We thought we knew how good Stephen Curry could be. It turns out we had no idea.
The Golden State Warriors guard's growth features a mix of the old and new. He's added fresh ingredients to his already excellent offensive game while also introducing completely novel ones to his play on the other end.
Curry's improvements have made him, arguably, the NBA's best player so far this season.
Better still, he's elevating the Warriors' ceiling as well.
The Curry You Know
Curry can score a little bit. You're probably aware of that.
But we've seen him put the ball in the hole in a wider variety of ways than ever this season—a testament to his own offseason work and Steve Kerr's intelligent offensive schemes. Instead of bringing the ball up the floor and engaging in endless pick-and-rolls (a huge staple for his game last year), Curry is now featured off the ball nearly as often as on it.
That frees him up to attack off screens, on backdoor cuts and in transition.
In addition, we've seen more buckets in the paint this season. Through six games, Curry has chalked up a handful of delightfully floaty and flippy finishes, while also getting to the foul line an average of 6.2 times per game, a career-high rate.
On the year, he's averaging a league-best 27.7 points per game to go along with 7.2 assists. Oh, and the efficiency is still there; Curry's shooting slash of 49.5/40.8/97.3 falls just a hair short of the elusive 50-40-90 marks that distinguish the game's truly elite marksmen.
Curry's a handful on offense, freed up by creative play-calling and flashing fresh facets to boot. But he was already great on that end.
Where Steph has really raised the roof on his career comes, surprisingly, on the other one.
Steph Curry and Defense: A Real Thing
The Curry-as-good-defender narrative is new, and it's a little hard to believe when you think back to the way former coach Mark Jackson always hid his point guard on the opponent's least threatening backcourt player.
Turns out none of that was necessary.
He’s really been hawking people up there, and it’s good to see that because that’s how people try to do him. When you give people a taste of their own blood, they’re really not expecting it. They don’t know him as a great defender, and he’s gotten so much better. He’s giving people problems.
It's not clear why anyone is tasting anyone else's blood, but Green's point is otherwise well taken.
Curry is hunting steals all over the place, and he leads the league in that category with an average of 3.5 per contest. Steals can be a poor measure of actual defensive worth; they reward gamblers, and gamblers aren't always the most reliable team defenders.
But we've seen Curry handle Lillard, corral Chris Paul and slow down Eric Bledsoe in the young season, and we know those steals have come within Golden State's overall scheme. Well, except when he sneaks into the backcourt to pilfer inbounds passes like this:
That's offense leading to defense leading to offense...in very rapid succession.
Curry has always had active hands, and he still gets a little too grabby on occasion. But otherwise, he's more than held his own defensively.
A couple of things have keyed the change in Curry.
First, as we mentioned, Golden State isn't hiding its best offensive player on defense anymore. It's hard to quantify, but Curry must be getting a mental boost from knowing his coaches trust him enough to let him compete with the best at his position.
Second, the Warriors' coaches—particularly lead defensive assistant Ron Adams—are holding Curry to a higher standard. Instead of constantly pumping him up, they're criticizing him, demanding more.
"It doesn’t matter how many points I score," Curry said of Adams, per Leung. "He seems to find that one or two things that I can do better on the defensive end after every game that kind of knocks you back into reality a little bit. You can always get better."
The Warriors lead the league in defensive efficiency through their first six games, per NBA.com, and Curry has been a major part of that. Clearly, both he and the Dubs have gotten better.
Better isn't perfect, and Curry has one glaring blemish on his otherwise flawless early season: turnovers.
Curry's 4.8 giveaways per game lead the NBA, and his 10 cough-ups in Golden State's messy loss to the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 9 were a major reason the Warriors fell short. It was the second game of a back-to-back set, and the Dubs were without Klay Thompson and David Lee, so a loss was foreseeable.
But giving a game away was a bad look.
Some of this is to be expected. Curry turned the ball over a ton last season, and his loose, hyper-aggressive approach to offense will always come with more mistakes than Kerr or any coach would prefer. There are ways to trim the TO total; cutting down on running one-handed hook passes might be a good start.
In addition, it's possible Curry and the rest of the Warriors will take better care of the ball once they gain familiarity with their new offense and with one another. Remember, the Dubs are introducing Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa into significant ball-handling roles, and both players have quirky games.
Time and experience should mitigate some of the issues, but a lot of the responsibility still falls on Curry, who is raising his ceiling but still has room to improve.
You can't always count on a player as good as Curry to get better. If he'd returned this year just the same as he was in 2013-14, Golden State would have been perfectly happy.
But Curry's growth is a microcosm of a Warriors franchise no longer satisfied with "good enough"—even when good enough is pretty close to great. After 51 wins last season, the Dubs decided they could do better, firing Jackson and spending big on Kerr and his top-flight assistants.
The results have been, well...good.
Curry, a player whose ceiling we thought we knew, has blown the roof off his long-term potential, bringing things like MVP awards, top conference seeds and even a championship chase into play.
By breaking through his ceiling, Curry has also established a new one for the Warriors—one far higher than anybody could have expected.