankle injuries early in his career, Curry is now better equipped to manage the rigors of a season that could very well extend into June. 

“The defensive attention, the minutes, the load that I carry, I need to have a concerted effort and focus on my body,” Curry says. “It’s what it takes to play at a high level year after year.”

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There’s a touch of nostalgia brimming from these Warriors at the moment, even as Klay Thompson remains sidelined after ACL and Achilles injuries. Each Curry appearance generates a wave of adoring fans regardless of the road arena, and Green is enjoying a throwback season as he logs a serious bid for Defensive Player of the Year. Curry noted Thursday night this season is “very reminiscent of 2014–18.”

Golden State enters Tuesday night leading the NBA in defensive rating, net rating, effective field goal percentage and assist percentage. They’ve won 10 games by double digits. In an opening month that’s felt like an extended statement to the league, Curry has been the Warriors’ engine. And it’s more than the rainbow threes sparking his teammates.

“We all know the offensive punch Steph is going to give us,” Poole says. “But to have the best shooter in the league go buckle down on the defensive end, it gives us so much energy.

“It gives us life as a unit.” 

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