Surprise, surprise, Steph Curry is a good defensive player

Steph Curry morphed into a superstar as his Golden State Warriors have ascended the ladder in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. His place among the best NBA players today cemented after his first All-Star appearance this past season and there are very few, if any, more exciting players to watch from an offensive standpoint. This may be common knowledge now, but it is rather remarkable considering his lack of raw athleticism a la LeBron James or Russell Westbrook. Curry does like to elevate with some flashy dunks in practice, but more often than not, his in-game dunks end rather…poorly.

I guess the lesson here is Curry shows us that three points is more than two.

His knock-down shot, flashy passing, scary handles, and energy are special. But the stereotype has been reiterated throughout the league and the internet blogosphere that Curry is anything from a below-average to essentially-absent defender. Mark Jackson and the 2013 Warriors took strides to actively hide Curry’s defense, so not much could be said to combat such criticism.

Whispers of change began to simmer in this past off-season. With the Steve Kerr hire came a new coaching staff, including Brad Stevens’ former assistant coach, Ron Adams. Adams remarked back in July that Curry “has all the prerequisites to be a good defensive player” and that “at times has been brilliant defensively, and I think the trick here is to simply get him brilliant more of the time.”

Even as a team, the Warriors have had an underrated, yet elite, defense. To Mark Jackson's credit, this was a point of emphasis last year that the former coach instilled in his squad. For that very reason, Kerr articulated in the off-season that he did not want to change much on that end of the floor. Thus far, that plan has panned out well. The Warriors are third in defensive efficiency, give up less than 100 points per game, are second in opponents FG%, third in opponents 3P%, and maintain the league’s best point-differential.

Despite the Warriors continued defensive success, Steph Curry’s defense has managed to lurk in the shadows as underrated, but much improved. I realize that the season has just begun, but there’s a trend that’s omnipresent in everything about the former Davidson standout’s defense.

Better rebounding

A quick glance at his basic stats, and you’ll get a bird’s-eye view at his improvement. Thus far in the young NBA season, Curry is sporting a career-high in both rebounds (5.8 per game) and steals (2.4 per game). He has held, and is battling with, Chris Paul for the league-lead in SPG. No small feat in light of Paul’s reputation as a premiere defensive point guard.

But what needs greater attention is the type of rebounds that Curry has been grabbing, which are noticeably different than those in years past.

Here we see him start off by fighting through screens. This has become a popular mechanism taken by opponents to try to wear down the offensive juggernaut. The majority of teams run Curry off many screens—both on-ball and off-ball—in half-court sets. Who was a major trendsetter for this? None other than the defending champs, the San Antonio Spurs, who ran Curry off of no less than 5193 screens in handing Steve Kerr his first blowout loss as a coach on November 11.

In this particular play, though, Curry exhibits both the knowledge and the mental fortitude that he must go toward the basket for the rebound. Seems simple enough, but Curry often correctly leaks out for an outlet pass to run the fastbreak, Curry did not do that in this case—an intentional, and brilliant decision. He recognized their defensive do-it-all man, Andrew Bogut, is contesting a 20-footer from Cody Zeller, which means Bogut won’t be able to get to the glass in time. On top of that, Bismack Biyombo might have a grand total of zero offensive game, but Biyombo is averaging 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes over the past two seasons. Draymond Green is playing the 4 here and David Lee is out (injured), so Curry heads toward the defensive, not offensive, basket.

If Curry had not snuck in to grab this rebound, chances are the Warriors have to come back and play defense against a fresh shot-clock for the Hornets. Learning and improvement on the defensive end is something Curry is concentrating on. A few games earlier, in that bad loss to the Spurs, the Warriors were out-rebounded on the offensive glass, 8-to-1…despite the Spurs being a notoriously poor offensive rebounding team.

Here is a second example, where Curry gets to the ball with the much taller Tarik Black in the vicinity. This occurred after an awful defensive sequence that involved three offensive rebounds by the Houston Rockets. Again, this a situation where Curry could have left his big man, in this case Bogut, on a rebounding island. Instead, Steph gets the rebound and then throws a beautiful full-court pass to Draymond Green for the easy lay-in.

Advanced metric analysis

As any stat guru would tell you though, basic stats, like the rebounds Curry earned against Biyombo or Black, can only tell so much. The eyeball test may give anyone who has watched Warriors games consistently enough proof. He’s guarding opposing point guards, not shying away from defensive challenges, and getting in the fray from a rebounding perspective. But advanced metrics can give even those who do not watch the Warriors another avenue into understanding how Curry is on-par defensively with some names you otherwise be shocked to hear.

