2016-17 Exit Interview: Seth Curry

Mavs G Seth Curry addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

Where do you start when discussing Seth Curry’s first season in Dallas?

The very beginning seems like a very good place. And before he’d ever played one game for the Mavericks, Curry had appeared in only 48 NBA contests. Before he logged his first minute, he’d played just 713 in his career. Mind you, Curry was 26 at the beginning of this season, so he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. He was an old prospect, if you will, a player raw enough to make large improvements and still in his athletic prime.

He came to Dallas as a bit of a journeyman, a player known most for his shooting stroke and his last name. Then the games started, and it didn’t take long for Seth’s play to allow the younger brother to distance himself from Steph. By the end of the year he was one of the biggest surprises of the season and certainly one of the best bargains in basketball, after signing a team-friendly two-year pact with the Mavs in 2016.

The Mavericks presented Curry with the opportunity to play for a coach in a system that assures players will do what they do best, while also giving them some freedom to improvise. Dallas plays a beautifully structured brand of basketball that doesn’t always have a ton of concrete structure: It’s a read-and-react style of play that keeps the ball moving and gives everyone a chance to create.

Curry, meanwhile, needed just that: a chance. A chance to prove that he was more than just a shooter, that he was more than just Steph’s brother, that he was a legit ballplayer and could become one of the most efficient scorers in the league. Just before the end of the season, one of Curry’s buddies tweeted “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” Curry sent a tweet back: “+ opportunity.” You can put in all the work you want, but you can’t show what you’re made of unless someone gives you the chance.

He received that opportunity in Dallas and took advantage of it, and now he appears to be on the path to becoming a super-efficient scorer who can also handle the ball and make plays for himself and for others. The question for him has moved from “Is he an NBA player?” to “Is he a really good combo guard or can he become a starting point guard?” He and the Mavs will attempt to answer that question in the future. But considering where he came from, that’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover in just one season.

Shooting over everything

Before assessing anything else Curry can do, it’s imperative to lead off with the most important element of his game: shooting. He is an unbelievable 3-point shooter; of all the players in NBA history who have attempted at least 400 treys, Seth Curry ranks sixth all-time in 3-point percentage, at 43.2 percent. When you have a potentially generational shooting stroke and arrive to a team with a creative head coach, you’re going to be put in some positions to use that ability to unlock other elements of your game.

Generally when you think of 3-point shooting you probably envision a guy standing still and waiting for a kick-out or swing pass, and all his job requires him to do is catch the ball and let it fly. Curry can certainly do that, but he’s at his most dangerous when he’s catching on the move. The Mavericks freed him up all year long using flare screens, allowing Curry to float around the perimeter before quickly leading his defender right into a waiting big man.

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Curry’s willingness to sneak around on the outside puts pressure on his defender to keep at least one eye on him at all times, lest the guard get wide open for a jumper. That also plays into the Mavs’ hands, though, because Dallas uses pick-and-rolls to force switches and mismatches. If a player like Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, or Wesley Matthews is operating against a smaller player, defenses are going to want to gravitate toward that side of the floor to help out. But Curry can easily counter by roving over to the weakside and using a big man to spring him loose for 3. Curry was 13 of 25 from the field directly following a flare screen, per Synergy Sports, and many other times he attacked off the dribble, but we will get to that later.

He was also the first Maverick I can ever remember who made it a point to sprint to the corner in transition and wait for a pass. Curry was 14 of 35 from the field when running the wing in transition, per Synergy, and most of those attempts were 3-pointers. He usually plays at a more reasonable speed, but every now and then you’d see him turn on the burners in the open floor and beat everyone down to the other end.

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Curry might not play exceptionally fast, but he does have very sharp footwork and solid body control, something that shows up not only in the clips above, but also in halfcourt situations. His footwork and agility allowed him to make quick cuts and use just one screen to free himself up for relatively clean looks.

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It takes players years to develop that level of sophisticated footwork on the perimeter. Plenty of players can stand still and shoot, but not many can move around the floor like that, stop on a dime, and catch the ball ready to launch. Curry is 26, remember, and beginning in 2013 had to play two years in the D-League just to stay in pro basketball, so maybe these are tips and tricks he picked up along the way. It’s amazing to consider this now, but he didn’t become a full-time rotation player until this season, his fourth removed from his final season at Duke. And even then, last year in Sacramento he carved out a nice spot but still played in just 44 games. How all that untapped potential went unnoticed is beyond me.

It’s easy to say Curry’s entire game is predicated on his ability to shoot the ball — you never want to boil down a player’s game to just one thing — but it’s still kind of correct. He obliterated league averages in shooting percentage by zone this season, per NBA Stats.

