Delving into the Academic Accomplishments of Stephen Curry A Comprehensive Guide

The Hidden Cost of Guarding Steph Curry

Steph-Curry-Defender-Maze

 

Few good ideas come from conversations in the back of a Lyft post-midnight.

A few weeks ago, while going from bar to apartment to inevitably discuss cryptids and antigravity technology, an idea was born. My friend (who I will not name, but he knows who he is) and I turned our discussion to basketball, as we are wont to do, and the conversation brought up an interesting thought: what are the side effects of guarding Steph Curry?

With the end of the regular season rapidly approaching, I wanted to explore the possibilities while using the playoffs as the ideal frame of reference. And one very interesting thought stuck with me the whole time, so I solved it the only way I know how: hunkering over my laptop, poring over stats, tracking figures, and film going back to 2018.

The question I want to solve is: What is the cost to a player’s offense who is guarding Steph Curry?

True shooting relative to league average in playoffs, compared to possessions guarding Steph.

This graph was the end result in my mind’s eye (made real by our amazing editor Matt) but there was far, far more under the surface than I anticipated.

The Theory

It’s no secret that Steph is one of the most active players around, running people ragged around the court both on and off the ball. But it’s important to put some numbers behind conventional wisdom. For the purposes of this article, since defensive tracking numbers only go back to the 2017/18 playoffs, we will use the last four playoff runs as our data.

One clear theme emerges from Steph’s past playoff runs: a gradual buildup in activity as the games become more intense. In 17/18, after missing the first round with injury, Steph moved 2.43 miles per game in the conference semifinals against New Orleans. He increased that to 2.8 miles in the conference finals (first among all players) with 1.53 offensive miles, the second-highest figure. He ratcheted that up to 2.95 miles in the Finals against Cleveland, ranking first in total and offensive miles run. It wasn’t even close. All four guards who managed to beat Steph’s 2.74 MPG mark for the whole playoffs were far younger.

The story was the same in 2018-19. He went from 2.56 miles in the first round to 2.82 in the second, then 2.9 miles in the conference finals against Portland before racking up an absurd 3.13 miles per game against Toronto in the Finals. That was the hardest Steph has worked in a single playoff series, and it resulted in a 3rd overall finish in miles per game for the entire playoffs. Once again, the guards who finished ahead (Klay Thompson and CJ McCollum, who was guarding Steph often) were much younger at the time.

He saw a slight fluctuation in numbers for the 2021-22 playoffs, posting his highest MPG mark in the conference semis against Memphis and another high figure in the Finals against Boston. The overall movement for the entire run was not as elite, finishing 16th overall amongst guards, but every player ahead of him was (you guessed it) younger.

In the Warriors’ first-round series against the Kings, Steph ran the Kings’ perimeter defenders into the ground. His 1.73 offensive miles per game ranked first amongst all players, punishing Kevin Huerter, Davion Mitchell, and Keegan Murray, his three primary defenders. This insane level of movement not only contributed to his bananas 33.7 points per game, but it also led to some pretty drastic effects on the Sacramento offense as a result.

Season-By-Season

The effects of that level of intense defensive focus have tangible effects on their offense. I charted the 3 defenders on Sacramento who saw more than 15 minutes of time guarding Steph and compared their shooting figures to the rest of the team in the playoffs and their own regular season numbers. It seems there is at least some statistical evidence that guarding the toughest cover in basketball was sapping the energy needed to contribute on offense, as you can see below:

Even when accounting for the dip in shooting numbers for the playoffs, the dip in team-relative true shooting percentage only increased with more possessions spent guarding Steph. But a single series does not a conclusion make, so I had to go back further to check this theory before making any definitive conclusions.

2021/22 Stats

The numbers only become more interesting when adding more data. Some players certainly did not have major dropoffs, but some of these can also be explained by the overall success of the team.

Monte Morris, Desmond Bane, and Dorian Finney-Smith certainly stand out as positives, contrary to the theory. 5/8 defenders seeing a team-relative dip doesn’t point to a definitive conclusion, but good ol’ variance has to be taken into account. It’s also worth pointing out that the dips tend to outweigh the peaks: the biggest TS% dips outweigh the increases, pointing to the possibility that they hold the stronger variance and that another element (like Steph’s effort – Stephort?) is at work.

Going back to the distance run numbers is important for these series. The two highest marks of distance ran offensively came in the Boston and Memphis matchups, where all but Desmond Bane (far and away the best offensive player on this list) saw a drop. In his lower-effort matchups, only half of his defenders saw a dip. Again, not empirical evidence, but it points to something beneath the surface we cannot yet quantify.

2018-19 Stats

This is where things start to get muddier, but point to an overall direction of the theory.