Rebounds from guards can often be garbage or look-what-I-found rebounds. It’s the responsibility of big men to do the dirty work on the glass but sometimes errant shots ricochet out to the perimeter. (I highly suggest looking over Kirk Goldsberry's great piece on How Rebounds Work.) Naturally, this work does correlate to higher rebounding numbers for power forwards and what’s left of the center position, but there are also the multiple times a game where the ball clangs off iron to a guard who just happens to be in the right spot. (Example.)

Two advanced stats that filter this out are: 1) uncontested REB% and 2) rebounding distance. Uncontested REB% is an intuitive stat that measures the percentage of a player’s rebounds that are uncontested—akin to the example above. Rebounding distance is a complementary metric because the rebounds that are closer to the basket often involve more “work” by the rebounder (boxing out, correct positioning, motivation to actually get the rebound, etc.). Thus, indicators of a better rebounder are 1) lower uncontested REB% and 2) a higher percentage of one’s overall rebounds occurring within six feet.

Curry’s uncontested REB% is 71.4, meaning that almost three-quarters of his rebounds are not contested by an opponent. That looks rather mediocre until you compare it to some big-time defensive guards. The Warriors point guard has a better uncontested REB% than Rajon Rondo (77.2%), Mike Conley (77.8%), and Chris Paul (85.7%). (For perspective, Andrew Bogut’s uncontested REB% is 57.9 and Anthony Davis’ is 47.9.)

When David Lee eventually returns, Curry’s rebounding numbers will decline. But this is not a bad thing. Look at Rondo and Conley, for example. Rajon Rondo’s 8.1 rebounds per game are artificially boosted by his team’s mediocre rebounding, and Mike Conley, the perfect contrast, has only 1.8 rebounds per game. Conley is on the Grizzlies, not the lowly Celtics, and with Z-Bo and Marc Gasol inhaling every rebound, there isn’t much left to go around for the guards. So a drop in Curry's rebounding numbers will not indicate he has become a worse rebounder, just that he's simply needed less in that facet. It does, however, show that when he is called upon to shoulder a greater rebounding load, that he can do it.

Individual defensive numbers are another comparison that can mitigate teammates’ influence on one’s box score numbers. An advanced metric that seeks to incorporate a player’s entire value defensively is defensive box plus/minus (DBPM). Curry’s is 2.5 right now. This number alone likely means nothing to you, as it does to me, unless you are regularly walled up in a cave crunching formulas and statistics. What is readily accessible, however, is Curry’s improvement in this metric. It is the first time in his career that Curry has a positive DBPM, which indicates that he is a better than league-average defender.

Opponent shooting numbers provide perhaps a more digestible way to look at Curry's defense. This, too, is a method that indicates players like Paul, Conley, and Rondo are excellent defenders. And while I wanted to shy away from tables as much as possible, I’m going to burden you with just this one. It’s very much worth highlighting, so bear with me:

Steph Curry
Mike Conley
Chris Paul
Rajon Rondo
Overall OPP FG%
OPP 3PA/game
OPP 2PA/game

The players that Curry is defending are taking and missing at the same rates —and, in some instances, worse rates—than three of the league’s best defensive point guards while he’s matched up with opposing stars like Chris Paul and Damian Lillard. Kerr, unlike Jackson, is not hiding Curry, and it is paying off.

Succeeding within the Warriors' team defense

These are very encouraging numbers, but defense is not just an individual concept. This can be monitored on a macroscopic level (the Warriors defense as a team is one of the best in the league) but also on a microscopic, play-by-play, level. It’s clear that Curry has bought into the system and his role while also knowing how to play opponents.

Here is one of those microscopic examples where he is matched up against Deron Williams (both Curry and Williams were Players of the Week for the week prior to this game). D-Will runs a pick-and-roll with Mason Plumlee, except this time counters by not taking the screen and getting a step ahead of Curry going to the basket. (Side-note: it's worth noting that Curry intended on, as he usually does, to go over the screen. As you may already know, poor defenders tend to go underneath screens which allows more open jump shots.) Curry catches up to his man but also knows Mo Speights is there to help. Curry jumps to contest the shot and this ends with a Speights block. This play won’t appear in the box score affirming Curry’s part in the defensive stop, but he was clearly valuable in walling off the middle of the paint and allowing Speights to get the block.

The leading Splash Bro has given us a sample of it all: defensive rebounding, steals, holding opponent’s shooting numbers down, and (most importantly) playing within the team’s defensive gameplan. This might be the first time you have heard it, but the 185-pound, baby-faced assassin will challenge opposing teams defensively, and do it well. Curry is knocking on the door of not being just an average defender, but a good one. He may have lost the November 11 battle to Tony Parker (giving up 28), but has handled Kemba Walker, kept Chris Paul in check, and completely creamed Jeremy Lin.

The Warriors leader—and NBA MVP-hopeful—is more than just Chef Curry with the shot.

(All statistics accurate as of November 16.)

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