Is This the Best Version of Stephen Curry the Earth's Ever Seen?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2018

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry pauses on the court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

It's difficult to imagine Stephen Curry, let alone anyone else, outdoing his 2015-16 season.

That was Curry at his absolute best, spearheading a Golden State Warriors squad at their apex. He became the NBA's first-ever unanimous MVP, and the Warriors won a league-record 73 regular-season games. 

His 2015-16 eruption married volume and efficiency in ways unseen, with a shot selection beyond comprehension. It is among the most unprecedented individual offensive performances in league history—and perhaps, if not unequivocally, the best of all time.

Catch-all metrics tilt toward the latter. Curry holds the highest-ever offensive box plus-minus (12.4) by a landslide. He obliterated the previous mark held by 1987-88 and 1988-89 Michael Jordan (9.8) and withstood the one-man-wrecking-ball workload from 2016-17 Russell Westbrook, now the owner of the second-best OBPM (10.9)

No one has added more total offensive value to his team than 2015-16 Curry, according to NBA Math. He narrowly outstripped 1961-62 Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged a cool 48.5 minutes per game, 14.3 more than his eventual successor.

Yes, the rise of the three-point shot has opened the door for cumulative milestones to be shattered. But anyone who rivals Wilt The Stilt means business. Curry's 2015-16 is not something to take lightly. It is not even something that should be a common basis of comparison for him or anyone else's standout displays.

Naturally, then, Curry is forcing the issue less than a half-decade later.

Could this, his age-30 season, be his best yet?

Curry will never match the raw-volume magic from his 2015-16 romp. A groin injury has already cost him 11 outings. Even if he plays in every game to finish the year (he won't), his availability will be used to discredit his MVP case or become a crutchy asterisk following his potential victory.

Anyone inclined to write off this subject begins running out of road there. Curry's numbers are too eerily similar to his last MVP crusade for this to be spun as an inflammatory topic unfitting of debate. Just look at how his per-36-minute splits stack up:

  • 2015-16: 31.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 32.6 usage rate, 66.9 true shooting percentage
  • 2018-19: 32.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 32.1 usage rate, 68.9 true shooting percentage

His clutch numbers follow this same 2015-16ish trend. It would not be a stretch to say that Curry has never been more efficient, mostly because it's true. As Dime's Mike Zavagno pointed out:

Curry's true shooting percentage isn't only a league-leading personal best. It is, for now, one of the top 12 marks in history among players who've cleared 500 minutes. Filter out forwards and centers, and Kyle Korver is the lone non-big with a higher clip.

And yet, it isn't just Curry's efficiency, but the circumstances under which it comes. He is once again melding accuracy and volume in unheard-of ways.

There have been almost 120 individual seasons in which a player posted a usage rate north of 30. Curry is on pace to set the true shooting percentage record for that group, beating out his 2017-18 self (67.5), who originally leap-frogged his 2015-16 self (66.9). No other player on that list has turned in a true shooting percentage higher than 62.5 (shout-out to 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas). 

Even by his own warped standards, Curry is threatening to outdo himself. Twenty-five players are shooting less than 46 percent within five feet of the basket (minimum one attempt per game). Curry is eclipsing that benchmark on pull-up threes, with his most impressive clip yet:

Steph's Career Efficiency on Pull-Ups
Season%FGA3P%eFG%
2018-1938.846.358.8
2015-1644.443.861.9
2014-1547.842.355.7
2017-1842.141.460.3
2013-1460.040.354.5
2016-1743.837.351.8
Stats via NBA.com. Note: Tracking data only goes back to 2013-14.

Fewer of his shots are coming on these looks, and almost 55 percent of his made baskets are assisted on—a career high. But that has not unburdened his role. Playing off others comes with Golden State's superstar goulash.

Draymond Green's playmaking rise first fudged the parameters of Curry's style. The integration of Kevin Durant has taken it a step further. Curry's job is arguably more complicated from a functional standpoint. His is a near-constant balancing act, with a mandate to transition from lifeline to complement. 

Curry is finding room for trademark haymakers anyway. He's averaging close to one attempt from between 30 and 34 feet per game, almost triple that of his 2015-16 volume. He's using fewer dribbles to get off shots, but he's taking slightly more contested threes than he did back then, and his 46.5 percent clip on those blows 2015-16's mark (40.4) out of the water:

B/R.

Not as many of Curry's attempts are coming at the rim—point-blank opportunities he hasn't supplemented with extra three-pointers, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's instead plying his trade more often from just outside of the restricted area, substituting circus finishes at the basket for spectacle floaters over bigs:

B/R.

Curry is shooting around 47 percent on short mid-rangers, which puts him in the 94th percentile, the highest of his career, per Cleaning the Glass. And they're accounting for 12 percent of his looks, his most since 2014-15.

