Stephen Curry, of course, didn’t actually “ruin the game.”
His Under Armour slogan evokes remarks made by Mark Jackson during a Christmas day tilt in 2015 between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, a few months before Curry became the league’s first unanimous MVP and led his team to a record-breaking 73-win regular season. Jackson, the Warriors’ coach for three seasons toward the top of the decade, opined that his former player’s success “hurt the game” because youth players now felt the need to “run to the three-point line,” jacking triples at the expense of developing a more well-rounded offensive repertoire.
Those comments were broadly taken out of context. Jackson’s overarching point was that Curry is much more than just the greatest shooter of all time, a reality that anyone lucky enough to watch him play has been readily apparent from his days at Davidson College. But even the recognition of all his other elite offensive skills manages to mask the true extent of Curry’s impact on the game – one that Jackson, as was made abundantly clear by Golden State’s rapid evolution into a juggernaut under Steve Kerr, never fully understood during his time roaming the sidelines in Oakland.
The NBA’s three-point revolution was always going to come, even irrespective of Curry. The Big Three Miami Heat were most effective with Chris Bosh sliding down a position and stretching the court from center. There were times during the Heat’s run, even in the playoffs and NBA Finals, when they were better off with a sharpshooter like Mike Miller in place of Dwyane Wade, opening the floor for James lest defenses feel comfortable letting marksmen rain open three after open three.
Miami’s greatest foil, the San Antonio Spurs, evolved the concept of pace and space to fit the halfcourt, dotting the floor with passers and shooters while prioritizing movement away from the ball. The result was one of the most stunning displays of offensive execution in league history, as the Spurs avenged a heartbreaking loss to the Heat a year earlier by dropping a 119.5 offensive rating and 66.5 assist percentage – thresholds only reached by the 2017 Warriors since the late 1990s – in a gentleman’s sweep of the 2014 Finals. More telling of the league’s wholesale offensive transformation to come? San Antonio shot a scintillating 46.6 percent from beyond the arc in that highly-anticipated Finals rematch.
Kerr, a rookie head coach and a disciple of Gregg Popovich, took the Spurs’ blueprint, applying the “beautiful game” approach to a roster even better equipped to leverage it. The import of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, especially, to the Warriors’ subsequent success needs no explanation. Golden State’s whirling dervish of passing and cutting indeed relied on strength in numbers, but stemmed most directly from the pressure Curry put on defenses every time he stepped past mid-court.
The pull-up threes are what you think of first, and rightfully so. It’s easy to understand defenses being bent until they break when that process begins at the point of attack, as Curry turns the corner a ball screen and is a threat to launch from almost wherever he is on the floor given just a sliver of space. Putting two defenders on the ball leads to a numbers game behind the initial action, and no team was better at exploiting it than the bygone Warriors.
Off-dribble three-pointers were a relative rarity until Stephen Curry came along, more highlight-reel novelties than a normal part of basketball being played at its highest level. Now, the ability to drain pull-up jumpers from well beyond the arc is a basic prerequisite for lead ball handlers, and the direct source of strategic innovation on both sides of the ball. All-court switching defensively wasn’t truly en vogue until Curry and Golden State reached their offensive potential. The same is true of the need for screeners to be able to make plays with the ball in space.
But it would be remiss to focus solely on Curry’s lasting impact on the game as it relates to what he does with the ball in his hands. The 1990s and 2000s were dominated by teams featuring superstar wings and post players who created much of their offense in isolation and out of rote sets inside the arc. Golden State was a different animal, and the looming threat created by Curry’s presence – whether he was directly involved in the play or not – was the biggest reason why.
The Warriors have led the league in percentage of plays ending in off-ball screens for the past four seasons, the latest NBA.com’s tracking data goes back, and surely did during their first title season in 2014-15. Many have called for Kerr to focus less on movement away from the ball, embracing Curry’s unsurpassed ability as a pick-and-roll operator, but doing so to a significant extent would mitigate the strengths of the most singular offensive player in league history. So many of Golden State’s scores are a result of multiple defenders jumping to Curry to meet him on the high side of a pick, leaving his teammates free space to dive to the rim. He’s an expert screener himself, too, a fact that has helped him further push the boundaries of basketball’s position-less nature.
Stephen Curry may not be the best player in the world, and there will always be those who put an asterisk next to his historic 2016 campaign due to the Warriors collapsing when it mattered most. The debate between he and Magic Johnson as the best point guard of all time is a worthy one, too.
But in terms of pure influence on basketball at large, no player in the modern era comes close to matching Stephen Curry. He hasn’t just changed the way the game is played in the NBA, but informed an entire generation of stars to come – and Curry’s status as the most proficient three-point shooter ever is just one of many reasons why.