BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The best three-point shooter in the history of the National Basketball Association (by percentage) works in the Chase Center in San Francisco. He’s the leader of the Golden State Warriors, and has been an iconic presence for the franchise since his arrival in 2014. On those days when the Warriors have a game scheduled, he has the unique privilege of walking up to the best player on the team and telling him exactly what to do. And that player – Steph Curry – sitting on 2,999 career three-pointers heading into tonight’s game with Denver, follows his direction, and thus far in 2021, those instructions almost always lead to Golden State victories.
On December 14th, Curry hit his 2974th three-point shot against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, passing Ray Allen as the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers made. It is not hyperbole to anoint Curry as the best long-range shooter the game has ever seen, and most NBA pundits would unanimously rank him at the top of any such list. Despite that admission, it‘s important to note that Curry is not the most accurate three-point shooter in his own organization- and he’s not even the best one in his own family.
Through the games of December 28th, the career leader in three-point shooting percentage is Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors. He sank 45.4% (726 of 1599) of his efforts from beyond the arc. Sitting in fourth place is Seth Curry, 31, Steph’s younger brother, who has made 43.9% (629 of 1433) of his threes during an eight- year NBA career. Steph Curry, 33, resides in eighth place, having made 43.1% (2982 of 6917) of his three-pointers thus far in a 13-year NBA career. Steph Curry’s total more than doubles those of his brother and coach combined, and he’s led the NBA in threes made for six seasons, and also sits atop this seasons leader board in that category. Despite his record breaking total, Steph Curry has never led the NBA in three-point accuracy in any of his full seasons.
All of that notwithstanding, there is a very short list of players most fans (as well as most coaches and players) would want to take a potential game winning shot from three point land. Steph Curry would almost certainly be the first name that would come to mind in such a discussion, even among those who haven’t been involved in the game for many years. Curry’s lightning-quick release, his elusiveness around the perimeter, ball handling and his masterful use of screens allow him to get quality looks when only a sliver of space exists between he and a defender. Everyone in the building knows Curry will shoot from long range, and entire game plans are carefully constructed by opposing coaches to thwart his efforts, yet the most prolific shooter the league has ever seen still gets his opportunities to impact the game from long distance.
Curry has certainly had a historic career. He’s a seven time All-Star, and has been named to the All-NBA team seven times. He’s won three championships, been MVP of the league twice, and led the league in scoring twice. This fall, he was named to the NBA’s top 75 players of all time, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the league.
In addition to claiming the top spot for three-pointers made in the history of the game, he ranks seventh all time in effective field goal percentage, which measures a player’s shooting value where threes are weighted at a higher level than two pointers. He’s the only non-center to rank in the Top 17 on that list. He’s also the best free throw shooter (90.7%) of all time.
His peers are effusive in their praise for Curry.
(From The Old Man and the Three podcast, hosted by JJ Redick and Tommy Alter):
“He’s borderline unguardable.” -Alex Caruso
“Most of the time it feels like he’s just throwing that thing up and it goes in every time.”-Pascal Siakam
“I don’t know if the game has ever seen anybody who can move off the ball like this…his conditioning is unbelievable. It’s almost like when he gets rid of the ball, he’s a bigger threat.”-Tyrese Haliburton
“Bro, I almost clapped when he (Steph) made a shot. Like I forgot I was playing against him. I have never seen anything like that.” -Andre Iguodala, on what Evan Turner said after playing the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
“He’s an Alien.” -Jrue Holiday.
His coach is also a fan.
“Even though we’ve all been here watching it, I’m still blown away. Not just the shooting range, but the competitiveness and the guts and just and amazing, amazing player.”
“Steph Curry was just Steph Curry. There’s never been anyone like him.” – -Kerr, after the October 21st, 2021 game against the Clippers, when Curry had 45 points including 25 in the first quarter, when he didn’t miss a shot.
Golden State has missed the playoffs the past two seasons, ending a historic run that saw them make the NBA finals in five consecutive years, winning three titles. Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were the core of those teams, all of which were coached by Kerr. The franchise set the NBA record for best regular season record in 2015-2016, going 73-9 to displace Michael Jordan’s 1995-1996 Bulls from that perch, but could not get past LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, failing to cap off that historic season with a trophy (as Jordan’s Bulls did).
The Warriors acted swiftly to add more talent to the best roster in the world, importing Kevin Durant prior to the 2016-2017 season. The addition of a fourth elite level player to the roster helped fuel back-to-back championships in Durant’s first two seasons as a Warrior, and that 2016-2017 team may well prove to be the greatest collection of talent on one team in the history of the sport. There were arguably three Hall of Famers on that Golden State team: Steph Curry and Durant are sure-fire future members, and Andre Iguodala’s 100 career win shares place him 88th in NBA history in that category. Both Thompson and Green will also have supporters, as each have banked around 50 win shares thus far as they exit the prime years of their careers.
Coming off back-to-back seasons that saw his team fail to make the postseason, Curry has been on a mission thus far. This season, Curry is hoisting threes at the highest rate of his career, taking 13.5 per game. He’s connecting on 40% of those shots, which is the lowest rate of his career thus far in 2021, and only third best on his own team, behind Andrew Wiggins (42.2%) and Nemanja Bjelica (40.5%). He’s averaging 27 points per contest, his fourth highest average in his career, and is pulling down a career best 5.5 rebounds per game, rates which have helped fuel his team’s NBA best 27-6 record.
One of his primary running mates, Klay Thompson, has missed the past two and a half seasons with knee and Achilles issues, but is projected to return sometime early in 2022. So how is the current version of this Warriors team winning so consistently when their roster hasn’t significantly changed from last year’s version? Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore left as free agents, and James Wiseman has missed the season with injury thus far. The minutes going to those players have been absorbed by veteran imports Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica. While none of those players averages more than 20 minutes per game, they’ve each added an important dimension to the team off the bench, especially on the defensive end.
The addition of the new players has contributed to the Warriors turnaround this season, but their starting lineup of Curry, Jordan Poole, Green, Wiggins and Kevon Looney ranks third in the NBA in effective field goal percentage. However, the biggest reason Golden State is playing significantly better this season than last may well be their defensive intensity. Iguodala has long been regarded as one of the best defensive players in the league, and the team has subsumed his commitment and energy, helping to fuel a team wide effort to lock down opposing offenses. It’s working.
The Warriors are holding their opponents to a .428 field goal percentage, the second best in the NBA. They also lead the league in the percentage of defensive rebounds they corral and force the fourth most turnovers. Those factors combine to support the fact that the team has allowed only 101points per game, the best in basketball thus far, as well as holding teams to the best rate of points per 100 possessions at 101.6. Golden State has played the third easiest schedule so far, but they’ve won those games convincingly, beating their opponents by 10.4 points per contest.
Kerr has this year’s team poised to make another deep run towards a fourth title. Having Curry certainly helps and knowing that the team is about to bring back Thompson, his fellow Splash Brother who’s dutifully rehabbed two career threatening injuries, provides hope of even bigger accomplishments ahead. After all, Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala have been through the crucible of NBA Championship runs before, and their coach knows he can rely upon his veterans to make winning plays when it truly matters. Giving them a chance to do so again next summer helps drive Steve Kerr and Steph Curry, two of the best long-range shooters to ever play the game.
Statistical research by Matt Vogel