Shot Type League Average Seth Curry
Restricted Area 61.1% 63.2%
In the Pain (Non-RA) 41.8% 59.8%
Mid-Range 40.3% 43.6%
Left Corner 3s 38.6% 46.9%
Right Corner 3s 38.8% 48.8%
Above the Break 3s 35.1% 41.1%

The mid-range and around-the-basket numbers are notable because they’re not long-range shots, but much of his success there does have at least something to do with his ability to shoot the ball. Defenses simply have to account for distance shooters, and Curry and the Mavs exploited that fear with much success this season.

During one stretch of the season Curry averaged 14.4 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 49.7 percent from deep, on 4.7 treys per game. That’s good for a 62.9 effective field goal percentage. For reference, Gary Harris led all guards in eFG% this season at 58.7 percent. Steph Curry finished at 58.0 percent, and Seth rounded out the top-3 at 57.8 percent. In other words, at his peak Seth Curry was by far the most efficient guard in the NBA.

That stretch, by the way, was from Dec. 10 to March 10 — more than 1,200 minutes played across 42 games.

Shooting off the dribble

All the shooting is very nice, for sure, but players don’t separate themselves from the pack with their ability to merely catch and shoot. At some point, even if you never develop the ability to run an offense, you’ve at least got to be able to put the ball on the floor. (That’s why Wesley Matthews’ improvement off the dribble was so big.) Curry was a fantastic shooter last season in Sacramento, but more than 44 percent of his possessions were either as a spot-up shooter or running the floor in transition, per Synergy. This season in Dallas, however, spot-up shooting and transition offense accounted for less than 35 percent of his offensive possessions.

Here’s an example of how his shooting can force defenses into uncomfortable situations. In the play below, he comes off a hard V-cut like in an earlier clip, but this time the big defender steps out to the arc to contest a potential shot.

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Mindaugas Kuzminskas steps out to dissuade Curry from shooting, but the guard is able to breeze past the Knicks forward to get into the teeth of the defense. Neither Courtney Lee nor Derrick Rose can offer much help, because both guys are still checking a player only one pass away. Joakim Noah, meanwhile, has 30,000 points to worry about in the middle of the floor. The resulting driving lane makes the new I-635 look narrow, and Curry gets to the rim with ease.

You hear a lot about Dirk Nowitzki’s floor gravity, but that impact only goes so far unless you have players who can take advantage of the extra real estate. Curry is one of those guys. In the play below, watch how Anthony Davis has to fight his instincts to help out as Curry gets to the cup, because he can’t afford to sag too far off Dirk.

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That’s a great example of the respect Nowitzki commands from opposing defenses, but the key to that play was Curry forcing Jordan Crawford to leap out at him to contest a potential 3-pointer. Curry was able to catch the ball on the move and drive immediately, beating help defense from Jrue Holiday along the way. Nowitzki and Curry essentially played 2-on-3 and won. (It should be noted that the play above was late in the fourth quarter when New Orleans didn’t want to foul or surrender a 3, but the Mavericks are still going to take those points and can run this play in all clock situations. Curry shot 55.2 percent from the floor in the clutch this season.)

Dirk doesn’t deserve all the credit, though. Curry was able to use some clever moves to get clean looks off of curls with Nowitzki’s help. He dodges three Lakers defenders without moving, like Neo in “The Matrix,” before freeing himself up for a finger roll.

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One-third of Curry’s possessions this season came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and in those situations he was one of the premier scorers in basketball. Of the 79 players who recorded at least 200 such possessions, Curry ranked 10th in points per possession, per Synergy. He scored more points per possession shooting off the dribble in the P&R (1.037) than Portland’s C.J. McCollum (1.027), and finished just behind Chris Paul in that regard (1.04).

As always when evaluating Mavericks, you want to start when they’re in the high pick-and-roll with Nowitzki. There aren’t many players better-equipped to take advantage of Nowitzki’s gravity than the smooth Curry, who hit 56.8 percent of his pull-up jump shots this season, including an absurd 15 of 22 pull-up 3-pointers.

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You can take two things away from the above clips. First: Big men remained terrified of leaving Nowitzki alone. Second: Defenses want to give up mid-range jumpers. But if Curry can make them at a high clip, that’s going to continue being a good shot for the Mavericks for as long as those two play together. He may as well be alone in the gym.

If they’d switched the big man on to him, anyway, Curry still would have been fine. According to Synergy he scored more efficiently in isolation situations following a switch than Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, his teammates Nowitzki and Barnes, and all but seven other players in the NBA. (minimum 20 possessions).

