It’s one of several recurring topics whispered about Stephen Curry among the Warriors over the last five or six years. It’s not about his health, his defense or whether he’ll actually make 500 3-pointers in a season.
It’s about the general reluctance of the NBA to give Curry the same benevolent whistle afforded to most of the league’s superstars.
He’s as marquee as it gets, carrying the same status in the NBA that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has in the NFL. The NBA knows Curry is a source of enchantment and inspiration. That kind of attraction usually gets protection.
Curry prefers to avoid discussing the subject, accepting it as futile. Though the Warriors don’t make a public fuss, they have questioned the NBA Operations office and come away with muted exasperation.
This year, though, conditions are in place that could change things.
The Warriors are no longer anybody’s behemoth. Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn. Klay Thompson will miss a second consecutive season. Most of the rotation is between 19 and 25 years old. Curry is 32. The two-time MVP’s well-being and production represent the likeliest path to the playoffs, and the only chance of being a factor once they get there.
When a superstar means so much to his team, and that team is facing long odds to prosper, it does not go unnoticed, whether consciously or subconsciously.
If Curry is subjected to the usual grabbing and bumping and glancing blows that put rump on the floor – and not being rewarded – the Warriors will be in the throes of despair on a regular basis.
In 2018-19, his last full season, Curry ranked 10th among point guards in free throw attempts, averaging 4.2 per game. He averaged a career-high 5.9 in 2017-18. His career average is 4.0. In four of his last six seasons, Curry’s free-throw-attempts average among point guards was 10th or lower four times.
For context, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard finished in the top five in each the last six seasons. Lillard averages slightly less than four in 10 attempts from deep, while Curry averages roughly five of 10. Both run pick-and-roll. Both shoot a lot of triples. Neither avoids invading the paint, though Curry’s ratio of 2-pointers to 3-pointers has diminished over time.
Why keep attacking if there’s no payoff? If whistles all too often remain silent?
Meanwhile, Curry is committing fouls at a slightly higher rate than he draws them. For every two free throws he gets, he’s whistled for a foul. Over his past two full seasons, he has committed four or more fouls twice as often as he received eight or more free throws.
There are many theories on this, one that several Warriors have posited in recent years. The belief is, in short, that Curry often pays a price when he tries to defend in the same aggressive manner as he is defended.
“He gets into trouble when he tries to do to them what they’re doing to him,” Andre Iguodala told me last year. “He knows how he’s being guarded. No fouls, right? But when he does it, it’s a foul.”
There is at least some validity to that. Curry seems to get caught holding more often than defenders get nabbed for holding him.
Hall of Famer Jerry West, while serving as an executive adviser for the Warriors, was a frequent critic of the way referees treated Curry, often griping that he “never” gets calls. That’s an exaggeration borne out of frustration but also with some evidence.
“I definitely think Steph deserves more calls than he gets,” backup center Marquese Chriss told NBC Sports Bay Area a few months ago. “It is what it is. He’s found a way to dominate without having to get refs.”
Neither Curry nor the Warriors will count on the “superstar whistle.” Nor should they. But circumstances have changed, and they know he’s overdue.