December 24, 2009

Is There Lemon In This Curry?

In a chaotic disaster of a season, we can at least point to one unmitigated bright spot: rookie whiz kid Stephen Curry, who has thrilled coaches, teammates and opponents alike. He's fun to watch... he knows the game. A fast learner. A natural. A talent. He's like a streak of silver, racing off the court and into my heart. He's... of the worst starting point guards in the NBA.

In our new SCORE system, we rank guys by win percentage, PER, positional opponent PER and net plus/minus, and then average their rankings to get a quick snapshot of their relative effectiveness. Here's where Curry rates among starting PGs:

"What does that prove? The kid is money -- who cares if he does badly by some cockamamie ranking system you just made up?" How I've missed you, Imaginary Quoted Guy! How are your holidays going? "Good, good... can't complain. How was lunch with your dad?" Good. I'm going to continue this blog post now. "Okay."

IQG has a point. The SCORE system, surging Internet phenomenon though it may be, is not infallible (nothing spells "hinkiness" like Chris Paul finishing in fourth). But if you examine the core components here, Curry's low placing is no accident: he's the seventh-worst point guard by Individual Win %, the sixth-worst by PER, he gets lit up defensively more than almost anyone, and we do worse when he plays. Almost every other starting point guard rates as at least average by one of these metrics... Steve Blake can point to the Blazers' success when he's on the court, and Aaron Brooks has a good defensive showing in his favor. But there's no way to slice things so that Stephen Curry comes out looking even average. He's not the second-worst starting point guard in the league, but he's ensconced comfortably in the bottom ten, and probably in the bottom five.

"You're just cherry-picking here, by finding each team's best player at the point and calling them the starter." Not so. All of the other players who could arguably be called their teams' primary point guards -- Tyreke Evans, Andre Miller, Kyle Lowry -- also rate much higher than Curry. In fact, we actually did the kid a favor by choosing Ford over Earl Watson in Indiana.

"Well, whatever. He's a rookie point guard. Of course they're gonna struggle." Sure. Inexperience explains some of the struggles of guys like Stephen Curry and Jonny Flynn. But it doesn't explain why they're struggling more than Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison or Jeff Teague... it also doesn't explain why Curry's passing numbers are worse than even James Harden's, or why--

"Okay, stop stop STOP. I'm not going to listen to any more of this craziness. I don't care what the numbers say. Stephen Curry is awesome, and FUIUD." Fine. Say hello to Imaginary Quoted Guy's Wife for me.

Let's try to have a clear-eyed conversation about Stephen Curry.

1) Stephen Curry may eventually be very, very good. He's still learning his position, and more importantly, still getting used to top-tier competition. It's sometimes said that the game is too fast for some young players... for Curry, I think you could say that the game is currently a bit too long, as the kid has had real trouble adjusting to the freakish wingspans of NBA opponents. They have the reach to affect shots he thinks he's open for, to intercept passes he thinks they can't reach, and to swoop by him to the hoop, forcing him to slap their arms rather than the ball. If he can re-calibrate himself, and realize that his opponents are 10% bigger than he thinks they are, he could get better quick. His story is not yet written.

2) Right now, Stephen Curry simply isn't good. He's been a below-average point guard, a below-average rookie, and a below-average Warrior. Curry looks a bit worse than he is because the quality of the average point guard in the league is extremely high right now. But that's still a problem. If we're outgunned at point guard pretty much every time we go out there, Curry's not gonna be a big asset, no matter how skilled or unskilled he is.

3) Stephen Curry needs to shoot more to be effective. He's been a bit more productive this month than last, and the main reason has been his increased willingness to call his own number. Curry's scoring efficiency is a tick above average, and thus far, it has not seemed to suffer when he's taken more shots. That's the best way he can help us right now, because he's a very bad defender, and...

4) Stephen Curry will probably never be a great natural point guard. It's okay... relax. The sky is not falling. Stephen Curry is a very good passer, and as fun as Baron was, you don't actually need a ten-assists-a-night guy to succeed in the NBA. But Curry's current passing numbers rate somewhere north of Jamal Crawford's and somewhere south of Tony Parker's, and there's no real reason to think he's destined to end up well above that spectrum. Speaking of which...

5) It's time to cool it on the Steve Nash comparisons. Nellie irresponsibly lit this match, and it's a talking point that persists to this day... anyone who wants to get people excited about Curry tells them to check out Steve Nash's first couple years. The statistical comparison is, indeed, fairly close (although Nash's passing numbers were never as bad as Curry's are). But that says more about Steve Nash than about Stephen Curry, as Nash started unusually slowly for a future Hall-Of-Famer. If Stephen Curry's on pace to be Steve Nash, eleven other NBA players are too. It's a silly comparison, and should be shelved.

