Is Stephen Curry better than ever?
“At 33,” says his longtime trainer, “he's having a lot of fun.”
BY TOM HABERSTROH
“Man, that poor kid.” After a decade as Stephen Curry’s trainer, Brandon Payne of Accelerate Basketball says this, right now, might be the best Curry has ever played. Which was bad for the Thunder’s 19-year-old French point guard Theo Maledon last Wednesday. From his living room in Fort Mill, South Carolina—a Charlotte suburb—Payne knew Maledon was about to get a lesson, because, he says, Curry’s experience is showing:
“A lot of guys would rim-cut here, because that's what you know, dribble-at rim-cut. … The kid was trying to take something away, and he just got a little bit too aggressive. And it opened up the entire floor … That really put all four other defenders in a really difficult position.”
“Eyes to the rim. For a guy who is this good of a shooter like Stephen, just looking at the rim causes this reaction, right? … his eyes alone draw the defense.”
“[Svi] Mykhailiuk, he’s got his left foot high which means he was trying to force him to the corner. But when you get that high, that fast, you're going to give the middle up.”
“Head positioning around the rim matters. … He's got superior body control, too. I mean, it's just a balanced core, the stability and strength that he's got? And he's got really good thoracic rotation as well. … You can do a lot of things with the basketball when you've got those types of movement characteristics.”
“Look, he's got one, two, three, four guys around him, he's gonna finish it. And one of the guys is 7-2 and I don't know what he's jumping at, but he's right there. Just a tough finish.”
By age 33, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen had stopped scoring 20 points a game. Steph just had a month averaging 40. The Warriors star has made at least 10 3-pointers in a game four times this week. It took a half-century of the NBA for someone to make 10 3s once. Curry has done this 21 times over his career. (Second all time on the list is Klay Thompson, with five.) Curry, averaging 31.4 per game 50 games in, is likely to finish this season averaging more than 30.
12 months of training his body to be explosive, and years of veteran savvy are proving to be a wicked combination. In a conversation that has been edited for length and clarity, Payne tells TrueHoop what he sees when Stephen takes the court this season:
I mean, what do you do with this? What do you even call this shot? A shot put?
It’s almost a little fadeaway mid-range jumper, he just shoots it with one hand. So funny—we actually have drills we work on either driving baseline and taking off with both feet facing the baseline and having to twist in the air. We call it a right foot rudder.
Watch his right leg and foot. As long as his right knee and right ankle get in the rim, pointed at the rim, at the time he releases the ball, the ball is gonna go straight. If his right leg crosses the center point of his body, it's gonna pull the ball left. But if you watch, when he releases this, that right foot’s gonna be in the rim right there, straight at the rim. And that's where the ball is gonna go.
He’s jumping up high here.
Listen. He's got some bounce now. You combine two things. You combine the fact that he had the hand injury, okay, which sucked. COVID layoff sucked even more. But what it did is it gave him an extended period of time to get really organized.
And they were able to be really progressive in terms of how they were progressing loads and velocity and everything and from a strength standpoint. So he had an entire calendar year to get strong.
Whereas if you compare that to what we dealt with during the five-year run where they were in the Finals every year, you play until late June, we take a few weeks off, go play golf, go on vacation, we're back in the gym in the middle of July. And it's like a race, we’re sprinting just to maintain what he had, to get him back ready for training camp in September.
He’s coming in more refreshed.
I mean, we didn't have this extended period of time to really focus on a lot of power development. He’s just in a really good place because he's able to build constantly, we're not playing catch up. Coming out of the Finals every year, it was we're playing catch up to everybody else who has been home for weeks and they've been offseason training for weeks. And we were just starting.
[This year] we had that extended period of time, it really allowed him to get a lot stronger. And also, man, that dude loves playing basketball, and he couldn't play basketball last year. And he's back out there playing, he's doing what he loves to do. I think it shows in his energy, I think it shows I mean, he's, he's just having a lot of fun. And it's hard to have a lot of fun when you're 28 and 29. But now at 33, he's having a lot of fun.
What’s different about Stephen now than 2016 or whenever he was rolling in the past?
The defensive attention is a little bit different now. Remember, in 2016, Klay Thompson was playing. Draymond [Green] was a little more offensively involved at the time. Harrison Barnes was still a big part of what they were doing offensively. They were a big part of that 2016. Now, it’s a different group of guys, bringing them along. He’s seeing a lot of different coverages defensively. Doubles, top-locking … I don’t think any of these coverages are having any success. He has many answers for everything now. He’s stronger, he’s able to initiate controllable contact around the rim now. He’s got an answer for everything.
