Stephen Curry Shows Why He's NBA's Highest-Risk, Highest-Reward Superstar

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Stephen Curry Shows Why He's NBA's Highest-Risk, Highest-Reward Superstar
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

If Stephen Curry were a commodity on the stock market, he'd have every neurotic, sleep-deprived, caffeine-addicted trader on Wall Street stuck on a spastic, coronary-inducing rollercoaster ride.

Just as he did to every die-hard hoops fan in Oakland—and every casual fan who caught on—during the Golden State Warriors' Cinderella run through the 2013 NBA playoffs.

Curry is the very embodiment of the vast chasm between risk and reward that regularly sends chills down the spines of play-it-safe general managers and sparks fun-but-feverish-but-also-pointless debates between talking heads, stay-at-home bloggers, "esteemed" columnists and outraged commenters alike. His appeal is predicated primarily on the three-point shot, which is "high risk" by its very nature: it's more difficult to make than most shots because it's farther from the basket, and misses often lead to quick run-outs for fast-breaking opponents.

To be sure, Curry's a far more reliable three-point shooter than most—on the whole, anyway. He's hit 44.6 percent of his regular-season three-point attempts as a pro (second all-time, behind only Steve Kerr) and set a new single-season record for made threes (272) while nailing 45.3 percent of his attempts (third in the NBA) in 2012-13.

But, like most players who rely so heavily on the Malthusian feast-or-famine cycle of the three-point line, Curry's game is prone to bouts of streakiness, good and bad. Check out the fluctuations in Curry's three-point attempts (in blue) and makes (in reddish orange) over the course of the most recent campaign, courtesy of SportingCharts.com:

These are also rough approximations of the heart monitor readings for Warriors fans over the same period of time...probably. (SportingCharts.com)

 

Ditto for this chart of Curry's game-to-game three-point percentage in 2012-13:

This is what "streaky" looks like. (SportingCharts.com)

 

His streakiness came to life most vividly during the Warriors' third quarters. According to NBA.com, Curry scored 9.2 of his 23.4 points, while shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from three, in the first frame after halftime in these playoffs.

That's all well and good, and made for several spectacular shows of shooting pyrotechnics (see: Game 4 vs. the Denver Nuggets, Game 1 vs. the Spurs).

 

But what about the other three quarters? Curry hit under 40 percent of his shots and averaged fewer than five points per quarter in those other than the third stanza, including a disconcerting line (3.9 points, 36 percent from the field, 21.7 percent from three) in the fourth.

This isn't to suggest that Curry isn't "clutch" or that he shrinks under pressure. Rather, this disparity simply highlights just how erratic Steph can be and was in his first postseason and, as such, how dangerous it is for a team like the Warriors to pin its hopes for advancement on such a player's exploits.

(Assuming Curry's patterns stagnate, of course...which they probably won't. After all, this was Steph's first foray into postseason basketball, which, by definition, makes this the longest and most taxing year of his basketball life.)

Steph's taste for the spectacular, though, is an integral part of what makes him great. Even when Curry steps inside the arc, his attempts are often off-the-charts as far as degree of difficulty is concerned:

 

The same holds true for so much of his work as the primary ball-handler. The Warriors seemingly rose and fell right along with Curry's own successes and failures off the dribble in these playoffs. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs saw Curry score 42 of his 44 points off the dribble while hitting 18-of-34 such attempts, including 8-of-15 either coming off screens or on pick-and-rolls.

However, Curry tallied just 45 points total off the dribble on 35 percent shooting over Golden State's next four games. Steph also shot a subpar 33 percent off screens and pick-and-rolls during Games 2 through 6.

The blame for that dropoff can be attributed (at your own discretion) to Curry's streakiness, his tender ankles (and the re-aggravation of a pre-existing sprain in Game 3) and/or the way in which the Spurs sicked Danny Green on him (and Kawhi Leonard on Klay Thompson) after Game 2.

When he wasn't scoring, Curry remained active as a pseudo-point guard, as is his wont. He led the league in total assists through the first two rounds, with eight games of eight or more helpers and three double-doubles.

With no shortage of jaw-dropping dimes therein:

 

Unfortunately, Curry's penchant for the stupendous often leads to stupid mistakes and the concomitant giveaways. Steph piled up 40 turnovers in 12 postseason games—more than anyone in these playoffs save for Kevin Durant and Paul George.

There's no denying the pure bliss that Curry brings to the game with his lightning-quick, off-the-dribble dishes with his weak hand. When delivered properly, they can (and often do) bring the enthusiasm of the attendant crowd to a fever pitch and spark big runs for the Warriors—not unlike the residual effect from any one of Curry's long-range treys from the other side of the Bay.

