Stephen Curry

Perhaps the most remarked upon aspect of Curry’s game, other than its Platonic beauty, is that it appears to lack the kind of merciless ferocity that characterized the often brutal genius of Michael Jordan, who, when he wasn’t soaring through the air, punched a teammate or two and trash-talked heckling fans. Curry makes impossible, throat-cutting plays that somehow look both human and imbued with a kind of sweetness, if not mercy.
“What made Jordan so great,” Miller told me, “was that he could get the ball way up in the air and finish it. But you don’t have to dunk to be like Steph. Every kid looks at Steph and thinks: I can shoot and dribble. I can do that. You don’t have to be like Mike anymore. You know, Mike was an asshole. I was an asshole, too. But you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. Steph is living proof.”

Reggie Miller on Stephen Curry's game (in The New Yorker of all places; they are stepping up the volume of their sports coverage, though in that distinctive New Yorker style).

I worshipped Jordan as a child because I grew up in Chicago when he came to the Bulls and became a star. But he's the type of player you idolize because of his competitive spirit and demonic will to win, not because his game is one you can emulate.

Watch video of Jordan's jump shot and you see a jumper released at the apex of his jump. I couldn't shoot like that, and neither can most recreational players. It relies on great athleticism and strength, and it helps to have gigantic hands. I had neither. Shooting that way I could only really shoot from the free throw line in. What made Jordan's jump shot so effective was that he jumped so high it was nearly impossible to block.

Later in his career, as his athleticism declined, he added a variant: the fadeaway. Falling away from the defender, it was still impossible to block even with his decreased vertical leap. It was the primary weapon that allowed him to post up any guard in the league, and even most small forwards, until the day he retired.

[Earlier in his career he'd post up players on either block and then spin baseline and blow past the defender for a dunk or layup, but officials started to call that a travel, and later he lost the explosiveness to execute it consistently anyway.]

Stephen Curry has a jump shot but it looks more like a normal human being's jump shot, which is more of a set shot. It's a style of shooting that involves the legs and core more, and as a Bulls fan the players that come to mind who've shot in that style include Steve Kerr, Craig Hodges, Ben Gordon. It's how I have to shoot from that distance.

What sets Curry's shot apart from others who shoot that way, however, is the speed at which he can get the ball out of his hands. It's truly stunning to watch, whether on TV or in person. Estimates are that his release takes just .4 seconds. So despite releasing the shot from a much lower vertical distance than Jordan's jumper, Curry's is still very difficult to block.

Curry's version of Jordan's fadeaway, his unfair additional advantage, is his ball handling. If Curry needs an extra bit of separation from the defender, he can throw in a jab step or step back at any time, and literally in the blink of an eye (estimated to be 300 to 400 milliseconds, or exactly how long he takes to shoot) the ball is out of his hands.

Much of modern basketball is predicated on ball movement or actions like a pick and roll that create a temporary "power play" for the offense. The Miami Heat championship teams were really effective at using athletic and lanky lineups to smother the ball handler on a pick and roll and force the offense to reset, nullifying the pick and roll. With Stephen Curry, even if you double him off a pick and roll he can get a great shot off. That makes him as dangerous a weapon as there is given the modern three point line (I've referred to the 3 point shot as the NBA's modern arbitrage opportunity because it's worth 50% more than a 2-point shot but is nowhere near 50% as difficult to execute, not just for Curry but many NBA players).

Is there another feat in sports more suited to deliberate practice (popularized with the 10,000 hour rule) than the basketball jump shot? It's trivial to toss up a jump shot, and the feedback on whether you performed properly is near immediate. That's about as clean an instance of deliberate practice as there is, like playing a musical piece on the piano. You either play the right notes or you don't.

The difference between playing a piano and shooting a basketball, however, lies in that brief gap of time between the release of the basketball and its arrival at the basket. In that moment after Curry releases the basketball over the defender's head, as it traces its parabolic arc through the air and all the opposing players on the court have no recourse but to join everyone in the stadium in watching the ball flight, hope, anticipation, resignation, and appreciation meld for an instant. There is nothing to do but wait, knowing that the laws of physics have already determined whether the ball will go in the basket or miss, and there's nothing anyone can do about it any longer. It's just enough time to inhale, or exhale. Or to hold one's breath.