The Golden State Warriors didn’t make any significant roster changes between 2014-15 and 2015-16 and yet they’ve come into the season a better version of themselves, most notably embodied by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Draymond’s been amazing and deserves his own writing which can be found on other parts of the internet, but I keep going back to Steph and trying to understand how a 27-year-old can experience such a statistical explosion.
Contextually speaking, we’ve only seen one (maybe two, but I’ll get to that) scorers go from good to great the way Curry’s done this year. I took a look at every player in NBA history who has qualified for minutes played and averaged over 30 points for an entire season, then looked at their previous season to identify the greatest leaps season-over-season – essentially players going from good scorers to great scorers, or great to greater in some cases.
The outliers were players that experienced massive leaps between their rookie and second seasons as no baseline of performance had been set. Three of the four greatest season-over-season increases in points-per-game were from players in this outlier set:
Jerry West: 17.6ppg as a rookie to 30.8ppg in year two (+13.2)
BoB McAdoo: 18ppg as a rookie to 30.6ppg in year two (+12.6)
Rick Barry: 25.7ppg as a rookie to 35.6ppg in year two (+9.9)
Then there’s Michael Jordan’s second season which I threw out because he appeared in just 18 games and played 25 minutes/game. So instead of comparing Jordan’s year two average (22.7ppg) to his year three (37.1ppg), I used his first season as a baseline (28.2ppg) which gave him an increase of 8.9ppg. I tossed this out as well.
Once we clear out the noise, we’re left with a sample size of 57 occurrences of players averaging 30 or more – 43 of which saw a season-over-season increase, 14 had a decrease. The greatest non-rookie-to-second season leap ever was Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 when he set the league record with what is still a confounding 50.4ppg which was a 12-point increase over the previous year when he scored a paltry 38.4.
Next on the list is our subject, young Mr. Curry. At 32.3ppg (as of Saturday night), Curry’s a robust 8.5ppg more than he scored last year. That makes for a 26% season-over-season growth which is the highest percentage growth of the entire sample of 57 30-point seasons (with outliers removed). I don’t care or know who the best scorer is on this list, but through 25 games in 2015, Curry’s experiencing an unprecedented growth rate. If we want to get deeper on how silly his season’s become, he’s averaging the lowest minutes/game of any player to ever score 30ppg at 34.9. George Gervin is second at 35.7, then Michael Jordan in 1991 at 37mpg. And maybe it’s not fair to compare percentages from the three-point era to the pre-three-point era, but by any measure that includes weighting the three-point shot (TS% and eFG%), Curry has the all-time highest accuracy rates – 68.8% TS and 64% eFG – of any players to score 30 or more. Adrian Dantley circa 1983-84 is second in TS at 65.2% and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is second in eFG at 57.7% — a full 6.3% behind Curry. But why stop there when Curry also has the highest 2-pt% of anyone on this list at 58.4%.
This feels awfully Bill Simmonsy to write, but re-read that last paragraph. Within the context of volume scorers in league history, no one’s ever done it anywhere remotely similar to Curry this season.
Which leads to the question: Just what on god’s green earth is happening to Steph this season? I did some work on this in early November when Curry was averaging 37ppg and some of the trends from then still hold up now: Curry’s opportunities are up year-over-year in terms of FGA/game, 3PA/game, and FTA/game while his accuracy for each is at or above his career-bests – only his free throw percentage is below career-best and he’s still making 90% of them.
But I don’t feel satisfied just saying volume and efficiency have risen even if those things are true. There are notions and theories at play here that I feel compelled to explore. I went back to the start of 2013-14 (starting with game 11 of that season – the reasoning will become clearer) and broke out Steph’s ensuing 201 games into 25-game chunks that include regular season and playoffs. The patterns are intriguing in that we’re able to see sporadic trends during Mark Jackson’s final year with the team when Curry’s three chunks of 25 games saw his minutes fluctuate between an average of nearly 40 in games 11-35 down to just under 36 in games 36-61. When he was playing nearly 40mpg, his FG% and 3p% were the worst of this 8-set sample, as were his turnovers/game – nearly 5.
stats courtesy basketball-reference.com
As Kerr came on in 2014-15, there’s an immediate shift in Curry’s minutes down to a much-more-manageable 32-34/night with a steady rise in his three-point accuracy and a slight dip in total points. During that first regular season under Kerr, he took less field goal attempts, averaged less assists, and turned the ball over than he did under Jackson the previous year. It’s necessary to call out that Kerr taking over as coach led to a lot more changes than Curry’s role in the Warriors offense, but for the sake of this post and your time, we’ll focus on how Curry responded.
