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Stephen Curry’s Bombs Are Too Good To Be True*

One of the reasons Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 season has been so magical is that it has been about more than just dominance — that’s more LeBron James’s turf — it has been about doing things in basketball that we didn’t really know were possible.

Last week we published “Stephen Curry Is The Revolution,” in which I discussed how Curry’s unique skill set — particularly his seeming immunity to defensive pressure — suggests that this historically great Warriors team could be even better if it let Curry take even more shots, with the upper limit for just how many he should take still completely unknown.

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But the idea that “you can never have too much Curry” was pretty much true even before this season. The 2015-16 Curry is on another level. Not only has he gotten better at the things he was already good at, he has also started dominating at things that add new dimensions to the analysis. For example, as my colleague Kirk Goldsberry has written, Curry is now one of the most efficient shooters close to the basket, after struggling from that range early in his career.

But the most dramatic change in Curry’s game is his suddenly impossible-seeming range. If you’ve spent more than 30 seconds watching “SportsCenter” in the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard about Curry’s newfound affinity for ridiculous bombs — like that time he scored three baskets from 29-plus feet in 90 seconds.

And it’s true, Curry’s long-range shooting has been off the charts. Here’s how he has done from various ranges in the past two seasons1:

morris-curry-bombs-1

His shooting improved basically across the board. For the most part, he is still shooting worse when he’s farther away. You can beat other humans, but you can’t beat science. (I think.) But relative to the league, as well as to his own recent history, his distance curve this season is incredibly flat: He’s shooting 43 percent on shots taken 26 to 28 feet from the basket and 42 percent on shots from 28 to 42 feet. (The 42 feet corresponds roughly to half-court, though most of his shots are much closer to the bottom of that range.)

Not only is this not normal for Curry, it’s nowhere close to the norm for anyone, even other great 3-point shooters. For example, Kyle Korver is one of few players who, on a shot-by-shot basis, could brag about being more efficient than Curry last season — albeit with a significantly smaller shooting burden. Here’s how he stacks up to Curry, then and now:

morris-curry-bombs-2

Last season Korver beat Curry at virtually every distance — yet his distance drop-off was normal (perhaps even a little steeper than the league as a whole), as was Curry’s.

This season, of course, Curry has blown past Korver in efficiency as well as volume. Curry’s 13 makes from 28-42 feet (“bomb range”) this season are more than he and Korver had combined last season (12).

So what’s going on? On the face of it, these don’t look like big numbers. Most of the hullabaloo is over 13 made shots in 31 attempts, which is not outside the range of luck. But it would take a lot of luck: Curry made shots from bomb range about 17.3 percent of the time in the previous two seasons. If that were his true rate, he would make 13 of his first 31 shots about once every 500 years. One-in-500 events aren’t impossible in sports, but with all the ways that Curry has defied basketball norms already, it behooves us to look for nonrandom explanations. For example, an interesting segment of ESPN’s Sport Science recently broke down Curry’s unusual shot mechanics on these bombs:

Normally I’d take those kinds of stats as just fun trivia, but the observation that most NBA players generate velocity for their long shots by changing how they jump, while Curry does it entirely with his wrist, is exactly the kind of thing that could explain how Curry is doing things that previously seemed impossible.

Another thing we’d like to do is compare how big Curry’s phenomenon is relative to other hot long-range-shooting seasons. But to do this we have to break things down a little bit further. Not all bombs are created equal. Most NBA players are smart enough NOT to take these kinds of shots unless they’re necessary. About 68 percent of shots from 28 to 42 feet come with the shot clock turned off or with time about to expire (less than four seconds remaining). We’ll call shots taken under those conditions “involuntary.” Here are all the player-seasons for such shots over the past three seasons:

morris-curry-bombs-3

So Curry is taking a lot of last-ditch threes from long distance and has been hitting them at the second-best rate of any player in the past three seasons, despite taking about five times as many shots as the player with the best rate, Damian Lillard, did in 2013-14 (the dot in the upper left).

Shooting 38.5 percent in these circumstances is, of course, ridiculous — the league average is just 12 percent, and Larry Bird’s career 3-point average (from regular distances and under regular conditions) was 37.6 percent — not to mention it supports the idea that, for Curry, no number of shots is too great, regardless of how they come.

Perhaps more importantly, Curry is taking a lot of these shots “voluntarily” — that is, even when there’s enough time left on the clock to try to set up a normal shot, he’s still tossing the bomb:

morris-curry-bombs-4

The NBA as a whole has seen about one voluntary shot from 28-plus feet every two games over the last three seasons. This relative scarcity has been wise. Even though these are “voluntary” shots — where players presumably thought they had good looks — they’ve been made at a rate of only 25.4 percent (corresponding to 76 points per 100 attempts, well below the efficiency of the worst offenses in history). The undisputed king of the long shot over the last few years — indeed, the only other player to take a substantial number of such shots over full seasons — is Lillard, who has taken 98 voluntary bomb range shots in the past three seasons and has made 32.7 percent of them (corresponding to a respectable 98 points per 100 shots). Curry, on the other hand, had not shown any inclination for these shots and hit them at an average rate — before this season. Now he is averaging just less than one such attempt per game and has hit 47.1 percent — corresponding to 141 points per 100 attempts — far beyond what any offense has ever managed in overall efficiency. In other words, Curry’s typical voluntary shot from more than 28 feet is worth more than most players’ layups.

Moreover, note that Curry’s break from his own precedent is also stunning: He is attempting these shots at three times the rate that he used to, yet he’s making them twice as often!

This is a thrilling development, but its lack of precedent makes its consequences unknown. If Curry is now a legitimate threat from 30 feet, it will do more than just give defenses fits, it will disrupt the balance of the game in unanticipated ways. And my half-joking argument that he should be taking “all the shots” would drop to more like a quarter joking.

But as much as I admire Curry’s skills, this simply MUST be too good to be true. Consider the fact that the game has never seen it, and that Curry himself hasn’t shown anything like it before, and it seems like a prototypical case of a thrilling phenomenon destined to come back down to earth.

Then again, the more absurd things we see from Curry, the more they corroborate each other. All is possible. Either this narrative or the game itself will unravel.


Check out our 2015-16 NBA Predictions.

Footnotes

  1. For this analysis, I used the shot-tracking data from NBA.com, current through Dec. 7 (though it may miss a game or two here and there for technical reasons). I then added in Curry’s shots through the Warriors’ game on Dec. 8, and his shots that had been missing because their Nov. 12 game against the Timberwolves wasn’t in the data.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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