Going through these numbers pointed to the heightened variance of the playoffs. His 2.9 miles per game led to CJ McCollum being the highest-movement player in the entire Conference Finals, leading to a -6.0% rTS and a four-game sweep. Yet his movement only became heightened in the Finals but seemed to have no effect on Fred VanVleet. It’s easy to chalk this up to his new-dad strength (especially considering how Danny Green’s production suffered as the #1 Steph defender) but it also reminds us that even if you’re dog tired and chucking up late shotclock rainbows, they can still find the bottom of the net. It also pointed to a difference in production based on the offensive archetype of the player (which we will get into soon).

2017-18 Stats

Perhaps the most clear and obvious case comes in the 2017-18 season. Coming off an early injury that cost him the opening round of the playoffs, he was a rather lackluster mover against the New Orleans Pelicans in the conference semifinals before ramping up to insane levels against Houston and Cleveland to close out his third championship. And the numbers correlate directly to the offensive production of those guarding him.

Moore had the easiest assignment in terms of offensive movement, and it’s no surprise he posted a +10% rTS given Steph’s physical limitations. Trevor Ariza did not have that easy of a time in the conference finals, contending with the most minutes guarding Steph of any player that tracking data shows. He was absolutely gassed, and it was certainly a factor in his scoreless, 0/12 shooting performance in Game 7. The Rockets, short on other defenders, were forced to put Harden on Steph and the Beard lost some of his elite production. Gerald Green certainly fared better than Ariza but suffered as well.

Steph followed up this performance by running J.R. Smith into the ground with 2.95 miles per game over a four-game sweep, and his -11% rTS somehow beat Ariza for the worst shooting of any Steph defender in that run. Only Kevin Huerter and Dillon Brooks have managed to outdo (feels like the wrong word) his abysmal offensive series.

In the end, there is a compelling statistical case that guarding Steph has a blanket offensive effect. These players on average posted an eFG% 2.34% below the playoff average for that season and a -3.52% rTS. You could argue this is due to the nature of the players being defense-first, or the Warriors’ playoff defense. Though the team-relative rTS% figures dispel the second notion, there is something to be said about the kind of player who is guarding Steph. How does their role on offense change these effects?

Archetype Buckets

I sorted all of these defenders into three overall buckets: primary creators, secondary creators, and off-ball guards/wings. This bears out some very interesting data.

Only two true primaries have guarded Steph for heavy minutes over these past four playoff runs. Both suffered the same fate in terms of decreased production.

It stands to reason that taking minutes against the toughest guard to cover in the game while shouldering the offensive load is not a good mix, and the numbers confirm that. What is interesting is when you get to the secondary creators, which brings team philosophy into the equation.

4/5 seeing increased production is statistically significant, and warrants further discussion. The decrease in primary production and increased secondary are tied to Golden State’s defensive philosophy: shut off the #1 option and make everyone else beat you. In this case, some of these players managed to punish decreased coverage while shouldering the Steph load on defense, which is incredibly impressive, and this is an impressive list of secondaries. It may also explain why both primaries saw large drops.

But the meat of the players are just off-ball guys, and the results were predictably all over the place.

In the aggregate, these off-ball players posted a collective -2.14 rTS%. It may not be statistically significant given the variance of outside shooting, especially in the playoffs, but falls in line with the overall -3.52 rTS%. The six highest-activity Steph series across this time period also correlated to five of the six worst shooting marks; only Danny Green managed to stay close to normal. Kevin Huerter, Dillon Brooks, Derrick White, Trevor Ariza, and J.R. Smith were all direct victims of his unfathomable cardio level. I have a hard time explaining how those drastically below-average shooting marks follow his highest activity series other than this: the original hypothesis does have some merit.

The more Steph wears you down with his offense, the more your offense will suffer.

So, what do we do with this information?

Final Numbers and Conclusion

Though this is far above my pay grade to spit out a final R-value, as the data is far too subjective and variable in nature, conclusions can certainly be drawn.

It’s patently clear that nobody has placed primaries on Steph since 2018 for a reason. The increase in production for secondary creators is also of interest: with the upcoming series against the Lakers, Curry will see a lot of Austin Reaves and Dennis Schröder, both relied upon for secondary creation. I will be closely watching their production to add more data to the set, and we will see if they reinforce the case for them as the ideal matchup for the defending team or fall back to average. The overall numbers for off-ball wings seem to point towards a tangible effect, especially considering the awful numbers for the players subject to his highest-activity series.

What’s also clear to me is that though an average number is hard to place, let alone a predictive figure, there is a measured offensive slowdown for those asked to guard Steph. Not only is he dropping 30 on their heads more often than not, but he also saps the energy of those trying their damndest to slow him. It would seem to behoove teams to put their lowest-activity/importance offensive players on Steph as a tiebreaker over other defenders who play less of a role (ex. Lakers using Jarred Vanderbilt over Reaves/Schröder)

In fact, the relative numbers were down for his defenders in three of the last four playoff runs, and only Fred VanVleet’s absurd dad strength could keep that mark from being 4/4. That sounds pretty tangible to me.

After a scorching first round, let’s see how many miles Steph posts against the Lakers. If he’s anywhere close to 3 miles per game, they are in huuuuuge trouble.

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