The most underrated Avenger is Bruce Banner. Audiences across the country cheer for the Hulk as he shows off his 1,000-foot vertical leap, smashing enemies with his unfathomable strength. But those same fans sit in silence or head to the bathroom when mild-mannered Dr. Banner spends three-quarters of the movie using his intelligence, charisma and leadership to help solve the universe’s problems.
The Stephen Curry we saw in 2015-16 was the Hulk — a creature consistently performing incomprehensible feats that left us questioning basic laws of physics and physiology. When people say Curry broke the game of basketball, that 2015-16 season, during which he earned the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, is the one that comes to mind.
But when Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2016, Curry willingly and graciously turned back into Bruce Banner, foregoing his nightly displays of lunacy for the betterment of the team, and it led to two championships in three seasons. Sure, the Hulk still came out every once in a while, but Curry knew that in order to be an all-time great team, he needed to change his approach.
The ultimate superhero, of course, would be a combination of both. Someone with the Hulk’s physical abilities who, at the same time, possesses Banner’s mental acuity, judgment and poise. That mixture is exactly what Curry has displayed during this strange 2020-21 season, and it makes him even more formidable than he was five years ago.
“It’s probably very similar to a quarterback when he gets to his 10th or 12th year. He’s just seen every coverage and understands the game at a really high level,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Curry. “Every year Steph sees something new and learns a little bit more. I just think he’s at an all-time high in terms of his knowledge of what is coming at him because of how much has been thrown at him for the last 12 years.”
With Durant in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson out for the second consecutive season due to injury, Curry has been forced to adjust to every convoluted, unprecedented defense that opposing teams can concoct. Some might expect his scoring average to be as high as it is, given the lack of weapons on the current Warriors roster, but it’s safe to say that very few expected Curry’s efficiency to rival that of his legendary 2015-16 campaign.
Curry is the only player in NBA history to average 30 points per game on 50-40-90 splits for an entire season, and he could do it again this year. In fact, if you throw out the first five games of the season and start on Jan. 3, when Draymond Green was fully incorporated back into the lineup, Curry is averaging 30.7 points on 51-45-92 splits, which is every bit as otherworldly as his 2015-16 performance.
Green has been essential to Curry’s success over the course of his career, but he’s even more crucial this season with the team’s lack of traditional playmakers.
“Over the course of the years we’ve built up a crazy chemistry amongst us,” Green said of playing alongside Curry. “I kind of know where he’s at, at all times on the floor. He knows when I have the ball to just continue to cut and moving around and I’ll find him.”
Dumping the ball off to Green to create a 4-on-3 situation has long been Golden State’s remedy to defenses sending two trapping defenders at Curry, but this season we’ve seen Curry create a different counter. He’s throwing cross-court passes to shooters, often one-handed off the dribble, and putting them right on the money. His average points per possession off of traps isn’t as high as it was during the 2015-16 season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, but that’s to be expected when Thompson isn’t on the court. As you can see, a lot of Curry’s excellent passes this season have led to wide-open 3s that just haven’t gone in.
Curry wasn’t making these passes five years ago, partly because of the way the game has evolved. Those teammates who were rolling or cutting to the basket in 2016 are now spotting up behind the 3-point line, and Curry has adjusted accordingly.
“If I’m the same player I was four years ago, then I’m losing,” Curry said. “I don’t think that’s the case, obviously, but you’ve got to find different ways to continue to get better, and use those experiences and reps to your advantage. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
It’s not that Curry couldn’t have made these passes before, but his familiarity with defenses now, as a 32-year-old, has empowered him to make take those kind of risks. Kerr said that Curry’s confidence “is at an all-time high” this season, which is saying a lot for a player who has regularly launched 35-footers for the last decade or so.
That self-belief was epitomized in the Warriors’ recent 120-112 win over the Miami Heat on national TV. Curry was 2-for-15 from 3-point range with less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. From that point on, as the Warriors erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime, Curry went 3-for-5 from 3-point range, including the dagger with 16 seconds left in the game. Curry’s celebration certainly backs up Kerr’s assessment of a man playing with supreme confidence.
Prior to this season, Curry had attempted 19 or more 3-pointers in a game four times in his entire career. He’s now done it three times in February alone.
“In a way it’s kind of unreal,” Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins said of playing with Curry. “The stuff he does even with two or three defenders on him, how he still gets a shot up and makes it, the space he creates. It doesn’t matter who’s guarding him, it’s just a joy to watch. It’s one thing to watch on TV and it’s another thing to actually be here living it.”
Curry and Kerr have both talked about how Curry’s improved physical condition has contributed to his incredible season. Kerr said Curry is “stronger than he’s ever been” and that he can see that development in his burst and finishing ability. Curry averaged 1.247 points per possession around the rim in 2015-16, good for the 81st percentile in the league according to Synergy. This season, he’s in the 85th percentile at 1.347 points per possession. OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the only guard in the league who’s been more efficient at the basket with as many attempts.
After attempting to guard Curry for the first time, you’ll often find young players in the postgame locker room shaking their heads in disbelief at his seemingly indefatigable perpetual motion. Curry’s elite conditioning allows him to wreak havoc off the ball, creating both shots for himself and easy buckets for teammates.
“He’s equally as good as a pull-up jump shooter as anyone in this league, either in transition or out of pick-and-roll. And he’s equally as comfortable getting off the ball early, playing on the baseline, coming off screens in a very similar way to Ray Allen, who made a career out of that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Curry. “Each way is equally as dangerous, and he can read the game on when to use either skill set. He’s arguably as skilled off the dribble, off the catch — with or without the ball — as any player in the history of the game.”
Spoelstra mentions “reading the game,” and it’s become a cliché to say that things slow down for players as their careers progress. Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash, a two-time MVP point guard in his own right, said his game went to a different level mentally as a 30-year-old with the Phoenix Suns, which makes sense. According to a 2014 paper on age and scientific genius, “most great scientific contributions are not the product of precocious youngsters but rather come disproportionately in middle age.” An NBA player’s early 30s are almost exactly the “middle age” of his basketball career, and both Curry and Nash can convincingly be described as geniuses on the court.
“Steph is one of the great gifts of our game. He’s so unique in his accuracy, dexterity, the efficient nature of him scoring from an incredibly disparate range of shots and types of shots. It’s unprecedented,” Nash said. “He loves the game, loves to compete and loves to train. He trains to be great. So it’s no surprise to me that he’s having as good a year as he’s ever had, and he’s continuing to evolve and improve.”
Nash mentioned feeling a “great sense of control” during his MVP seasons the Suns, and that perfectly describes what we’re seeing from Curry on a nightly basis. When you combine his physical maturation with his increased basketball IQ and confidence, you get a basketball superhero akin to the Hulk and Bruce Banner finally learning to coexist. It’s not just on the court, either. Kerr said that Curry appears to have a sense of balance in his life between basketball, his family and charitable work, that has clearly translated to his MVP-caliber season.
“Steph’s got all his ducks in a row, and I think that matters. I think that’s very helpful for him in his performance,” Kerr said. “He comes in every day just fresh and ready to go and excited about the challenge, so he’s in a great place. It’s something that you can’t take for granted. I think that’s something that he understands, too. We’re all day-to-day, as [former Dodgers broadcaster] Vin Scully once said, and so you just have to embrace your circumstances when things are lined up. And Steph does that.”