Nowitzki won’t always be around, of course, and if Curry is going to be in Dallas for years to come he’s going to be partners with several different players, many of whom won’t afford him the same spacing benefits as the future Hall-of-Famer. The Mavericks value guards who can come hard off screens, find pockets of space, and get a shot up. There’s never been a doubt that Curry has the confidence to let ‘er rip, and this year he showed he can step quickly into those spots and get a shot up, going either direction.

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As big men started to pick up on that, sometimes they’d step out to offer a contest. That’s when Curry’s shooting ability opened up his passing.

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This season Curry used his shooting to establish his passing game, in the same ways that NFL teams classically used their ground game to establish their play-action game, or the way MLB pitchers use knee-high fastballs to set up breaking pitches in the dirt.

Playmaking at his own pace

Toward the end of the season the Mavs began experimenting with playing Curry at point guard, but a lingering shoulder injury eventually led to his season-ending shutdown, so the sample size was fairly small. Still, even when playing with Yogi Ferrell, Curry had a lot of offensive responsibility and the Mavericks were solid in those situations. From the time Curry became a full-time starter on Jan. 12, Dallas scored an above-average 1.074 points per possession in 915 minutes with Curry on the floor and without Deron Williams (while he was still a Maverick, and after he’d been waived). Without the luxury of playing alongside a veteran decision-maker, the Mavs’ offense was still good with Curry in at least partial command.

If he’s going to be playing point guard he’ll be the primary point of attack in the offense, which means the defense won’t be off-balance as he’s running off a ball-screen. That puts more pressure on him to break down the opponent in order to open things up for his teammates. Many players do this with blinding speed or exceptional quickness, but Curry relies more on crossovers and his eyes to keep the defense guessing.

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That patient, probing style suits his game just fine. Curry doesn’t need to get all the way to the rim to score, which forces defenders to respect his jumper. If they don’t commit one way or the other to stopping either him or his teammate, after a few steps it makes his read easy — so long as he can keep his dribble alive. Earlier in the season Curry didn’t consistently show the ability to keep his dribble going when he drew attention in the middle of the floor, especially when coming off a ball-screen, but as the season wore on he demonstrated that he’d improved there.

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It would have been easy for him to pull up at the elbow, but at that point Dwight Powell isn’t in position to receive the pass. By taking an extra step forward, Curry not only gives Powell more time to get into a favorable position, but he also draws in Rudy Gobert an extra half a step. That made the difference as Powell laid it in and drew a foul.

The same can be said about the play below. Curry finds himself at the free throw line with two Lakers staring him down, but instead of panicking he uses a hard crossover to move the ball to his left hand and create a better passing lane to the wide-open Powell. If Curry weren’t a good shooter, there’d be no reason for the big man to step out this far on him.

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He very rarely ever attacks at a hundred miles an hour, and in the above two clips he never even reached 75. But his ability to shoot forces defenses into a tricky situation: If the small defender goes over the screen (as his defenders did in both clips above) that leaves Curry one-on-one against a big man, with a rolling teammate to help. Centers definitely don’t want to get blown by, but they also don’t want to give up an open jump shot, either, and Curry ranked fifth among all players in points per possession who faced at least 100 pick-and-rolls where the defender went over the screen.

So what do you do? I suppose the only answer is to apply some pressure and force him to pick up his dribble, but he progressed as a ball-handler as the season wore on and continues to work rigorously on his ball-handling each summer. He’s a very difficult player to cover.

Does this mean he’s a point guard, then? Five or 10 years ago there’d be almost no debate: He’d be a shooting guard in the mold of former Maverick Jason Terry. Nowadays, though, teams are searching for a point guard who loves to shoot first and pass second — or, at least, shoot when the shot is there. Curry makes up for his lack of lightning quickness with control and smoothness, and his exceptional shooting ability offsets pretty much any other weakness; there simply aren’t many guys who can shoot like he can off the dribble from all over the floor, and we didn’t even address his finishing ability at and around the rim.

However, he’s also very valuable playing off the ball, where he can attack off-balance defenses and use his threat of the jumper to create open driving lanes all game long — and have the benefit of not having to defend point guards for 30+ minutes a night, either.

Ultimately the decision regarding his spot in the lineup belongs to the Mavericks, and their choice could very well determine the direction they go in this summer’s draft and into free agency. If they believe Curry can be a point guard, they might need to add some depth at 2. On the other hand, if they want to play him at off-guard they might search for point guard help this offseason.

Either way, the Mavs found one of the steals of the summer, and Curry clearly maximized what proved to be his first real opportunity at meaningful NBA minutes. The team’s best stretch of the season coincided with Curry’s best run, and that’s not a surprise. He’s got the potential to be a game-changing offensive presence, and while he might be 26 and not 20, he still has plenty of room to grow and enough time to keep adding to his game. It’s up to him and the Mavericks to keep showing it.

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