Steph Curry Proving You Don't Need to Dominate the Ball to Dominate the NBA

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IFebruary 2, 2019

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 26: Kevin Durant #35 and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors talk during the game against the Boston Celtics on January 26, 2019 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In 2015-16, Stephen Curry solidified himself as one of the most dominant offensive players in NBA history. With incredible handles, footwork and a heap of (warranted) arrogance, the 6'3", mouthguard-chomping Davidson product revolutionized the game forever by weaponizing his off-the-dribble three-point shooting.

Curry proved he can dominate the league and win at a high level with the ball in his hands. But things change when your team adds two All-NBA talents to the mix in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins.

Giving up those kinds of touches may seem like a huge sacrifice, but Curry continues to feast because of his uncanny scoring ability as an off-ball threat.

Unsurprisingly, the Golden State Warriors' acquisition of Durant in the summer of 2016 led to marked changes in Curry's game. Though it isn't represented in his usage rate, it's affected how and where he's getting his shots.

With Durant acting as more of an offensive focal point, Curry's pull-up three-point shooting has steadily declined, while his catch-and-shoot three-point shooting has increased. During his MVP season, Curry shot 32.5 percent of his three-pointers off the bounce and only 24 percent off the catch. This year, he's down pulling up only 23.8 percent of the time and shooting off the catch 34.5 percent of the time.

Getting more off-the-catch shots is a good thing. As is true for most players, Curry is more efficient on those attempts (45.7 percent compared to 44.3 percent). It isn't as difficult for him to fire away after a pass with his feet set compared to shooting out of his dribbling pocket.

Even though Curry isn't creating as many off-the-dribble shots for himself as he used to, the Warriors have figured out how to maximize him when he doesn't have the ball.

Off-guards traditionally curl off pindown screens, which makes them a nightmare to guard. Curry, the NBA's fourth-fastest moving player on offense this season, constantly puts pressure on defenses by forcing them to expend an exhausting amount of mental energy on him. Dancing around floppy screens and pindowns, he'll explode out to the three-point line, where he needs less space than anyone to get a shot off.

The relocation three-pointer is a great example of this. Curry will enter the ball to the post or the elbow to allow Durant a chance at an isolation. Meanwhile, Curry will cut toward the basket and relocate to one of the two corners.

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"They were doing that before I came," Warriors big man Jordan Bell explained. "Him and Klay [Thompson] have really mastered that move. That's just the natural reaction to when somebody moves the ball, you just naturally relax. I know people are aware of it now. Somebody passes it, they relax. If I don't have a clear lane to the basket, I'm looking to pass."

At some point, this went from a reaction to something the Warriors look for multiple times per game to get Curry an easy look from the short corner.

"It kind of all happens out of the flow of the offense," Curry told reporters. "It's really hard to come down and call a play or something to get there. It is an easier three, but it just happens in the flow where there's ball movement and I'm off the ball or I can create in the paint, kick it out and relocate, whatever the case is. But the shots come in all different ways and forms. You just gotta be ready for whatever it is. Any time I get a good look, no matter where it is, I just let it go."

Curry is shooting a sizzling 51.9 percent from the corners. There may not be a better shot in basketball.

"We don't want to shoot threes just for the sake of it," Durant told Bleacher Report. "We want to get good ones. But we also try to find other things inside the three-point line."

With Curry, almost every shot he takes from that distance is a good one. But his shooting helps him dominate inside the arc as well.

Using Curry as a screener also frees up wide-open lanes to the basket, where he can show off the most underrated aspect of his game: his finishing. The "split action" is another Warriors pet play where Curry initiates the offense entering the ball into the post. Then Curry will set or get a screen, and depending on the position of the defense, he has a wide-open lane to the basket or to pop out for a three.

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Warriors fans might prefer to see Curry as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll like James Harden on the Rockets, but using Curry as the screener gives head coach Steve Kerr a better balance for his team that maximizes the talents of every player.

Running Curry off Durant screens forces defenders to make snap decisions about how they want to guard the Warriors. No matter what they choose, it often ends in points. With two elite shot-creators in the play, their gravity alone creates open looks for the other.

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It's neither a coincidence nor a surprise that the Curry-Durant duo has the highest offensive rating of any two-man combination in the league.

Durant can shoot the lights out (42.0 percent on catch-and-shoot threes), but he is not a stand-in-the-corner kind of floor spacer. He's so productive with the ball and with all of the attention Curry and Thompson attract while flying along the baseline, it frees him up to operate as more of a playmaker or a one-on-one scorer.

Curry doesn't just make Durant better; it goes both ways. Defenses are tasked with the impossible in those scenarios: give Durant a runway to the rim or leave Curry alone for a spot-up three. That puts Durant in a spot to do what he's best atisolatingwhile Curry spots up or cuts to the basket.

The Warriors have used the same play to get Cousins easy looks without having to do much, either.

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Curry should get an assist here just because of the power of his gravity.

Cousins' success is represented in his numbers with Curry on the floor, where his usage drops to 20.4 percent, compared to 41.8 percent when Curry is off the floor, a rate even Harden would be envious of. Accordingly, his true shooting percentage falls from an elite 62.6 percent to an above-average 57.9 percent without Curry.

That correlation is to be expected, and the Warriors are feeding Cousins as much as possible without Curry on the floor to help him get back into the swing of things, but the efficiency factor cannot be ignored. Cousins is getting better shots, and the team is benefitting: the Warriors' net rating with Curry and Cousins is 26.8 compared to 1.2 with only Cousins. 

Curry's selflessness has helped the Warriors integrate Durant into the offense by allowing him to use more possessions without making his teammates sacrifice their scoring. The same has been true with Cousins, a go-to scoring option who can also make Curry look good with his slick passing.

That Curry can dominate a game without needing to dominate the ball puts him in an elite echelon of stars. It also makes him the ultimate teammate.

The old adage that the great players make everyone around them better is true, and there might not be a better example than Curry. 

    

Stats up to date through games on Wednesday, Jan. 30, and via NBA.com

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