The Golden State Warriors had just about as inauspicious a beginning to their 2020-21 season as possible. Golden State was demolished by the Brooklyn Nets on opening night, appearing severely out-classed in a 125-99 defeat that did not feel as close as the final score. Things got even worse on Christmas Day, with the Warriors falling 138-99 to the Milwaukee Bucks. The combined 65-point margin of defeat made for the second-worst two-game start in NBA history, behind only the 1987-88 Los Angeles Clippers — a team that would ultimately finish the season with a 17-65 record.
Of course, that’s not how things worked out for these Warriors. Golden State rallied back to finish the season with a 39-33 mark, earning the eighth-best record in the Western Conference and a spot in the first annual play-in tournament, where they’ll have two chances to win one game and advance to the playoffs proper.
There’s no real need to search far and wide for explanations why Golden State was able to turn things around. The Warriors are where they are because, despite the myriad issues with their roster, they still have two of the game’s all-time greats leading the way on each side of the floor: Stephen Curry on offense and Draymond Green on defense.
Despite shooting 13-of-38 from the field and 4-of-20 from three in those aforementioned first two games of the season, Curry ended the year with characteristically excellent 48.2-42.1-91.6 shooting splits. He averaged a personal-best (and league-high) 32 points per game, the second time in his career he’s led the NBA in scoring. At 33 years old, he became the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan in 1998. He also added to his ever-growing list of behind-the-3-point-line accomplishments: He led the league in threes made and attempted for the sixth time, made 300-plus treys for a league-record fourth time , broke his own record by making 10 or more threes in seven games this season and broke his own record by cashing in on 5.3 threes per game.
Curry was so outrageously good down the stretch (he averaged 37.1 points with 49.3-43.7-90.4 shooting splits across 23 games in April and May) that he earned LeBron James’s MVP vote and inspired quotes from teammates like, “He’s the Picasso of our time.” (That was Juan Toscano-Anderson after Curry’s latest masterpiece — a 46-point, 7-rebound, 9-assist, 9-three thrashing of the Memphis Grizzlies in the final game of the regular season.)
If Curry is Picasso, the hardwood, obviously, is his canvas, and his effortless shooting stroke his paintbrush. But just as Picasso was not merely a painter, but also a sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, designer and inventor, Curry is not merely a long-range sniper, but one of the best all-around scorers to ever step on the court.
He just completed his seventh season of shooting better than 50 percent on 2-pointers, for example, as well as his third above 55 percent. Among players 6-foot-3 or shorter, only John Stockton and longtime Dallas Mavericks guard Brad Davis had more such seasons during the 3-point era. Curry’s diet of 2-point shots this season was also considerably different than it had been in the recent past. According to Second Spectrum, his average 2-point attempt this year came 7.6 feet away from the rim — the closest to the basket his average 2-pointer has been during the player-tracking era. Those attempts were also contested at a higher rate than they had ever previously been, and yet Curry connected nearly 57 percent of the time, a rate on par with much bigger players such as Luka Dončić, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons and Kawhi Leonard, among others.
It would be fair to describe the array of finishes in Curry’s bag as ridiculous. In fact, it might be unfair to describe it any other way. He’s got flicks and floaters, scoops and reverses, Steve Nash-style one-handed extendo-layups where his off-hand never touches the ball, lofted bankers to avoid getting hit, spinning flip-shots with just the right amount and style of English to ensure the ball softly kisses the glass and drips down into the net. Lefty or righty, inside or outside hand, over, around or through defenders, Curry can do it all.
Curry is never more dangerous than when sharing the floor (and the ball) with Green, which he almost always does due to the way the Warriors manage their rotation. The Curry-Green partnership was a bit offline for some of this season, though, as Golden State worked to incorporate No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman. In 423 minutes, the Curry-Green-Wiseman trio was outscored by 73 points, per NBA Advanced Stats. In that same span, the Warriors outscored opponents by 351 points in the 1,314 minutes Steph and Draymond played sans Wiseman. Since the rookie went down with a knee injury in April, they’ve blitzed opponents by 150 points in 559 minutes together.
That resurgence has been fueled, at least in part, by a dramatic uptick in Curry-Green pick-and-rolls. Before his injury, Wiseman was the primary screener for Curry, setting 18.6 of them per 100 possessions while Green lagged behind at 14.5 per 100, according to Second Spectrum. But since Wiseman went down, both the volume and efficiency of Curry-Green ball-screens have shot up. Steph-Draymond pick-and-rolls are being run about as often as they were in the pre-Kevin Durant era, and they’re more efficient than ever before.
