GOLDEN DAYS Interview 6: Steph’s Shooting Science

GOLDEN DAYS Interview 6: Steph’s Shooting Science

Even on teams with good players, it is usually easy to identify whose team it is. The 80s Boston Celtics were Larry Bird’s team (even though they had Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), the 80s Los Angeles Lakers were Magic Johnson’s team (even though they had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and the 90s Chicago Bulls (he says unnecessarily) belonged to Michael Jordan.

More interesting are those teams when it’s not so obvious, as with the turn-of-the-century threepeat Lakers. Were they Shaq’s Team or Kobe’s Team? I’d argue that they were Shaq’s Team at first and then kinda/sorta became Kobe’s Team and then they broke up because they couldn’t decide whose team it was.

[[Sixth in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]

Anyway, as soon as Kevin Durant elected on July 4, 2016 to come to the Golden State Warriors, the discussion started. Would it be Curry’s Team or Durant’s Team? And the dialectic never stopped as the season wore on. Curry slumped for a while, Durant came on and—whoa!—the torch seemingly has been passed to K.D. Then Durant injured his knee, missed 19 games, Curry started playing like a two-time MVP, and the Warriors were  back to being a Steph Operation. Finals MVP Durant was clearly the superior player in the championship series, but was that mainly because Steph decided that the Dubs were most effective that way?

To answer the question I seem to be asking: The Warriors are that rare team when it might not matter which one is the Alpha Male. I think they can exist with two capos, at least for one more season.

What’s most interesting about Durant and Curry as a duo is this: K.D. is the evolutionary player, while Curry is the revolutionary player.

What do I mean by that?

First, all the skills you think that a complete basketball player should possess—shooting, passing, rebounding, dribbling, defense, court sense, delivering in the clutch—are manifested in Durant. Who is seven-freakin’ feet tall. I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that size. Dirk Nowitzki is even bigger than Durant, and is splendid in so many areas, especially shooting, but can’t match K.D. as an all-around player.

But Curry is something we haven’t seen before because of the length and the accuracy of his perimeter shooting. In GOLDEN DAYS, I get into (at considerable length) what makes him a revolutionary player. I enjoyed talking to him about what got him started on the path to where he now forces defenses to begin chasing him just past the midcourt line.

Here’s some of what he said:

“In my sophomore year [at Davidson] I started taking a lot of 3’s [1,004 over his three seasons] but none of them was really pushing it distance-wise. But against St. Mary’s in my last college game [in the postseason NIT], my coach [Bob McKillop] called a play, but when I got to about where that logo is [he points to the Warriors logo on their practice court in Oakland] I just let it fly. It was from maybe … 25 feet? It was kind of like rebellion stuff. I made it and I just gave the coach a smile.”

After he was drafted by the Warriors, Curry wasn’t thinking much about the length of his shots. He was just trying to find his role on a sometimes dysfunctional team and overcoming ankle injuries that limited him to 26 games in 2011-12, his third season. But as Curry’s confidence in his shot grew and grew, and the Warriors started clearly becoming Steph’s Team, he began attempting longer and longer shots.

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

There is little doubt that Curry was born to shoot. You could take a thousand players who practiced as much as Curry did, and they still wouldn’t be as accurate. Dell’s son got some shooting genes. But don’t ever think that Curry’s long-distance shooting is an accident. He works on it. More accurately, he slaves over it. However many ways you can dissect the art of shooting, believe this: Curry has dissected them, too. So has Golden State assistant Bruce Fraser, his personal shooting coach. For example, Curry and Fraser both lobby for a “watch-the-ball-after it’s released” philosophy.

“The way I approach a shot in basketball is the same way I approach a shot in golf,” says Curry, a low-handicapper who performed admirably in a web.com tournament to which he was invited right after the 2016-17 season. “If I have a 7-iron, say 165 or 170 yards, I have to visualize the ball flight, whether I want to hit a fade or a draw. I hit the ball and never stop watching the ball.

“Same in basketball. Obviously I look at the basket, but once I let it go I stop looking at the basket and look at the ball. I don’t want to change my eyeline.”

Some would argue that switching from looking at the rim to looking at the ball is changing your eyeline. Curry says he never experiences that, and, anyway, believes it’s more helpful to watch the ball to take note of any unwanted spin or rotation that he’s put on his shot. Frasier expands on this:

“The rim-watcher’s argument would be that your heard jerks too much trying to watch the ball and you don’t have you eye on the target,” says Fraser. “But by looking at the ball you can watch the trajectory a little better. It’s an easier path to study for the next shot. There is visual memory in that.”

In the GOLDEN DAYS chapter on Curry’s shooting, there is also much about his three-point distance has changed the basic physics and geometry of the game, and also how academics, fascinated by Curry’s long-range accuracy, have taken to deconstructing his shot. Curry says that he doesn’t pay it much mind. “If I start thinking about launch angles and all kinds of metrics,” he says, “it’ll start to mess me up.”

So far, not much has messed up anything about his shot. And as time goes on, it will be fascinating to find out if he takes it out any further, and if the accuracy remains. At only 6’3’’, Curry can’t hope to become as dominant a player as Durant. But neither can Durant change a defense the way Curry can with his long-range shooting. And to this point, neither can anyone else.

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