Throughout sports history, there have always been unstoppable maneuvers — moves the opponent knew was coming at some point or another, but were still unable to stop.
Examples would include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, Mariano Rivera’s cutter, Michael Jordan’s fadeaway, Allen Iverson’s crossover, Rickey Henderson stealing second base, Ronda Rousey’s arm bar, Muhammad Ali’s jab … the list goes on.
Steph Curry has such a move. Every team in the league knows that the Warriors superstar cannot be allowed a clear look at a three-point shot at any time, yet he still made a league-high 337 threes last season. Buddy Hield came in a distant second, with a mere 282 makes from beyond the arc.
So how did Curry, who every team in the league tries to keep off the three-point line at all costs, still manage to be the most prolific long-range shooter in the NBA last season? There are a number of places to find good statistics on where Steph shoots his threes from, how he gets them off, and what his highest and lowest percentage shots come from. But I wanted to put a personal touch on things. The Warriors put up a 40-minute video of all of Steph’s 337 made threes last season. I opened up a spreadsheet and watched all of it. Here’s what I found:
First of all, I do not recommend this project. Not only is it horrifyingly time-consuming, but you find yourself making far more judgement calls than one would like to. If Steph comes off a screen and takes a single dribble to get his balance, is that a shot off the catch or off the dribble? Just how far away is a “deep” shot? If Curry gets a ball screen but still has to use a step-back to get separation from his defender, is the resulting look from the screen or the step-back?
All of this is a long-winded way of saying human error may be present in what you’re about to read, but I promise I did my level best.
It’s also worth mentioning that Steph almost never gets the open shots other three-point specialists in the league enjoy — typically, they sit in their spot, wait for their team’s most potent offensive option to draw a double-team, and then wait for the kick-out pass and knock down the resulting open three. By my count, Steph made 59 “spot-up” threes last season, and you probably could have counted the easy ones on two hands.
Typically, the way Steph gets a spot-up is by finding the defense in scramble mode, sprinting to an open spot he finds behind the arc, and getting his shot off milliseconds before a defender closes out on him. Out of Curry’s 59 made spot-up threes, 10 came from deep — what Warriors fans will recognize as “Steph range” — and six came in transition, which goes to show just how hard it is for Steph to get a clean catch-and-shoot look with his feet set.
By my count, 162 of Steph’s threes in the 2020-21 season came off the catch, while the other 175 came off the bounce. That’s an absolutely ludicrous proportion of threes made off the dribble. For a point of reference, in Klay Thompson’s last healthy season, 194 of his 239 made threes came without Klay putting the ball on the floor before he shot it.
Steph’s first choice for torturing defenders with a live dribble is the pick-and-roll — when he gets a ball screen and the helping big man doesn’t immediately fly out to cover him, the ball is going up. Steph hit 66 threes in the face of unsuspecting big men, and 11 of those were from well beyond the arc, where no big man would ever think to venture. Oftentimes, the inability to guard Steph stems from a failure of imagination.
If a ball-screen doesn’t free Curry up, his step-back move is as nasty as anyone else’s — 59 defenders watched helplessly last year as he froze them with a fake drive and stepped back behind the arc for a look at a three.
Finally, I counted 24 threes that Curry made in simple “isolation” situations — no screen, no step-back, just Steph dancing with his would-be defender and pulling up on them for a demoralizing long-range basket.
Off the ball, Steph is just as dangerous as he is with it. He’s constantly looking for screens and sprinting around them, looking for a sliver of daylight, and his teammates (especially Draymond Green) reward him for finding said daylight with a pass right into his shooting pocket.
This happens whether the screener is a third player or the passer himself. Green’s favorite way to punish defenders playing off him and daring him to shoot is to flip the ball to Steph while screening the defender who was chasing him, leaving Draymond’s defender hopelessly out of place to contest Steph’s shot. By my count, Curry drained 87 threes off screens last season, or just over one per game.
Were those the only way Steph got looks from beyond the arc last season? Certainly not. He used his patented “relocation” move — in which he tosses the ball to a teammate, takes advantage of his defender looking at the ball instead of him for a split second, and sprints to an open spot beyond the arc — 16 times. He used pump-fakes to send defenders flying into the second row while he calmly lined up the resulting open shot. He made a full 50 threes from beyond where a defender would think to guard a normal human being.
My ultimate conclusion? It’s not easy to get good looks at a three-point shot when you’re Steph Curry, but it’s a lot harder to keep him from making them.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.