Early-season NBA questions: Are Stephen Curry’s Warriors in a time machine? What’s with the Knicks’ backcourt?

24 Nov 2021 | 03:34 | Basketball

NEW YORK — To enter Barclays Center on Tuesday was to hop into a time machine. In warmups, Stephen Curry swished an assortment of HORSE shots: hiiiiiiigh-arcing jumpers, logo 3s, lefty floaters from the elbow. About 3,000 miles from the Bay Area, Curry earned MVP chants, after a closely contested first half, his Golden State Warriors took control with a third-quarter onslaught. By the time the fourth quarter started, the competitive portion of this nationally televised game was over.

Now 12-2 after a 117-99 win over old friend Kevin Durant, old foe James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets, the Warriors are running circles around opponents the way they did in the dynasty years. Team owner Joe Lacob said last week that it feels like 2014-15, their first championship season, and coach Steve Kerr called it an appropriate comparison. The Bludgeoning in Brooklyn “showed the league that we’re here,” Andrew Wiggins said.

Golden State has the third-best offense (112 points per 100 possessions), the best defense (98.9 per 100) and far and away the best point differential in the NBA. Klay Thompson is not back yet, and there is a different cast of characters next to Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney, but the ball movement, player movement and quick decisions are all there. So, are we basically watching the pre-Durant version of the team again?

“Well, we shoot way more 3s,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

He’s not kidding: Golden State is attempting an average of 41 3-pointers per 100 possessions this season, way up from anything we’ve seen from them before. A whopping 43.8 percent of their shot attempts have been 3s, per Cleaning The Glass. (That number was 29.1 percent in Kerr’s first season, 31.6 percent in the Warriors’ 73-win season, 34.4 percent in Durant’s final season and 40.5 percent last season.

Golden State has tilted the math in its favor without compromising an ounce of commitment to its offensive principles. “We play a similar style, but we’ve evolved,” Kerr said, noting that the chemistry between Curry and Green, who have shared the court for almost 16,000 minutes, playoffs included, is better than ever. “They read each other’s thoughts, basically.” If you don’t spend your free time looking at NBA statistics, you might have missed that the Warriors’ shot profile all of a sudden resembles that of the Harden-era Houston Rockets.

Some of this happened organically, through personnel decisions. They added floor-spacing veterans Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. in the offseason, and they moved Jordan Poole into the starting lineup. Some of it, however, is the result of the coaching staff emphasizing shot selection from the beginning of training camp. Golden State launched 69 3-pointers in its first preseason game, after which Kerr told reporters that they planned to “take a ton of 3s this year.”

Curry, the best shooter in NBA history, isn’t just obsessed with getting even better — he has become more prolific. In Brooklyn, he went 9 for 14 from 3-point range, the 11th time in 14 games that he had attempted 13 or more 3s. (He did this 28 times in 63 games last season.) On the season, a career-high 63 percent of his shots have been 3s, per CTG, and a career-low 17 percent of his shots have been from midrange. As if the analytics crowd didn’t already adore him.

Wiggins has quietly traded some long 2s for rim attacks, and Porter has replaced most of his midrange jumpers with 3s. The Warriors are 29th in midrange shot frequency (21.4 percent) and 24th in long 2s (7.7) percent, per CTG, a drastic decrease from the Durant days. (They ranked near the bottom of the league in those categories in the pre-Durant days, but only because the league as a whole was more midrange-happy — they still took way more than they do now.) The improved spacing has helped Golden State jump from 20th in shot attempts at the rim last season all the way to sixth, per CTG.

Postgame at Barclays, Kerr hit all the familiar notes when describing Curry’s brilliance: “He’s gonna pull defenders with him 35 feet from the hoop,” making him an offense unto himself, unprecedented in his ability to dominate with or without the ball. “And then it’s a matter of putting smart people around him, like Draymond, like Andre, and many others who are going to take that defensive attention that Steph gets and then play make behind the play when Steph gets the ball out of his hands.” This is how the Warriors have played since Kerr unleashed Curry seven years ago, only now they’re exploiting the defensive attention differently. When Thompson returns, he’ll be in a supercharged system, but should feel as comfortable as he does on the open water.