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Stephen Curry has always been the most important figure in the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run. If that feels like a controversial statement, you haven’t been paying attention.
Curry’s 29-point outing in Game 2 of the NBA Finals evened the series and further underscored his centrality to the Warriors’ operation. Afterward, Sports Illustrated‘s Howard Beck asked Draymond Green to compare past Finals runs that featured more supplementary offense around Curry (specifically in the form of Durant) to this one, in which Curry is a little shorter on help.
Tomer Azarly @Tomer Azarly
Draymond Green was specifically asked about Kevin Durant & the firepower the Warriors put around Steph Curry in the past. His response:
“It all starts with Steph. When KD was here, our offense still started with Steph. That’s the way it’s going to be.”pic.twitter.com/KV7u28SN6k
Green’s answer exists in a world where the mere mention of Durant in conjunction with Curry or the Warriors generates buzz. Debates about KD, Curry and what it means that the former hasn’t won on the biggest stage without the latter will outlast us all.
We don’t have to get sucked into the take vortex on this one. All Green did was state a fact: The Warriors’ offense starts with Steph, just like it always has—even when Durant was around winning Finals MVPs.
Curry was clearly the catalyst in Game 2, as he broke free from the incessant bump-grab-hold approach of a Boston Celtics defense hellbent on denying him room to breathe. After his 14 third-quarter points swung the game, he was Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who’s seen more than his share of awe-inspiring performances, who was short on air.
Standard Steph stuff, basically. The same quantifiable (points!) yet intangible (“offensive presence”) impact he’s brought for years.
We can make the case for Curry being Golden State’s key figure regardless of the personnel around him using either of those factors, but we’ll start with the numbers.
In Durant’s first season with the Warriors, he and Curry played an identical 33.4 minutes per game. curry averaged 17.1 more keys per contest and nearly doubled KD’s time of possession. Durant’s role grew in each of the next two seasons, but the trend of Curry operating on the ball at the center of Golden State’s attack held true through KD’s tenure.
If you take Green literally, “When KD was here, our offense still started with Steph” is undeniably true. That may seem like a narrow and deliberately drama-squashing way to treat the issue, but it’s just the first step in appreciating the depth of Curry’s impact.
On-off numbers can be dicey in small samples. But we’ve got three years of data here, and they shout down the noise to issue a very clear signal.
In each year of their partnership, Curry boosted Golden State’s net rating by a larger margin than Durant. Starting in 2016-17, Steph’s on-off differential was plus-17.6, followed by plus-13.0 in 2017-18 and plus-17.5 points per 100 possessions in 2018-19. Durant was no slouch, posting figures of plus-9.2, plus-1.6 and plus-14.3, respectively. But if we interpret “our offense still started with Steph” to mean he was the guy who made the biggest imprint, those stats are undeniable.
Enough numbers. What about a boots-on-the-ground perspective? Surely input from opposing coaches on all the attention they diverted from Curry to Durant and his lethal scoring will put the lie to Green’s stance. Those Finals MVPs have to mean something, don’t they?
Tomer Azarly @Tomer Azarly
“He’s so dangerous, probably the most dangerous player in the league the way he can get hot… In 2017 and 2018m we blitzed him with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson on the floor. That’s how dangerous I think he is.”
Ty Lue on Warriors’ Stephen Curry. #Clippers pic.twitter.com/KKl46FAKzC
It turns out Durant’s Finals MVPs might actually be the best argument yet for Curry’s significance in Golden State’s offense.
After KD won his first Finals MVP in 2017, Golden State of Mind’s Eric Apricot parsed the data from that series:
The first thing that probably jumps out at you is that Curry created a LOT more points for Durant than Durant did for Curry (almost four times as many!). This makes sense as Curry is meant to be more of a facilitator and Durant more of a finisher, but i was still surprised by the big difference.
I was also surprised by how much of his own scoring Curry generated himself. It really stands out when you watch the supercut video. Curry generated 78% of his own scoring, while KD generated 61%. The Warriors collectively produced more points for Durant than Curry, 26-25. In fact, not counting the bizarre Game 4, Curry produced more points solo than Durant did, 89-83.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of visual evidence to support the numbers and anecdotes saying Curry has always been at the core of Golden State’s success.
Some of those clips are truly jarring. Durant ignored with the ball and a lane to the basket because Curry is floating toward the wing for a three? KD completely uncovered because his man trapped Steph above the arc? Wide-open jumpers and clean avenues to the bucket galore—all because Curry was the opponent’s top priority whether he had the ball or not.
Credit Durant. He got buckets in big games. But nothing in basketball happens in isolation, and it was Curry’s presence that positioned his teammates—even the great ones—to maximize their talents.
Maybe it’ll help to break things down to a level even the reductive #Ringz culture can understand. Perhaps touch time, on-off splits, opposing coaches’ admiration and literal video evidence aren’t enough to validate Green’s comments that Curry has always run the show.
So how about this: Curry has won at the highest level without Durant, and that’s not the case in reverse.
Most likely, that’s still not going to cut it for everyone. Durant is a conspicuously phenomenal player. He’s 6’11” and moves with a combination of balletic grace and explosive speed. His brilliance is impossible to miss. You have to work a little harder and look a little closer to appreciate what Curry means to his team.
In the end, that feels right. To really get Steph, you can’t take your eyes off him—not even for a second. That’ll sound familiar to any defense that has ever tried to stop him.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.