The initial move, again, it’s the 19-year-old kid Maledon. He'll learn this as he's playing. But watch his hips, like, watch how wide his hips are turning in each direction. Like you just can't give good players that. See how wide his hips are, how open they are? You just gave him the basket.
Essentially, you put your big guy in a bad spot, just because you didn't sit down. And he's trying to be really active. But that's a mistake right there. You’re beat at this point. You're still opening up, you’re beat. And then you're in chase mode. So he's gonna chase, chase, chase, chase, chase.
Maledon is 19. Darius Bazley is 20. Moses Brown is 21. I mean, this is basically a college team.
This is a learning experience for these guys, right?
Experience and skill, Stephen is just taking advantage of it. This is what we call a between-escape. Between the legs and escaped out. But again, all that movement and he's straight up and down for the shot.
So you look at the timing of that shot, we work a lot on big-toe-to-big-toe.
So left big toe’s loaded, when your right big toe is loaded, that's your trigger to go into your shot. But you gotta make sure you get loaded and wait to be balanced, especially when you come out of a really dynamic move like this, to take the shot.
His left foot is going to get loaded really quickly, but he waits for his right foot to get down, so it’s loaded, loaded, shot.
How do you make sure he doesn’t step out of bounds all the time?
It is years and years of practice and feel. Like, Ray Allen used to do a lot of drills where he had his eyes closed and blindfolded just to work on feeling that sideline, that corner area. You just have to know where it is.
And watching the clip again, I just noticed that Steph turned to run back on defense before the shot went in.
He got a little loose at the end there. But again, if you go back and look at the release, when he gets up to the top of this thing, it’s picture-perfect.
And then he's also trying to make sure he doesn't land where the defender’s feet land. So he's trying to get out of there. When you've landed on some guy's feet a few times you'll learn how to get your feet out of the way.
I think he should take 20 3-pointers per game. Am I crazy?
No, you’re not crazy. I say the same thing. I don’t know if that’s what Coach Kerr says! [laughs] But ultimately, you and me, we’re not the ones that matter. I wish he would.
But he’s still getting people involved. … Steph is smart enough to understand that, hey, if I get these guys involved, and all of a sudden help was playing them a little bit tighter, my movement gets easier, my pathway to the basket gets easier, my perimeter opportunities become more because they're hitting shots too. The real measure of greatness is do you elevate the play of the people around you? And I think that Stephen, right now, does that better than anybody else in the NBA.
The problem for everybody right now is that he was already one of the most confident players in the NBA. And now you let him get on a roll like this? His confidence is now even bigger.
It’s astounding to me that he’s doing this after how limited he seemed after the tailbone injury. I would have never guessed he’d go on a run like this after that.
He played through some pain. He still is playing through some discomfort. It’s not like that's completely gone. I think it's getting better by the day. Now he's actually able to move a little bit more fluidly without feeling the same amount of pain. He still doesn't want to fall on it. I can tell you that.
Yeah, can you tell he’s hurting when he's playing out there?
Oh, yes, mainly by his gait. The stride length that he's playing with, when he's really trying to get up and down on the floor, there's just some little mannerisms that change when the pain is present. You can kind of tell just from being around them so much, you can see just little things that aren't quite the same when he's a little bit uncomfortable versus when he feels good.
He does seem to be getting up and down better recently. For Steph to be doing this at his age, in this schedule, with that injury, the Warriors are probably working around the clock to get him ready.
Absolutely. The strength staff and training staff, they've done a tremendous job. And those guys, we were much more collaborative this past year, because of COVID and because of the hand injury than we've been at any other season.
We were able to sit down and we were able to put together skill work and strength work that all tied in the way we wanted him to be. So we were able to accomplish everything we needed to accomplish on a daily basis, we were able to really monitor the workload, so that we were getting optimal recovery. [Head performance coach] Carl Bergstrom did a great job working with me with that, and we're gonna continue that this year. And of course, [assistant coach] Bruce Fraser does a great job with him during the season.
It’s so funny. If I look hard enough, we've worked on everything he's done in these games at some point, it's kind of crazy. Obviously, you're playing with a lot of urgency here. I mean, Grant Williams could not have defended this any better.
One of the things that Stephen works on so much that allows for the shots to be a little bit easier for him is we do a lot of what we call opposing directional shooting. We don't like to shoot consecutive shots from the same spot or from the same direction. So if we pull to the right on one shot, the next shot we're going to pull to the left. So when you do that, your ability to do it at game speed with tremendous amounts of force going in different directions is easier.
