Is Stephen Curry Having the Best Passing Season of His Career?

Is Stephen Curry Having the Best Passing Season of His Career? article feature image
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Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors.

The greatest players in the game generate the most debate.

Nearly everyone has their passionate opinions as sports fans about whether a player is overrated, underrated, properly rated, if so-and-so is better than whatshisname, and precisely how great a player is.

Stephen Curry is no exception. He generates a healthy amount of debate even when it comes to where his exact skill set exists all time. The conversations go something like this:

Person A: Curry is the greatest shooter of all time, but that’s not all. Don’t diminish him by just calling him the best shooter ever. Make sure to mention his handle, finishing, and overall performance on the court. He’s one of the best players of all time.

Person B: Sure, his handle is phenomenal, but everything in his game is predicated off his once-in-a-lifetime shooting ability. He’s able to get the defenders behind him and out of position on account of how good he is as a shooter, so that he doesn’t have to make tough finishes. He’s not an incredible mid-range shooter (nor does he need to be), he can’t work in the post, and his size means there are one-on-one matchups that are tough for him.

Curry is the beneficiary and victim of the discourse surrounding great players. When a player rises to his all-time level, some rush to assign credit to them because we struggle with simply keeping their greatness defined to the areas that make them great.

In 2016, a conversation arose about whether Curry was underrated defensively, a preposterous notion. Curry’s not a bad defender. He gives good effort, has quick hands and is so smart basketball-IQ wise that he can do his part. But he’s also undersized to a degree, handsy, and routinely has been the player teams have targeted in pick-and-roll situations during the playoffs.

But maybe the most fascinating detail of Curry’s game that hasn’t been talked about enough is his passing.

Curry has always been a willing passer. He’s far from a black hole on offense — if he were, the Warriors’ electrifying brand of ball movement wouldn’t work. He dishes and then moves constantly without the ball; it’s not hyperbole to say Curry is the best off-ball player ever.

However, as a playmaker, his highlights often tell a different story from the details. The highlight reels show flashy no-looks and daring bounce passes. But if you pay close attention to his carer, Curry has not been a great passer.

Curry’s passes are often like his layups and 3s: Gliding, effortless moves. But passes like that can be picked.

One of his biggest liabilities has been one of the most important passes to him, the pass to Draymond Green out of pick-and-rolls when two defenders blitz him.

That’s a bad pass high in the floor that’s ripe for going the other way for a Pick-6.

It’s a pass that he makes often, but its being essential to the offense makes turnovers here even worse.

This just isn’t a great pass, and it’s one you’ve seen if you’ve been paying attention time and time again.

Curry loves a behind-the-back pass. I’m not going to share the worst turnover he ever had going behind-the-back (you know, the one in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals), but needless to say that’s a great example.

But he tries it in pick-and-roll situations, too.

He still has that one rolling around, this one is from this season. (Green arguably fails to read it, but the pass still caroms wildly back towards halfcourt.)

 

As a good comparison, I looked at the highest percentage of bad pass turnovers out of total passes since 2015 via Second Spectrum. This is more accurate than just turnovers because it focuses specifically on the passing aspect and not charges or lost-ball turnovers.

Here’s the top 10 from 2015 to 2021, Curry’s prime seasons.

Passer Pct. of Passes Deemed Bad Pass
Russell Westbrook 3.87%
Lou Williams 3.68%
James Harden 3.66%
Paul George 3.03%
John Wall 2.84%
LeBron James 2.83%
Zach LaVine 2.73%
Stephen Curry 2.61%
Nicolas Batum 2.54%
D’Angelo Russell 2.5%
Minimum 15,000 passes thrown

Now, those are all high usage players, but Curry’s role in the offense is much less of a point guard to set up others/floor general than most of those players. (Though, yikes Lou Williams and Nic Batum.) Curry’s number stands out here for someone who is a fairly efficient player overall.

So what about this season? Here’s where things takes a bit of a weird turn.

