Transition Game

by January 31, 2014

by Irv Soonachan

There are few things better in the NBA than watching Stephen Curry’s greatness on a nightly basis. It’s one thing to see a player pile up points and assists; it’s another to see someone reinvent the game altogether. 

“When I watch him it reminds me of playing a video game,” says former teammate Dorell Wright, now with the Blazers. “Nobody has ever been able to shoot like that who can also dribble the ball and pass it like that. He can get the defense rocking, or put them to sleep, and then he just pulls up a three from anywhere on the court.” 

Stephen CurryBut a few hours before the Warriors took the court Tuesday night, I saw something even more eye-opening than Curry eviscerating an NBA defense in his unique way: several Stephen Currys battling each other. 

It was a sweat-soaked gym at a small Catholic school in suburban Walnut Creek, 25 minutes from Oracle Arena, where a team of eighth graders from a CYO league was playing an intra-squad scrimmage.  

The guards went into fancy dribble moves just past half court to set up deep threes for themselves. They whipped high-risk, no-look passes from every angle, either to players under the basket or waiting three-point shooters. A player who practiced in a Curry jersey—the leader of the team—even launched a couple one-handed teardrops over taller defenders, just as Curry does. A fair percentage of shots went in, though a few Curry-inspired attempts clanked off the backboard like somebody dropped a piano. 

Despite the glitches, Curry’s imprint was obvious. Not surprising for a player whose enormous talent is matched by his charisma. But this was more than raw imitation. The coach of the CYO team hardly complained about the wild threes and cross-court passes—this was how he wanted his team to play. I was witnessing the future of basketball.

The gradual transition away from the mid-range game to an approach emphasizing treys and shots in the paint is well documented, making the emergence of a player like Curry, who created new ways to exploit the three-point shot, inevitable. 

“The three-pointer used to be a risk-reward shot,” says Tom Tolbert, former NBA player and Warriors radio commentator. “But now there’s no risk. Shooting 33 percent from three is like shooting 50 percent from the field, and today most good three-point shooters are above 38 percent.”

Tolbert is right: Currently 67 NBA players are shooting 38 percent or better on three-pointers, having attempted a minimum of 50 threes. In fact, only three teams are shooting worse than 33 percent from distance. 

Conversely, only seven teams shoot better than 50 percent from inside the arc. Making two-point shots has always been hard: In 1979, the year before the three-point shot was instituted in the NBA, only four teams (in a 22-team League) shot better than 50 percent. Two-point percentages have fluctuated in the decades since, but never enough to supersede three-pointers. Consequently, the NBA is on track to average a record 21 three-point attempts per game this season.

“Today,” Tolbert says, “Sometimes guys will take a mid-range jump shot and somebody will say, ‘What are you doing? Either get it in the paint or shoot a three.’”

Curry’s game is an overdue extension of that logic. Traditional shooters used to be best in catch-and-shoots or coming off screens, but Curry has developed a game in which he needs little help to launch on-target threes. Take away the perimeter and he’ll go inside. 

The same logic applies to youth leagues like the one in Walnut Creek. If young players can make shots from well beyond the arc, and their coaches understand the math, inevitably they will take after Curry and develop new ways to get those shots. 

Tolbert is quick to point out that Curry is a unique talent. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see more players trying to be like him, but he’s got the whole package,” Tolbert says. “If you’re waiting for the next Steph Curry, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

Tolbert may be right, but what will happen when the first wave of Curry imitators—probably middle schoolers today—reach the pros? Even if the best are only half as good as Curry, NBA GMs, in their hunger for more points per possession, will eagerly draft them.  

When they do, it will change the game.   

Game Notes

• Tolbert reminisced about playing in the highest scoring regulation game in NBA history: His Warriors, led by Hall-of-Famer Chris Mullin, beat the Nuggets 162-158 back in 1990. Tolbert pointed out that the Warriors only attempted four three-pointers in that game, making two. Today’s coaches would say that’s a very inefficient way to score 162 points.

• Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal is moving closer to a return. He tested his injured wrist by shooting free throws after practice this week and appeared comfortable.