On this shot, don't look at what he did before and don't look at what he did after it. But if you look right in the middle of that clip, as soon as he shoots it, he's straight up and down.
He makes a pretty high percentage of those in our workouts. We have guys that are contesting the shot the same way—now obviously it's not the same speed, is not the same pressure, is not the same game situations he shot that, which makes this even more incredible—but he has prepared himself to take all these different shots.
If you really slow it down again, this is at the very end here is just a sidestep 3. Before that, he gets a separation. We do what we call, leverage release shooting, to do exactly what he just did. So you see how he had to maintain leverage there on Grant Williams and then released?
What do I mean, maintain leverage? OK, so you see how his right shoulder is in the middle, basically in the middle of Grant's chest? Steph actually took control of Grant right there. He's got him leveraged. So in a different situation in the game, especially if Jordan Poole wasn't down there in the corner, this would actually be a drive because Stephen won the leverage right there. But because you need a 3, he's going to do what we call a leverage release. So he controlled Grant for one dribble and then he's going to leverage release, then side step-out. And Stephen did it without extending his right arm. The reason he is able to do that is because he's got shoulder and hip control on Grant right there. And that's something we work on.
Boom, Steph’s got him leveraged and now he’s releasing it, forcing Grant to stop in his seat. Grant is doing a good job here. He's got his hands up, but once his feet stopped, Steph now knows it's time to get away, I can get out to the side and there's gonna be space there for a shot. That's all he needs.
Kemba [Walker] does a really good job of staying down on this. When you watch him get into it, Steph has to go to a couple of extra moves, because Kemba really does a good job—he sits down and does a good job.
But what happens is Steph gets him on a little shift. OK, so what we call a shift is when the ball goes in one direction and your body goes the opposite. So he goes pull slide, that's a between-shift to a behind-slide. In our verbiage.
So here, the first thing he does is a behind-the-back stop into we call a half-scissor, which is just an in-place dribble, between the legs just to read the defender.
The next thing you're gonna see is another scissor. Now, it's a pull slide. What is a pull slide? It’s just a reading step. So he's pulling the ball, his right hand, and he's sliding to the right. We use that to read the defender a little bit further.
So again, Kemba did a really good job of sitting down on this, which forced Stephen to get to the reading move. So it's a between-shift, and then a behind-slide again, and he gets by.
The shift kind of tricks your eyes because good defenders watch the stomach. Okay? But when you take the ball in the opposite direction, occasionally the defender is gonna peek at the ball, and Kemba peeks at the ball and when he does, it takes him back to the top of the key, which now gives Steph a path.
This is still a poor angle. Watch Steph, he goes baseline. See how he's forced under the block? If you're not a dunker, you have to go to the other side of the rim.
What you want to do is, once you get here, you want to force this defender to go through the net to contest the shot. So here, we don't have a finishing angle, so he's got to get to the other side. And that's just ... that's just smart, that’s a great move.
Steph started out this game missing his first six 3s and I think that they thought what they were doing was having an effect. But the reality was he was just missing.
They were really sitting hard on his high sides, they were not allowing him to come off of screens up top. So all the Warriors started doing was they just cleared out the backside, they put him by himself on one side of the floor and Draymond started going over the top, and he was catching and making a layup.
See, look how he has the whole side of the floor. Anytime that somebody starts top-locking like that, all you have to do is, you have to lift the offense about 10 feet. So see how everything's a little bit more extended out? You lift the offense, and you clear the side. And that's gonna be there all day.
Draymond once again, it’s on the money. And the finish. Again, look, Stephen is protecting the ball with his body. Protecting the ball with his body. Your worst-case scenario, when you get in like that, there's got to be a trip to the free throw line, right? So you never want to expose the basketball where you can have a shot blocked without getting fouled. You want to put yourself in a position where the worst case scenario is, you get fouled and you are going to shoot two free throws.
We don't work on choreography, like, we're not saying we're gonna go here, make this move then this move. It's all based off the information that the defender’s giving, it’s not based off of something that's predetermined, because these guys are just too good. They're too fast. They're great defenders, they're so athletic, that you can't say, well, I'm going to come down, and I'm going to go, you know, fall step, side step, step back in, etc.
You can't just preach. It's all got to be based off of the information that you see. And his ability to read the defense and make the correct decision is all about his processing speed. It's just his ability, everything he's thinking is so much faster than everybody else, the game is so much slower to him than everybody else.
What you're saying is that there’s no real way to defend Steph.
There is. You hope he misses. I’m sure somebody will come up with something. But everything they’re putting in front of him, right now, he just has an answer.
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