I’m a numbers guy. That’s pretty well established. I do the film work, I look at the data, and try and find the nexus between the two. But I can’t give you a plethora of numbers that back up my case for what I’m about to argue.

Curry averages the same number of potential assists as last season and lower than the two previous seasons before that. He’s averaging fewer assists than his career average. He’s averaging slightly more turnovers than his career average, and his bad-pass ratio is slightly higher this season than in that stretch I outlined above.

I’ve looked at every possible statistical signifier to try and put the idea that this Curry’s passing is better this season into concrete terms. I was only able to find one, which we’ll get to in a minute.

But the lack of fancy stats doesn’t change the end result: This is the best passing season of Curry’s career.

The one little number I found that stood out is a tracking passing stat on NBA Advanced Stats: assist-to-pass-percentage adjusted. It’s the percentage of assists out of total passes, adjusted for passes that draw free throws. This is the best season he’s had in that metric since 2014.

And it makes sense when you pair it with the eye test. It’s not that Curry has the ball more or has changed his style. It’s that when Curry passes now, the passes are with such purpose that they almost always lead to a shot.

He’s not wildly drifting and throwing up passes out of duress as often, he’s whipping passes to teammates ahead of the defense.

Let’s take that over-the-head hook pass that has let to so many turnovers. I went back and watched his turnovers this season and only found two, the entire season. He’s curved those back.

Watch this one and how much better the arc and body control moving away from defenders to clear space, but the arc is high enough and fast enough for an easy bucket:

Here’s another loop pass, but look at the placement on this. It’s perfect. Leads his receiver perfect, pass is right where it needs to be, and it draws a foul:

Curry is also passing more quickly than in previous seasons. It’s not that Curry didn’t make these reads in previous seasons, but he hasn’t consistently executed these reads at this speed.

One of Curry’s greatest assets, and the mark that everyone falls over themselves to credit him with, is his gravity. Defenders are constantly forced to play up and near him to try and contain his unreal shooting.

However, Curry’s honestly gotten more credit for something that he doesn’t actively generate plays from than some players get for their playmaking. This season, Curry is punishing the attention he’s drawing; he is the one making the plays.

Two defenders for Cleveland come out, and Curry hurts them immediately:

This is a pull-up that Curry can take, anytime he wants. But he’s choosing this season to put his teammates in positions to score and using that attention he’s drawing more than ever.

He’s not just warping the floor, he’s then lasering through that warped space for easy buckets:

Curry’s passes are always looping, his layups are often the same thing, but this pass is a perfect dish. It’s Mahomes-ian.

The passes are faster and more on target this season. The differences are slight. These aren’t huge improvements for Curry, but if you watch, you’ll notice more and more how good his passes have been.

Curry loves no-looks, and that’s fine, but he’s using them more in actual effective ways than just for show.

Utah’s defenders never know Andre Iguodala has the cut here:

Nothing unnecessary here, just a good bounce pass that’s on target:

Part of this may be the added athleticism Golden State has. In their prime championship years, Curry’s supporting cutters were more players like Iguodala and Livingston. Now he has Gary Payton II, Jonathan Kuminga, and Jordan Poole. That opens things up more.

The Warriors go to corner 3-pointers a lot out of this set. Curry telegraphs that the whole way out of the inbounds catch and that (plus terrible defense) leaves his cutter wide open:

 

Like I said, I don’t have a lot of ways to prove how much better he is as a passer this season other than the clips. You can make a compelling argument that Curry has always been this passer. Maybe he has. Without data, we’re left saying “I know this to be true because I saw it.

But in a season where Curry has relatively struggled shooting — of all things — one of the reasons the Warriors remain dominant is that Curry has become a more complete player.

Curry’s passing used to be a weakness. With this team, it’s a strength. Combine that with his identity as the best shooter of all time, and you truly have a player who not only draws more gravity than any player maybe ever, but one who can punish those defensive decisions with his play, not anyone else’s.

It’s incredible, but somehow Curry has made a significant leap in a key area, it’s made a big difference on this Warriors team, and the results are there.

If only I could prove it.

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