6) As things stand, Stephen Curry's absolute ceiling is Mark Price. And that's by no means a bad thing... Mark Price was a helluva player for a couple years there, with his deadly-accurate shooting and decent playmaking more than making up for his steal-it-or-forget-it D. Price was no MVP candidate, but he made four All-Star teams in his time, and probably deserved to. If I could lock in Mark Price's career for Steph Curry right now, I'd do cartwheels. A lot of things have to go right just for Stephen Curry to become Mark Price. Expecting anything more than that out of a kid who's one of the worst starters at his position just isn't realistic.

Merry Christmas.


Dave said...

Is college winning, especially when carrying a crappy team, and especially under the highest pressure, any predictor of future NBA success? And if so would that give Curry a few more potential points? Has anyone tried to run some analysis on that correlation?

FreeZarko said...

I'm a stathead and I found pre-season calls to replace Ellis with Curry ridiculous but...On pure, mushy, subjectivity I think his ceiling is higher than a Mark Price. Maybe it's because I attended Curry's best pro game, but I'm sanguine about his future. I blame his early troubles on a lack of continuity (It's the Warriors). I hate, HATE, making an argument like this, but Curry has swag. He has the ability to create his own shot from anywhere, and to take over a game. What he probably doesn't have, is the ability to share the ball with Monta Ellis.

Owen said...

"Is college winning, especially when carrying a crappy team, and especially under the highest pressure, any predictor of future NBA success? And if so would that give Curry a few more potential points? Has anyone tried to run some analysis on that correlation?"

While I don't know how formalized such analyses have been (or even could be), I'm sure there's a connection. That said, Curry was not only saddled with crappy teammates, but blessed with crappy opponents. Curry didn't face top competition very often, and he was far more likely to struggle when he did:

That's not to discount his college career entirely: it's a big point in his favor. But had Curry been on, say, Wake Forest, his numbers would've looked a lot different. And he'd probably be making the transition to the pros a bit more smoothly, as the rise in the level of competition wouldn't be quite as jarring.

Owen said...

"Maybe it's because I attended Curry's best pro game, but I'm sanguine about his future."

I am too! I like the kid a good bit. The Mark Price comparison really isn't meant to be derisive... most young players don't have a ceiling as high as the career of a four-time All-Star.

But I think it's worth noting what that best pro game of Curry's looked like: 27 points on 19 shots (5 of 9 from three), eight boards, four assists, two turnovers, four steals. It was a strong *scoring* game, not a huge passing game. His best success came when he stopped passing and let it rip. Curry's December was much better than his November, and it's because of his increasing willingness to shoot. His assist totals have actually gone *down* this month.

For all of his big-minute nights, Curry hasn't recorded ten assists in a game as a pro, and he's gotten nine only once. Conversely, he's had six four-turnover games, two five-turnover games and two six-turnover games; when playing 30 or more minutes, he's had at least four turnovers as often as not. All I'm saying is that I don't see Steve Nash here. Curry's passing results need to get a lot better just to get to Mark Price's level.

"I blame his early troubles on a lack of continuity (It's the Warriors)."

You'd certainly be hard-pressed to argue that we've had a lot of continuity, and I think it's more than fair to attribute his defensive issues to that. On offense, I think that explanation only goes so far; Curry's gotten tons of minutes, a green light and a long leash, on a team that's hell-bent on scoring. If you put Brandon Jennings in the same situation, Monta and all, I think it's a good bet that he'd be averaging a lot more than twelve a night.

"What he probably doesn't have, is the ability to share the ball with Monta Ellis."

This is a big factor. I think both guys would be more effective if the team dropped all pretense that Monta was a playmaker, and I'd definitely like to see Curry get more time on the floor when Monta's off of it. But it's possible to have a big night next to Monta: we've seen Morrow do it, we've seen Maggette do it often, we saw Jack and 'Buike do it early on. If Curry were ready to make a huge impact, he'd have exploded a couple times already no matter who he was playing with. We haven't seen that yet. The kid's not quite there yet.

FreeZarko said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Can we start talking lottery since it's about the only thing that matters barring some insane trade? I'd love nothing more than to grab a higher selection and wait Thunder-style on our maturing talent. Of course, our completely insane FO will chuck the youth out the window in pursuit of quick ticket sales...