Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. is the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test.
Peer into Stephen Curry’s game and you’ll find enough breadcrumbs to support just about any reasonable assertion. The highs and lows of his game tell vastly different stories—the perfect platform for a hot take. In typical Steph Curry fashion, two competing realities unfolded during the 2019 NBA Finals: Wardell Curry did not play up to his regular season standards in the 2019 NBA Finals and that drop-off in efficiency had a lot to do with the Golden State Warriors losing.
At the same time, Steph Curry’s 2019 NBA Finals statistics, look eerily similar to those of Kawhi Leonard, who, I’m not sure if you’re aware, took home Finals MVP. Here are the numbers from Basketball Reference:
- Curry: 54-57 FT, 183 Total Points, 41/34/94 Shooting Splits, 30.5 PTS, 5.2 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.2 BLK
- Leonard: 58-64 FT, 171 Total Points, 43/35/90, 28.5 PTS, 9.8 REB, 4.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 1.2 BLK
It’s easy to find Kawhi in these numbers, he’s much bigger and therefore a better rebounder. He’s a significantly better, more impactful defender— even when he’s giving inconsistent effort as he did in the finals, whether because of health, fatigue, or some other reason—and the higher steal and block numbers illustrate that impact.
But given the praise Kawhi has received for his play in the Finals it might surprise some people to see that he shot only 43 % from the field and 35 % from three. His shooting numbers are still slightly better than Curry’s, but they are dramatically worse than the Jordanesque, world-beating, 50-40-90 pace we saw from him earlier in the playoffs.
Stephen Curry had more total points and the highest single game point total with his 47-point game in Game 3. Curry is a better passer and quicker decision maker than Kawhi and the higher assist totals bear that out as well. Shockingly Kawhi had more secondary assists, according to NBA.com, but I think that’s a testament to how good the Raptors defense was at limiting four on three situations and just how bad the Warriors role players were at making their open threes.
Kawhi absolutely deserved to win MVP. His team won and he was the most reliable cog in the machine. He took over the fourth quarter in Game 4 and did it again for a couple of minutes of Game 5 before the Splash Brothers responded. But the narrative that Kawhi’s performance in the NBA Finals is what should propel him to best player in the world status is simply out of keeping with what we just witnessed.
Kawhi’s best claim to the throne came in the series before the finals, when he shut-down Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in back to back series, when he looked like a low-volume Splash Brother draining forty percent of his threes throughout the playoffs, and his massive claws and vicious rebounding secured needed second-chance points when the Raptors offense sputtered.
The Warriors, even with all of their injuries, were able to expose some of the flaws in Kawhi’s game. Kawhi’s methodical method of attack can sometimes bog the offense down and push his teams up against the shot clock. Hampered as he may have been, his game to game response to double teams—how quickly he was willing to pass out of them and whether or not he passed out of them at all—created some interesting data points.
We saw lulls in his play that teased at the question marks surrounding his game before this year. In Kawhi’s worst moments in the Finals, he had trouble cleanly beating Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala off-the-dribble, instead burrowing into their chest and creating enough space for a tough-midrange jump shot, many of them missing.
In fairness to Kawhi, his best moments looked pretty similar to his worst, outside of more obvious fouls being drawn and cleaner drives to the basket, the only difference between peak Kawhi and 9-24 Kawhi is whether or not he makes those contested midrange shots.
In many ways, it’s what’s great about his game, you can play great defense and it doesn’t matter, he’s still going to get to a decent look that he’s capable of making at a high rate. It’s a mini-version of the Kevin Durant luxury. KD will always be able to shoot over his defender, likewise Kawhi will almost always be able to create enough space to get his shot off. And there’s the rub for Steph Curry.
Even with Kawhi’s deficiencies, there is an elemental effectiveness to his game. He’s always going to be 6’7, super strong, and have massive hands. Steph Curry can’t say the same. Both players relied on drawing fouls to keep their scoring totals high as their typical efficiency disappeared, but the fouls Steph drew just looked different.
When those fouls aren’t being called, as happened during moments in the finals, he’s incapable of putting his head down, burrowing into someone’s chest, and firing off a contested midranger. That’s not his game. I wouldn’t call this a fatal flaw. There were plenty of open or semi-open quick trigger threes that he missed.
We’ve seen him make those shots before and his ability to make them, an ability almost no one other than Klay Thompson and a few others have, is what vaulted him to the top of the league. If he makes a few more of those shots, his numbers look a lot better and the Warriors have a better chance of winning, but having to rely on those shots is part of the problem. Threes after all are generally tougher shots than twos.
The only way for Steph Curry to salvage his beleaguered NBA Finals reputation is to produce a signature dominant performance— in a win.
The Warriors were shorthanded and without Klay Thompson in Game 3 when they wasted a great 47-point performance from Curry. Should the Warriors ever return to the Finals, Curry will again need to double down on the game changing style that got him to this point. The undersold genius of Curry’s game is that the threat of his shooting and the relentlessness of his off-ball movement can conjure a competent offense out the sparest of parts.
But one begins to wonder if the Warriors have maxed out their ability to leverage Curry’s shooting and off-ball movement to create openings for his supporting cast. Those openings failed to be capitalized on enough in the Finals, in part because the players receiving the passes were less athletic than the Raptors defenders contesting them at the rim or simply incapable of consistently knocking down an open look from long-range.
If helping those that need help isn’t working, at some point, you have to focus on helping yourself. Steph Curry needs to have more screens set for him in the backcourt, he needs to be more willing to take his primary defender off the dribble in isolation, or command a switch and attack mismatches relentlessly. He needs to re-weaponize his greatest weapon—the pull-up three. He needs to pull-up from thirty-feet five times a game, but then again, maybe that’s the problem.
When what makes you great is so out of keeping with the typical flow of a basketball game, especially a playoff basketball game, tapping into your peak is always a delicate juggling act of what’s best for you and what’s best for the team.
All of these questions will be relevant in the upcoming 2019 NBA season and playoffs should the Warriors make it there. Curry will be without Klay Thompson for much of the season and even when Thompson does return, he likely won’t be 100%.
What will Curry’s usage and shot selection look like? What would a season of Harden-level usage look like for Curry, we likely will never know. The strain on his body might be too great, but we have seen high-volume, high-efficiency, (KD-less) Steph before and that player was a unanimous MVP. It would be tough to expect Curry to return to that 28-year-old peak but here’s to hoping he will.
Here’s to hoping that this Warrior lives forever, and that if he must die (figuratively), he dies like all of our favorite action heroes, slashing down a hoard of evil foes as a super-villain immediately sends more to the slaughter. Here’s to hoping we get to see Steph Curry fling fire from deep with more abandon than ever before. Break the game (again) Steph, I dare you.