The operative phrase here being "When delivered properly." Steph is by no means an elite playmaker (not yet, anyway). At times, he plays too fast and too loose with the ball relative to his abilities. Such makes for thrilling on-court theater, though it often gives way to less heady, less steady play at a position (point guard) that is arguably the most important in today's NBA.

But that lack of predictability is a crucial component of Curry's appeal: He's the NBA's answer to the Wallendas, if the Wallendas were also brazen enough to juggle small pets while tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls. He's fun to watch precisely because the things he does are, indeed, so difficult to do and even more difficult to foresee, even if you already know exactly what to expect. Watching Curry, then, is not unlike stepping into the batter's box against New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera; the cutter is coming, but good luck making solid contact.

Like Rivera, much of the superstar appeal for Curry also stems from the fact that his particular talents are hardly (if at all) reliant on overwhelming athletic prowess. At 6'3" and 185 pounds with a weather-resistant babyface (no, not that Babyface), Curry hardly cuts an imposing figure on a court so often tread by giant superhumans like LeBron James and Dwight Howard. As such, rare is the occasion that Curry finds himself at the rim—even rarer by way of a dunk.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Likewise, Steph's lack of size, strength and sheer power leaves him vulnerable to the defensive stylings of perimeter stoppers like Danny Green. The Spurs' shooting guard was able to fluster Curry's feather-soft shot with his superior height, length and athleticism once Gregg Popovich made the switch in time for Game 3 (per NBA.com). That single, brilliant adjustment managed to dampen considerably the Warriors' hopes for another ride in the pumpkin-turned-carriage.

The frailty of Curry's game, then, extends almost too poetically (even dangerously so) to his corporeal reality. Sure, he's still only 25 and—with a four-year, $44 million extension soon to kick in—he'll rank among the most reasonably paid players in the NBA, given his current skill set and the vast potential for improvement that remains.

But the value of Curry's contract depends precariously on his ability to, y'know, play. He did well to feature in 78 of the Warriors' 82 regular season games in 2012-13, and even better to check in seventh in the league in minutes per game (38.2). More admirable still, Curry fought through fatigue to play 41.4 minutes per game during the playoffs, including all but four seconds of Golden State's double-overtime loss in Game 1 of their series against the Spurs.

(That's nearly 58 minutes in one night, for those of you keeping score at home.)

All of this, mind you, came with time bombs strapped around Steph's tenuous ankles, tick-tocking away. They were tender all season, in the wake of surgery, and were tested by tweaks not once, but twice in the playoffs alone. Anyone who plays basketball is vulnerable to career-threatening injury at any given moment, but Curry's past points to him being even more prone to debilitating setbacks in the future.

And if Steph can't play (much less play to the level of which we know he's capable), then it doesn't matter how much or how little Golden State is paying him, simply because they'd be lining the pockets of a guy who's not contributing.

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Not that this is what's going to happen. Who knows? Maybe Steph will enjoy a long and fruitful career as the NBA's premiere shooter, one in which his ankles prove little more than occasional hindrances. Maybe he'll improve as a passer, become a factor defensively and flesh out his game to the point where he can be productive when his shot isn't falling.

None of that potential reward can entirely preclude the risk inherent in Curry's game and his frame. He is who he is—a scrawny, superb shooter who can heat up in a flash, and whose ability to do so makes him must-see TV—and is great because of who he is. You wouldn't want Mark Jackson to box him into a role that doesn't suit his obvious strengths, just as you wouldn't want Scott Brooks imploring Russell Westbrook to tone it down, Erik Spoelstra instructing LeBron James to focus on one thing rather than allowing him to dabble as he does so well, or any other coach telling any other player to be something he isn't.

But that's the danger of building around a player like Curry, as the Warriors appear to be doing. When he's on, he can carry you, but there's no telling for how long he can stoke the fire, NBA Jam style, without burning the candle at both ends.

The key for the Warriors, then, is to surround Steph with a steady supporting cast that can get down and dirty defensively and pick up easy baskets when Curry's shot isn't dropping on the other end. That way, Golden State will be better able to mitigate the deleterious effects of Steph's cold spells while maximizing his hot streaks. The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, with Dirk Nowitzki at the fore, established a blueprint for success under such circumstances that the Warriors would be wise to follow in the future.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For now, though, we bid a tearful adieu to the gutty Warriors and, specifically, to Steph Curry, who we all saw explore the depths of his talents and blossom into the league's next and most exciting superstar.

And who was generous enough to bring us all along for the ride.

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