Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear changed the entire dynamic of the Golden State Warriors’ 2020-21 season. Logic pointed to a stylistic shift in Golden State’s offensive approach, one that would ideally center around Stephen Curry more than ever before.
So much of Steph’s proficiency comes from his work off the ball. So much of why that worked was because of the attention teammates like Thompson commanded to create chaos. In the same vein as James Harden or Luka Doncic, giving Curry full control of the ball seemed like a necessity in the absence of his fellow Splash Brother because of how scarce legitimate options were across the roster.
With a playoff spot needing to be secured, Stephen Curry is taking over in ways the Golden State Warriors have needed all season long.
Without others to help free him up in ways he’d grown accustomed to, placing Curry on the ball ensured that a majority of the offensive possessions would be influenced by one of the game’s greatest offensive talents. Not exactly the worst game plan to bet on, but Steve Kerr saw a different approach.
Kerr sought to maintain the pass-heavy motion offense he installed back when he was first hired in 2014. Part of that preference no doubt stemmed from its recent success that helped cultivate five straight Finals appearances and three championships, but there was a method to Kerr’s madness that could help this Warriors team reach whatever ceiling it had.
Having Curry do his best Harden impersonation could lead to a lot of points and quite a few wins, but it wouldn’t exactly make for a cohesive unit. Which, if Golden State was to do anything in the postseason, would need to be the case.
When playoff defenses inevitably trap and get the ball out of Curry’s hands, guys like Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. have to feel confident in their ability to make something happen. That confidence can only manifest when you empower them with reps during the regular season that involve more than spotting up in the corner.
So, Kerr played the long game and kept his system in place. Golden State ranks fourth in total passes per game and second in assists. But an offense that ranks in the bottom third of the league indicates a problem no amount of passes can solve.
The beauty of the championship Warriors wasn’t their talent or unselfishness as much as it was the incredible knowledge they possessed in how to best maximize it. In a system that kept everyone moving, guys knew where to be and where they had to go. They had the type of IQ that gave them an innate ability to make plays off of feel and intuition with only a loose structure to guide them. Few players on this current team bring a similar skillset.
Curry, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney are the only holdovers from Golden State’s last Finals run in 2019. There is no Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston or even David West and Zaza Pachulia.
It was an experiment worth pursuing but one whose answer was made clear months ago. And as Golden State continued to barely flirt with a .500 record and a playoff spot, the ultimate question grew louder: Why let unproven commodities decide your fate instead of empowering the future Hall of Famer and current 30-point scorer to dictate everything?
As good as Curry is coming off screens, there’s an inherent limitation to what he can do without the ball in his hands. He ranks above the 90th percentile in isolation and as a pick and roll ballhandler. He’s been the most efficient high-volume pull-up 3-point shooter in the league this season. You send him away from the ball and you lose all of that.
Curry might’ve been willing to acquiesce in an attempt to lift up his teammates, but that was when time was on Golden State’s side. Fewer than 20 games remain and not even a play-in spot is guaranteed. The structure of Kerr’s offense remains, but Steph has used his last eight games to inject a level of ball dominance that has helped get the Warriors rolling when they need to be.
Though his touches per game have remained in line compared to his season’s average, Curry has simply been looking to do more with those opportunities over his last eight games — he missed the blowout loss to the Raptors. He’s holding the ball longer and dribbling it with more frequency. His usage is up as are his shots per game.
The results speak for themselves: 38.9 points per game on a near 50/50/90 shooting line with eight consecutive 30-point games. He dropped 53 points on Denver and most recently needed less than 30 minutes to score 42 against OKC. Golden State has gone 5-3 and won three straight to sit ninth in the west just a game behind the eighth-seeded Grizzlies.
This isn’t the offense Kerr prefers. But under the circumstances that have the 11th-seeded Pelicans just two games behind, the Curry show is what’s needed.
No scoring average from Curry can make up for the games Golden State probably could’ve won with some tweaks to the offense to have him direct traffic. But it can solidify an extended season and make the Warriors one hell of an out in a single-elimination game.