If there was a single, sad silver lining to Sunday night’s white-knuckle ride between the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors—two, if you count yourself a Dubs fan—it was Stephen Curry’s 47-point performance ending in winless vain.
Afterwards, Warriors forward Draymond Green had this to say about his superstar teammate’s electric performance, via Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Draymond Green on Steph Curry's 47 points: “I don’t know why people continue to be so amazed by him. I’m amazed when he doesn’t do that."— Rusty Simmons (@Rusty_SFChron) April 14, 2014
A gesture of genuine appreciation from a loving teammate? Absolutely.
It’s also part of the problem.
Curry’s basketball genius has become so intoxicating, so visually enrapturing, even his teammates can’t help but stand in awe, mouths agape as eyes await the next deadly dagger.
The Warriors are flush with options, of course: David Lee, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Klay Thompson—the second Splash Brother, for crying out loud—are all solid situational scorers capable of getting big buckets down the stretch.
How, then, has Golden State managed only the NBA’s 12th-most efficient offense? How does a team for whom Jarrett Jack was the only significant offseason loss, featuring a pair of deadeye shooters ostensibly creeping closer to their respective primes, not somehow take a step forward?
First, a caveat: By just about every relevant statistical metric, Curry is enjoying the best year of his NBA career:
It’s fair to ask whether Curry’s measly two-point boost in overall usage rate over last season is somehow indicative of his team’s overreliance. Indeed, the problem isn’t so much to what extent Mark Jackson runs the offense through his sweet-shooting cornerstone when he’s on the floor so much as how his team’s performance craters when he’s not.
According to NBA.com, Curry currently ranks third in the NBA (for those logging more than 10 minutes per game) in average plus-minus at 7.3—second only to teammate Andre Iguodala (9.0) and Chris Paul (8.5).
The phenomenon is even starker when we look at the Golden State’s roster in particular: Not only is Curry registering the team’s third-highest net rating (9.4), the Warriors are at their net-rating and plus-minus worst (minus-5.5 and minus-8.2, respectively) in the rare moments when he’s riding the pine.
Curry’s status as option 1A has become even more pronounced in the fourth quarter of games. Whereas Curry’s 2012-13 usage rate jumped from 25.2 percent to 28.3 percent in the final frames, this year’s spike from 28.2 percent to 33.8 percent paints a crystal-clear picture of just how important his late game heroics have become.
Beyond all that, there’s a simpler, more practical point to be made: The Warriors are simply playing Curry too many minutes.
Back in February, Blue Man Hoop’s Ben Pickman—employing some very useful video highlights—parsed out the implications of Golden State losing Jack, arguing Curry’s amped-up minutes could pose a significant long-term problem:
In free agency when the Warriors lost Jarrett Jack to Cleveland, many wondered if it would come back to bite them, and while the Warriors have made up Jack’s statistical production, Jack limited Curry’s minutes to a more manageable total. Until Jordan Crawford arrived from Boston a few weeks ago, Curry was the starting point guard and backup point guard. Ideally for the Warriors, Crawford’s production will limit Curry’s minutes, but right now both Curry and Klay Thompson play more than 37 minutes per game, which is far too much work for both of them at this juncture.
With Jackson’s status as Golden State’s coach of the future in serious doubt, how the Warriors approach their pending first-round playoff matchup—most likely with the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers—could prove one of the league’s more fascinating postseason storylines.
For if Jackson truly is doomed, it’s hard to believe he’ll go down any way but swinging—in basketball parlance, giving the ball to Steph Curry as often as possible and getting out of the way.
Which is why the loss of Andrew Bogut, who suffered a broken rib during Sunday’s game and could miss the entire postseason (per ESPN.com), looms particularly large. Without their stalwart 7’2” center, the Warriors go from being an upper-echelon defense—third in the league through the weekend—to a middling unit that struggles to protect the paint.
Against teams like the Clippers and—should the Ws make it that far—Oklahoma City Thunder, that lack of a strong interior presence would spell certain doom. For it would mean an even bigger reliance on the team’s hoops Houdini.
The further Golden State's compromised D falls behind, the more heavily they'll have to lean on Curry. The more tired Curry's legs get, the more the shots start sailing—or worse, falling short.
There's a reason, after all, Bogut has been in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Warriors might be able to score without him, but once you spot an elite Western team a lead in the high double-digits, not even Curry's cartoonishly perfect J will be enough to stop the bleeding.
Despite a somewhat disappointing regular season, Golden State has proven—in high-stakes games against top conference brass—that they have the two-way talent to make some serious playoff noise.
To do so, however, will require that they stop treating Curry’s heroics like mere foregone conclusions.
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