As the Golden State Warriors adjust to life with an injured Klay Thompson, the prestige of two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is also evolving.
The absence of Thompson, one of the best shooters of all-time, is devastating for the Warriors for obvious reasons. Thompson was essential to what made Golden State one of the most feared teams in the league ever. His pairing with Curry was nearly an unstoppable force on the offensive side of the floor.
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned that Golden State could miss the postseason again in 2021, in what many assuming will be the toughest season of Curry’s career.
After a small sample size of three games so far this year, the Warriors have unfortunately stumbled out of the gates to record the worst offensive rating in the Western Conference. But fans are also starting to question what kind of player Curry will be during the prolonged absence that Thompson faces.
During the latest episode of his podcast, analyst Zach Lowe helped contextualize these conversations (via ESPN):
“The referendum on Steph is going to be: LeBron’s teams are never just bad. Kevin Durant’s teams are never just bad. Kawhi Leonard’s teams are never just bad … Why are Steph’s teams bad? … That’s the conversation that is going to happen. And I think that part of it is, well, let’s TBD the whole thing. We don’t know if they are going to be bad yet.”
We all already know that the Warriors have an absolutely insane winning percentage when Curry and Thompson are both healthy. But what has the offense looked like in recent years during the time that Thompson has not played?
Curry, who has had a modest usage rate (26.9 percent) for a superstar when sharing the floor with Thompson during their careers, has seen that rate increase by a dramatic margin (33.6 percent) in minutes without the sharpshooting wing. History suggests that Curry is about to start taking the game over for his team.
That becomes most apparent when looking at the differences between scoring averages for Curry, comparing the variable of whether or not Thompson was also on the court. If we see absurd scoring box scores from Curry along the way, don’t be too surprised.
Dating back to 2011-12, per PBP Stats, Curry has averaged 33.2 points per 100 possessions playing alongside Thompson. But in the minutes that Curry has played without Thompson, the difference is staggering as that figure has increased to an absolutely astonishing 40.6 PTS/100.
Of course, it is reasonable to assume that with a higher usage rate and volume of shots, Curry will see a dip in his effective goal percentage. He will certainly draw more double-teams than we have seen opponents throw at him in years now that he does not have stars like Thompson and Durant waiting on the wings. Defenders will be able to zero-in on Curry, playing him tightly.
Lowe added some more details to how that is going to hurt Curry this year:
“Steph’s skills are such that he can take an okay team and a good team and make them supernova. But he’s maybe less equipped than even a guy like Russ to take a bad team and make them mediocre through sheer physicality. Like, why can’t you give the ball to Steph twenty feet from the rim in the triple-threat position fifty times a game? Well, he’s a pretty skinny dude. Do you want him getting destroyed at the rim to get fourteen free-throws per game? Can you do that every night? … His version of that is ‘I got two people on me thirty feet from the basket and if you give me anybody that I can pass to that can make the next play, we’re going to be alright.”
Stats illustrate this point, as well as the overall impact Thompson has had when Curry is trapped. Ever since Thompson fully entered the starting lineup in 2012-13, per PBP Stats, Curry is averaging 9.8 assists per 100 possessions when Thompson has been on the floor for Golden State. That figure has dropped to 7.8 assists per 100 during his minutes played without Thompson.
That means fans may expect lower assist numbers from Curry considering Thompson is not available for action. But that has less to do with the point guard, who is still putting his teammates in a position to succeed, and more to do with the players that flank him on the floor.
While operating under a small sample size early this season, Curry has averaged 16.3 potential assists per game in 2020-21. Defined as passes that would have led to an assist if the shot from their teammate had connected, that mark is currently fifth-best in the league. Through three games so far this season, however, Curry has averaged 7.3 assists per game.
This is in large part because Kelly Oubre Jr. is currently 0-for-8 on his 3-pointers after passes from Curry. He is shooting just 3-for-18 (16.7 percent) from the field after passes from the three-time NBA champion.
Eventually, as they get more comfortable playing together, the shots are going to start going in for Oubre. When that happens, it will be good news for the Warriors.
Golden State outscored opponents during possessions when Curry was on the floor without Thompson in 2013-14 (2.2), 2014-15 (11.8) and 2015-16 (11.9). They also had positive net ratings when Curry was on the floor without Thompson and Durant in 2016-17 (12.5), 2017-18 (12.5) and 2018-19 (6.0).
Overall, according to our research conducted on December 28, including the playoffs, Curry is currently 11-13 (.458) in games without Thompson since the 6-foot-6 wing came into the league. Throwing out the games played without Thompson where two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant was active, Curry is actually 8-8 (.500) thus far.
As the season progresses, fans will get incredibly valuable insight into what kind of player Curry can be without Thompson. Based on what we have seen in the past, however, Curry has a chance to solidify his legacy in this league as he adapts to life without his longtime teammate.