They say the great players not only dominate the games themselves but also lift the level of everyone around them.
After a second title and third straight Finals appearance, the Golden State Warriors have coasted at times this season, and they've earned the right to do so. But the Warriors don't look or feel like the same dominant powerhouse they have been for the past few seasons.
If things stay as they are, they'll finish without the best record in the league for the first time since 2014-15, when Steve Kerr took over as head coach. They have a 0.7 net rating over their last five games without Curry (and some or all of their other stars in certain games).
As the Warriors prepare for the wallowing Atlanta Hawks, Curry is set to return after re-aggravating his ankle injury. Stumbling to a 3-4 record in his absence is a powerful reminder of just how important Curry is to this team's success. Even if it's a tough pill to swallow.
"I don't need the reminder," coach Steve Kerr told Bleacher Report with a smile on his face. "We know how impactful Steph is, what he does for our team, what he does for our franchise, so I prefer not to be reminded of how much he means to us."
That sentiment is reflected in the numbers. Curry leads the Warriors in on/off net rating at 10.0, almost double the next closest player. Curry's on/off net rating ranks in the 94th percentile of the league, which is actually the lowest it's been since the 2013-14 season and the first time it's been below the 99th percentile since 2015-16.
At the start of the season, Kerr said "he is the most impactful offensive player in terms of what he does to the defense. Maybe ever. There's guys, obviously Michael Jordan impacted things. The way Steph plays puts the fear of god into defenses is like nobody I've ever seen."
Or, as fellow all-star Kevin Durant recently said, Curry "is the system here."
That's more than just a sound bite.
It's easy to forget how dominant Curry's off-the-dribble shooting threat is and how he bends the entire defense just by being on the floor, even when he isn't going off in this otherworldly style he did a few years back.
He's not playing with the same swagger he did a few years ago. He doesn't need to. But he's still the same player and still just as potent; his 1.36 points per shot attempt ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA.
Curry also plays alongside three other All-Stars, which allows him to shoulder less of a burden throughout the regular season but also might make people forget his impact on his team's success. And rather than taking away from the other stars' production like some ball-dominant players might, Curry's presence improves the productivity and efficiency of each of the other three All-Stars on the team.
With Curry on the floor, each of Durant, Green and Thompson's points per shot and effective field goal percentage go up compared to when Curry is off the floor. His presence spreads the wealth for everyone, and that sets the tone and culture for the entire team.
While Curry sits, the Warriors have a 110.2 offensive rating with Durant, Green and Thompson on the floor and a 106.4 defensive rating. Compare the difference—a 3.8 net rating—to the team's 9.6 net rating over the season.
"He changes the whole game," Warriors forward Omri Casspi explained of Curry's impact. "I think he's one of the very few players in our league that can change the whole rhythm of the game when he's out there. The way the defenses are playing him and playing us, there's a lot of great players out there, but he's just something special—his energy and what he means to us on the court."
Curry's presence on the floor, regardless of whether he's creating a shot for himself, a teammate or even when he doesn't have the ball, is unquantifiably game-altering. No player in NBA history has drawn so much attention because of his shooting ability, and when that's all the defense cares about, it opens up the floor for other players to get easy shots. That, in itself, is why Curry is so valuable.
Of course, the bottom line in the NBA is wins, and the Warriors have plenty of them over the past four seasons. This year, they're 13-8 without Curry in the lineup, a 61.9 percent winning percentage. That's good, but not on par with one of the greatest teams of all time. Over the course of 82 games, that would translate to a 51-win season, down 16 wins from their total of 67 last season. The Warriors are very good without Curry, but Curry makes them elite.
When he missed a stretch of 11 games in December, Curry bounced back averaging 31.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists shooting 54.6 percent from the field, 50.7 percent on 3-pointers and 86.6 percent at the line over 12 games. He still has that same unanimous MVP explosiveness; he just hasn't had to use it.
The Houston Rockets have established themselves as legit challengers, and any team with LeBron James should be taken very seriously. But the Warriors are still king, for now, and Curry's impact means that won't change until someone dethrones them.