The Death of Bully Ball and the Rebirth of Steph Curry

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 11, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors drives on Taj Gibson #67 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on September 29, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Stephen Curry is about to run wild.

That's not something you'd expect from a 30-year-old with nothing left to prove, particularly one who is embarking on what should be a fifth consecutive run to the Finals. Curry and the Golden State Warriors could be forgiven for coasting, for taking games off. Self-preservation and the inescapable malaise of a regular season that ultimately doesn't matter should set Curry up to cruise, not sprint.

Thanks to an officiating tweak, Curry will be zipping around like never before.

Jared Weiss of The Athletic wrote about the critical new point of emphasis that we're already seeing crop up in preseason action:

"What makes this year unique is that the NBA is emphasizing restricting freedom of movement all over the court at a high standard. Unlike the past, this affects every facet of the court in an effort to further facilitate the flowing nature of the game first catalyzed by the elimination of hand checking in 2004. In 2015, blatant wrapping of off-ball players was the focal point. Now the target is even slight grabs of an opponent's waist. In essence, the league going all-in on total freedom of movement."

The impact is obvious.

ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton laid out the numbers through the early portion of the preseason schedule, finding that officials were calling about four more fouls per game than they did in the 2017-18 preseason and that the spike was due to more off-ball whistles. So far, according to Pelton, 64 percent of preseason whistles have been non-shooting violations, a 10 percent increase over the rate of non-shooting fouls assessed in the 2017-18 regular season.

This is all part of a plan to increase offensive flow. The NBA is an entertainment product, after all, and more freedom of movement should lead to more buckets, more scoring and more fun. Not for nothing, but it's important to remember that basketball is, theoretically, a non-contact sport. Somehow, off-ball jostling became acceptable over time. Now, the league is looking to correct a trend that never should have developed in the first place.

If defenders can't hold, grab or shove offensive players as they search for open space, offenses across the league will benefit. But nobody is in line to reap bigger rewards than Curry.

Golden State's offense is driven by constant motion, weak-side screens and unselfish passing. In a league still consumed by the pick-and-roll, the Dubs operate differently. In 2017-18, no team devoted a higher percentage of its offensive possessions to cuts and shots off screens than the Warriors. Conversely, Golden State ranked second-to-last in percentage of plays finished by the pick-and-roll ball-handler and third-to-last in possessions completed by the roll man.

Curry and the Warriors punish teams with a unique read-and-react approach. There are few actual sets, which means Curry, when off the ball, doesn't necessarily know where he's going ahead of time. And if he doesn't know in advance which read he's going to make when trying to get open, the defender sure doesn't either. Normally, a shrewd opponent could anticipate a set, shoot the gap, disrupt a passing lane or slip into position ahead of time because he's seen the film and knows the play calls. That's not how it works when you're defending Curry and the Warriors.

Nobody is more dangerous without the ball than the Dubs' two-time MVP. Lose contact with him for a nanosecond, and it's as if he vaporizes, only to retake solid form somewhere beyond the arc—usually just as a perfect pass arrives to facilitate a clean look. Curry ducks behind big men, slithers around multiple screens, feints toward the hoop, then away, then toward it again—all in an effort to break loose. Guarding Curry in these situations is like navigating the obstacle course in American Ninja Warrior...and that's before the deadliest shooter of all time even gets the rock.

Considering the difficulty of that task, it's no wonder defenders have resorted to obstructing Curry by any means necessary.

You get a lot of this:

And this:

The book has been out for a while: Make contact with Curry, hold him if you have to and hug him when all else fails.

Sometimes, even the most obviously illegal tactics haven't been enough to keep Steph from getting his:

Still, it's difficult to imagine the physical toll of so much grappling. Oh, wait, no it isn't. This is the toll:

Now, though, if the current officiating trend holds up through the regular season, the best approach to slowing Curry down will be off the table. A world in which Curry gets to go where he wants without engaging in several rounds of full-contact judo on the trip is an exciting one to consider. If Curry ranked in the 90th percentile in points per possession off screens while being hogtied off the ball last year, what's he going to do in 2018-19? Is there a percentile higher than 100? Because we might need it to quantify what's coming.

Shooting with tired legs is hard. Shooting after spending 15 seconds wrestling, sprinting, pivoting and wrestling again seems almost impossible. If Curry doesn't have to avoid shoulder checks or expend strength shedding defenders, imagine the accuracy boost in store.

Pan out, and it's easy to see how this rule tweak could rejuvenate the Warriors—who also have Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, a pair of off-ball movers nearly as dangerous as Curry. Everyone on Golden State's roster is complicit in the attempt to free up shooters, so everyone has reason to embrace the changes. If screeners know they only need to dole out one solid pick to slow a defender who can no longer hogtie Curry to catch up, maybe those screens get a little stouter. That'll incite more switching away from the ball, which only ratchets up the chaos that develops when defending the Warriors.

Draymond Green talked to reporters about the slog that was the 2017-18 season, lamenting the lack of novelty that contributed to a team-wide malaise:

"So, this is going to sound bad, but there was like nothing for us to work on or make work. It was: 'Oh, we know what we're doing, we've played together, we know how good we are. Let's just go play.' There was really nothing to work toward. We knew the whole year we was just trying to get to May and June. There was nothing to kind of spark that fire. It just made everything drag."

In addition to some personnel changes, now the Warriors have new and favorable rules to exploit. Call it cruel, but doesn't it seem like this team will want to test the limits of its new freedom more than most? Not that the Dubs are big on running up the score, but a club obsessed enough with chasing history to strive for 73 wins in a season seems likely to push the boundaries of possibility on offense...which sounds fun.

And fun can enliven a team.

Nobody should expect Curry to log 82 games or lead the league in scoring (he won't play enough minutes) as the Warriors do what they can to preserve him for the postseason. But there's a good chance we'll see the NBA's ultimate finesse player periodically explode in ways he hasn't before. If bully ball is dead, a new and more dangerous version of Curry is about to come alive.

As if the Dubs needed another advantage.

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