The first time I saw my boss, Nate Silver, give a talk was at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. As usual, he was going on about numbers and statistics, but what stuck with me longest wasn’t quantitative. Pointing to the practice of relegation in European soccer leagues, he said European sports tend to be more capitalist by nature, while their American counterparts tend to be more socialist.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Silver said. “American sports are socialist.”
That may be true, but Stephen Curry is a pure basketball capitalist.
Nate’s framework was right: With provisions like “salary caps,” “revenue sharing” and drafts that generally allot the best new talent to the worst teams, American leagues intentionally promote parity while suppressing the natural tendency for some clubs to dominate others. But Curry and his teammates are unapologetically destroying Adam Silver’s Bolshevist basketball state. The Golden State Warriors are 15-0. If they win Tuesday against the lowly Los Angeles Lakers, they will break the record for the hottest start in NBA history; no NBA team has won its first 16 games.
How are they doing this?
Well, the Warriors have by far the most efficient offense in the NBA, logging a massive 112 points per 100 possessions. They shoot well above league averages from every spot on the floor, especially in the areas beyond the arc.
That’s pretty good, right? But while their offense deserves a lot of attention, don’t sleep on their defense, which ranks fifth in the NBA by giving up just 97 points per 100.
It’s as if at some point in the past few years, the Warriors solved contemporary basketball, at least perimeter basketball. They know that 3-pointers are the best way to rack up points on offense, so they developed talent and tactics to master that. But they have also employed defensive principles to prevent their opponents from doing so on the other end.
As of today, they are the only team averaging at least 12 threes per game on offense; they are also the only team giving up fewer than six threes per game on defense. Remember when a team won games by controlling the paint? These Warriors win by controlling the edges of the scoring area. By scoring 37.5 points per game beyond the arc while allowing opponents just 17.7 from out there, Golden State isn’t just tweaking how we value court real estate, its best players are forcing us to rethink how we value personnel as well.
It used to be that the most valuable guys in the NBA were interior giants who dominated the paint. Now the most valuable player in the NBA is a point guard with the sweetest stroke in the league.
Curry leads the league in scoring, and if he wins a scoring title this season, he will be the most perimeter-oriented player to ever do so. As I wrote last season, he’s transforming the way we see point guards and 3-point shooters in the NBA. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not; between Curry’s volume, his efficiency and his quickness, it’s easy to argue that he is the best 3-point shooter the NBA has ever seen.
So far this season, Curry has made 74 threes — the most in the NBA. Damian Lillard ranks second, with 45. To say that Curry is an outlier would be an insult to the word outlier. So far this season, 84 percent of NBA threes have come off assists. But for Curry, that number is just 62 percent, and his ability to get his own deadly looks beyond the arc is arguably his signature weapon as a scorer. For context, only one of Klay Thompson’s 33 threes has been unassisted this season.
Everyone already knows that Curry is a savant beyond the arc; the most noteworthy improvement in his repertoire is his ability to get buckets in the paint. As a young player, Curry struggled in that area. Just three seasons ago, he was one of the league’s least-effective close-range scorers. Out of 168 players with at least 200 shots inside of 8 feet that season, Curry ranked a dismal 151st in field goal percentage. But those days are gone, and the new Curry is suddenly one of the league’s best volume scorers in the paint. So far this year, 27 players have made at least 50 field goals within 8 feet of the rim, but only two of those guys — Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan (both giants) — are converting those close-range shots as frequently as Curry, who has made a ridiculous 68 percent of his 83 tries inside of 8 feet this season.
Curry is an emblem for his team at large. He’s a young, perimeter-oriented genius who is reforming how we think about dominance in the NBA and making the rest of the league look feckless while doing so. He’s already a champion, but, just like his team, he is still getting better. Curry and the Warriors are just getting started, and what a golden start it’s already been.
CORRECTION (Nov. 24, 12:55 p.m.): A chart in an earlier version of this article incorrectly labeled the Warriors’ defensive proficiency for some shots. A color on the chart suggested the Warriors were at about the average league level in limiting opponents’ scoring from the left elbow and right baseline 3-pointer, but the data showed opponents are shooting above average from those zones.
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