Three seasons ago, after Kevin Durant left the Thunder to play for the Warriors, Russell Westbrook went nuts on the court. He posted then-career highs in scoring (31.6 PPG), rebounds (10.7 RPG) and assists (10.4 APG) in one of the greatest individual statistical seasons in NBA history.
Last season, with Chris Paul ailing and attenuated for much of the season, James Harden had his bonkers season. He posted the highest scoring average since Michael Jordan at 36.1 PPG, set other career highs with 4.8 3PG, 2.0 SPG and 0.7 BPG, and still generated more than 14 combined assists and rebounds in another individual statistical masterpiece of a season.
This season, with Durant gone to Brooklyn and Klay Thompson rehabbing his torn ACL, is Stephen Curry poised to go wild and turn in his own statistical opus?
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Curry’s current peak season came in the 2016-17 campaign, when he set career highs of 30.1 PPG, 50.4 FG%, 5.1 3PG and 2.1 SPG on his way to his second consecutive MVP award. When Durant joined the team, Curry subsumed his own production to allow the overpowering Warriors to reach their optimal level and averaged “only” 26.3 PPG during that stretch.
However, even during those leaner seasons, Curry was still a per-possession monster, averaging 38.0 points per 100 possessions, a higher average than he achieved in any other individual season outside of 2015-16. Thus, as expected, the only reason that his output went down was because his usage did, dropping from a career-high 32.6 USG% in 2015-16 to an average of 30.4 USG% during the past three seasons. Usage is an estimate of the percentage of team offensive plays used by a player when he’s on the floor, calculated by factoring in the ratio of all shots, free throw attempts, assists and turnovers from the player versus those of the entire team.
One hallmark common to both Westbrook and Harden during their monster seasons was historic usage, with Westbrook setting the all-time record with a 41.65 USG% in 2016-17 (up from 31.6 USG% in the previous season) and Harden turning in the second-highest mark in history at 40.47 USG% last season (up from 36.1 USG% in his previous, MVP season).
Curry has never approached that level of usage, previously peaking at 32.6 USG% in 2015-16. But, with Durant gone and Thompson out for most of the season, Curry is expected to take on much more offensive responsibility. In Curry’s words, “I’m going to have the ball in my hands a lot more. Just got to make the right plays, be confident, aggressive, assertive every possession.”
What if the Warriors were to make Curry their usage monster and get him up near that 40.0 USG% this season? What would that look like? Let’s do some math.
During the four seasons from 2015-16 through last season, Curry averaged 29.4 PP36 on 20.3 FGA36 and 5.2 FTA36, 6.7 AP36, 5.0 3P36 and 3.3 TO36 on a 31.1 USG% while playing 33.5 MPG.
If we take those rates, established over 278 games and 9,300 minutes, and project them to a 40.0 USG% over 33.5 MPG with linear changes in each category, 2019-20 Curry would project to:
34.6 PPG (23.9 FGA, 6.1 FTA), 7.9 APG, 5.9 3PG and 3.9 TOPG.
Of course, in real life the increased usage wouldn’t distribute equally to every offensive category. This season’s Warriors will have point guard D’Angelo Russell as the lieutenant on offense, and with Draymond Green already firmly ensconced as the point forward on the team, it is unlikely that Curry approaches 7.9 APG this season.
However, the flip side is that with Russell there to keep teams from running the box-and-one defense on Curry (the way the Raptors did in the finals when Durant and Thompson were out) and provide additional playmaking, Curry could be freed up to increase the scoring ratio of this equation.
These projections actually look eerily similar to what we saw last season during the playoffs in the 10 games after Durant initially went down with the injury, as Curry averaged 34.1 PPG and 5.0 3PG on 22.7 FGA, 9.4 FTA, along with 6.2 APG and 3.1 TOPG. And keep in mind, most of those games were played with Thompson healthy and half of those games came in the Finals against that elite Raptors defense that was mega-keying in on Curry. Over a full NBA season, during which the Warriors would face a cross-section of NBA defenses on a nightly basis, mega-usage Curry playing with two point guard teammates (Russell, Green) likely ups his scoring efficiency.
Questions about health and fit might be valid for the 31-year-old Curry, who has missed 44 games during the past two seasons and will be leading a much different Warriors squad from those we’re used to seeing. But Warriors coach Steve Kerr doesn’t think those will be issues.
In the immediate aftermath of Curry scoring 40 points in 25 minutes in a preseason game, Kerr pointed out that, “He’s going to have a large offensive burden all year.”
A day later, Kerr would go on to say that Curry is “in his prime age-wise, strength- and conditioning-wise and defensively he’s seen everything that’s come his way. Teams have played him every possible way that you could think of, and he’s had years now to work on counters. So he’s kind of in his sweet spot right now.”
Despite Kerr’s confidence, the health and durability questions are, in fact, what keep Curry out of the top spot in my season projections and rankings. When projecting, I have to acknowledge that everything might not break perfectly.
But if it does?
Put it all together, and mega-usage Curry has the potential to top the scoring and made 3-pointers high-water lines that Harden established just a season ago. He has the game, he has the opportunity, and he could very reasonably end this season as the top-ranked fantasy basketball player in the NBA. If everything comes together, Curry has a good chance to up his own unanimous MVP-level standard and produce his own season for the ages.
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