Both Curry and Green are basketball savants. The longevity of their partnership has contributed to their seeing the floor the same way, and to their routinely finding the best ways to take advantage of each other’s considerable skills. For example, Green has assisted Curry on 20 give-and-go baskets this season, according to Second Spectrum data provided to FiveThirtyEight — the greatest number of give-and-go assists from one teammate to another this year.
Some NBA players hunt their own scoring opportunities, ruthlessly driving to find their own shot whenever possible. Instead, Draymond hunts scoring opportunities for Steph, who — because he’s Steph Curry, the greatest shooter in NBA history — typically capitalizes.
Green’s de-evolution into a near-total non-scoring threat crested this season as he posted a 13.1 percent usage rate, which tied for his career-low. His reluctance to shoot is well-founded, of course, given his relative inability to score outside the immediate area of the rim. The Warriors have workarounds to address those shortcomings, but none of them would matter if he weren’t such a genius passer.
Green’s 8.9 assists per game and 36.4 percent assist rate this season were each career-highs. The former figure is the third-best mark for any qualified forward or center in NBA history, and the best by any such player not named LeBron James. The latter figure ranks 11th among that same group of players, with only James, Nikola Jokić and Tracy McGrady ever surpassing it. Green’s an outlier even among that group of players, though: there have now been 140 player-seasons in NBA history where a forward or center averaged at least 5 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game; Green’s 2020-21 campaign is the first where that player’s assists per game average was the highest of the three.
But Golden State’s opponents also know Green doesn’t want to shoot, and they defend him accordingly. His reluctance, combined with teams’ willingness to indulge it, resulted in a (not a typo) 31 percent turnover rate, which was the fourth-highest among qualified players in NBA history. Not being a threat to score at all does have its downsides.
Typically, a player with that type of profile wouldn’t be able to stay on the court and still contribute to winning. But of course, we know that Draymond is not a typical player. As brilliant as he is at understanding how to create opportunities on offense, he is equally good — if not more so — at understanding how to snuff them out on defense. He finished this season ranked second in Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus, sixth in Dunks And Threes’ Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus, eighth in Bball-Index’s Defensive LEBRON and 10th in FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR.
His 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game don’t necessarily jump off the stat sheet, but his real value lies, as the man himself put it, in his ability to disrupt an entire team’s offense. (Green used a more colorful word than “disrupt,” naturally.)
“When you look at the impact that I have on the defensive side of the ball, it’s not always going to show up in blocked shots. It’s not always going to show up in steals,” Green said. “But I guarantee you it shows up in your favorite-player-who-I-may-be-playing-against’s mind. It shows up in what they’re able to do, as opposed to what they’re trying to get to.”
It shows up in possessions like this one from the 2017 playoffs, where Green defended all five Portland Trail Blazers in a 20-second span and essentially shut down the opponent’s chance to score all on his own, but was not credited with a steal, a block or a rebound.
Green understands defense at a level that few players in NBA history can match, which is what has allowed him to be one of the NBA’s best help defenders, rim-protectors and shot-deterrers despite standing just 6-foot-6. There were 44 players that helped on at least 500 opponent drives this season, per Second Spectrum. Green forced a pass on those drives more often than all but five of those players. Possessions where he helped on a drive resulted in just 1.12 points per possession, the 16th-lowest figure among that group.
That’s not out of character, either: the 1.05 points per possession he’s yielded as a helper during his time as a core player for the Warriors ranks third-best among similarly high-volume helpers leaguewide during that span, behind only 7-footers Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Every other player surrounding him on the list of most effective backline patrollers is significantly taller, but Green’s combination of mobility, wingspan and instincts allow him to replicate their effectiveness despite his relative lack of size.
With Green and Curry at or at least near the peak of their powers on their respective sides of the ball, it’s tempting to consider Golden State’s chances of advancing through the play-in tournament, upsetting the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs, and maybe even advancing beyond that. Because they’re the Warriors and because they’ll be a low seed, it’s also tempting to compare this group with the “We Believe” Warriors squad that upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs.
There is, of course, a crucial difference between this team and that one, an under-manned outfit relying on the likes of Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, Jason Richardson, Michaël Piétrus and Andris Biedriņš — none of them all-time greats. As Green noted, “We ain’t no We Believe 2.0. We got fucking Steph Curry.” They’ve got fucking Draymond Green, too. Even if that combination doesn’t quite mean Golden State will reclaim its championship potential of a few seasons ago, it’s now clear more than ever that without it, they’d have no shot at all.