Some of these shots are coming from unconventional spots. His floater almost routinely extends beyond the paint:

B/R.

This is not an abrupt additive to Curry's game. He's honed his from-scratch finesse for years. What he's doing now is more so part of an ongoing expansion.

The result: He is more unguardable and more efficient than he's ever been.

That will invariably ring hollow in comparison to his masterful 2015-16 campaign. He isn't averaging nearly as many assists, and he's on track to finish as a below-average defender for the first time since 2013-14, according to ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus. He isn't breaking up as many-half-court plays or holding up as well versus dribble drives.

Defensive slippage might be unavoidable. For starters, groin injuries are tricky. The Warriors are also less stingy around the rim than they were in years past, and there's an increased emphasis on assigning Curry to standstillers and non-shooters as he plays deeper into his 30s. 

Plus, point guard remains a difficult position. Curry's defensive RPM may be in the red, but it ranks 26th out of 93 qualified names. Golden State's defense, a disappointment overall, isn't worse with him on the court, and his resume is still peppered with moments of niftiness—like hijacking plays from behind:

B/R.

Really, if anything stands to prevent Curry's 2018-19 going down as a career year, it would be Durant, a factor beyond his control. 

Golden State has a top-five player as a safety net. That distorts Curry's importance to some degree. Just as they offset each other on the MVP ballot, their individual feats default to unremarkable. 

Curry is unraveling that oversimplification as best he can. The Warriors are 14.4 points per 100 possessions better with him in the lineup, which leads the team. That pales when pitted against his net-rating differential in 2015-16 (23.2), but he didn't hold down first place then. He does now.

And it is him who has a universally positive impact on Golden State's other most-used players:

Steph's Impact By Player
PlayerNet RTG with StephNet RTG without StephDifference
Alfonzo McKinnie460.545.5
Jonas Jerebko33.12.530.6
Shaun Livingston23.72.321.4
Kevon Looney20.75.715
Jordan Bell11.2-1.612.8
Kevin Durant14.54.99.6
Klay Thompson9.80.69.2
Quinn Cook7-2.19.1
Andre Iguodala10.13.46.7
Damian Jones4-1.95.9
Draymond Green11.87.74.1
Stats via Cleaning the Glass.

Availability, not Durant, is still the larger roadblock to Curry transcending the best of himself. 

He is fourth in offensive points added despite missing more than one-third of the season, according to NBA Math. Apply this year's production per minute to his total playing time in 2015-16, and he'd fall well short of his best-ever mark in offensive points added (577.66, compared to 692.66).

But even that isn't insurmountable if we're willing to be flexible. Curry's efficiency in the face of high volume and absurd shot difficulty could reign supreme. That he might exceed 30 points per game without leading Golden State in usage rate (Durant is just behind him) could be seen as everything. 

Context is fungible. Curry could deserve more praise for winning MVP this year, when he needs to contend with a popular vote on his own team, than in 2015-16, when he was peerless inside and outside the locker room.  

This is to say: The quantifiable isn't enough to declare that his 2018-19 season falls short of a career-best candidate. Curry is standing in his own way, but so does the mystique attached to his 2015-16.

At the very least, if Curry isn't rivaling 2015-16's performance, he's coming pretty darn close.
At the very least, if Curry isn't rivaling 2015-16's performance, he's coming pretty darn close.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

That season was a revelation. One championship in hand, the Warriors weren't a dynasty yet. An MVP already to his name, Curry wasn't the phenomenon he is now.

Golden State's 2014-15 title put the team on the map, but it was 2015-16—the 24-0 start, head coach Steve Kerr's absence, the 73 wins, Curry's outbursts—that established the feeling of inevitability ascribed to every season since, as Shaun Livingston told The Athletic's Anthony Slater:

"He was going nuclear. Shooting out to 30-plus feet. Coming down 3-on-1s and pulling up from deep. I just remember getting the feeling—I'd been in the league, that was like my 12th year — I've seen Kobe [Bryant], I've seen Dirk [Nowitzki] go off, I've seen Gilbert [Arenas], like, how guys go off and it was, yooooooo...I remember being in that feeling, in that mode. It was like a Kobe Bryant when he goes for 20 straight and he was doing it game after game."

Basically, back then, the Warriors and Curry were still new. They aren't anymore. Their dominance is assumed. His quarter-long, outcome-turning stretches, while appreciated, are a given.

Remove Durant from the equation, affording Curry unchallenged be-all status, and that doesn't change. There can be no exact replication of his 2015-16 campaign. But with all that's happened since, from the arrival of Durant to his 30th birthday, there's untold value in Curry rivaling a performance meant to stand alone.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Dec. 11. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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