Last year’s playoff run is where we get a preview of what’s to come for Curry. Where he shot around eight threes/game in the regular season, it spiked up to 10.6 in 21 playoff games and final four games of the regular season. His three-point percentage stayed right at his average of this 201-game sample size – 43.6% during playoffs/reg season vs. 43.5% overall.
It’s that rise in the three-ball volume that appears to have carried over to 2015-16. Beginning in the sixth chunk of 25 games – game 52 to 76 of 2014-15 – Curry experienced his most accurate stretch of three point shooting: 107 of 208 – a 51.4% clip which accounted for 54.1% of his total points. For context, his average percentage of points from the three over this entire sample was 39.4%. From that block of games forward, his volume of three-pointers attempted has only increased. Curry was a great shooter before this stretch, but let’s look at the previous 126 games (start of 2013-14 thru game 51 of last season) against the most recent 75 games (game 52 of 2014-15 to present):
126 game stretch: 412 threes made on 1003 attempts, 3.3 threes/game, 41% accuracy, threes account for 41% total points
75 game stretch: 350 threes made on 751 attempts, 4.6 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 50% total points
25 game stretch in 2015-16: 127 threes made on 277 attempts, 5.1 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 47% total points
What we’re seeing now is like late-career Barry Bonds crushing all MLB walk records. In 2001, Bonds set the record with 177 walks, then bested it in 2002 by 21, and in 2004 put an exclamation point on his own theater of absurd by walking 232 times. This is Steph with threes – minus the weird head enlargement and freakish physical metamorphosis. Curry is taking a truly great skill (he already holds the top-two single season marks for threes made) and building upon it, but in a way that appears to be a collectively conscious extension of last season’s second half run. It’s not just that he’s taking and making more threes, but that his range is extending – or it was always there and his confidence and the team’s confidence in him taking deeper shots has grown (per stats.nba.com):
2013-14: 5.1 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
2014-15: 5.5 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
2015-16: 7.2 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
He’s already hit as many threes from 30-34 feet (three) as he did all of last season (regular season and playoffs combined) and more than he did in 2013-14 (playoffs and reg. combined). The impact of extending his range out further isn’t lost on his two-point game (again, he’s shooting 58.4% on twos) or his teammates who experience a wider, more open floor. Harrison Barnes approves.
Whatever Golden State saw in last year’s playoffs has carried over into this new season. The volume, the freedom, the carte blanche to shoot from anywhere at any time is open. We’re seeing Curry’s Davidson days replicated at the highest level of basketball in the known universe (when NCAA opponents decided they’d rather lose than have Curry go off on them, they were essentially waving a white flag in the same way MLB pitchers did when they intentionally walked Bonds all those hundreds of times). But what’s most fascinating to me is how Golden State appears to have tapped into an optimal playing time balance for Curry and the rest of the team. As I mentioned earlier when comparing Steph to other 30-point scorers, we’ve never had another 30-point scorer play this few minutes. Last year Curry won the MVP with the fewest minutes ever for a winner at 32.7. This isn’t just happenstance, but occurs when your margin of victory is somewhere between 10-13 points/night and your lead at the end of the third is 20-30 so your starters can kick back and rest during the final period.
If we break out his efficiency and scoring output across five-minute splits, we can see a sweet spot in the 30-40 minute range. The sample below is from 2013-14 to present with playoffs included. It makes sense that in closer games where Curry struggles individually or the Warriors struggle collectively, Curry would play more minutes and see his efficiency dip and indeed his TS and eFG for games where he plays over 40 minutes are below averages in this sample set. What’s interesting though is that Curry’s output is greater in games where he plays 35-40 minutes than 40-45. For some players on that 30-ppg list, there’s a straight forward line between volume (minutes played and shot attempts) and points. For Curry, more doesn’t always equal more and Golden State appears to grasp that.
My suggestion that Golden State may have landed at an optimal spot in terms of Curry’s usage and minutes/game is the last area we’ll touch on. Last year they won 67 games in the regular season and went 16-5 in the post-season. This year, the playmaking responsibilities are increasingly falling in Draymond’s hands and the results are indisputable to-date. I’m curious about how far this envelope can be pushed though. We already see that Curry’s efficiency and even output in some cases takes a hit the more he plays, so pushing the envelope is finding ways to get more shots. It’s easy to look at what this team is doing and suggest that if ain’t broke, don’t break it, but they’ve made changes from last season with nothing but positive outcomes. Steph’s already stolen about two shots/game from Klay and two from somewhere else (David Lee?). Are there two more to go round? Is two more three-point attempts from Steph per game a better use of possessions than a shot each from Bogut and Draymond? Man, I don’t know and I’m not convinced it even matters, but while they’re here they may as well push it to the limit.
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