Programming note: Warriors-Rockets coverage starts tonight at 6:30pm on NBC Sports Bay Area, and continues immediately after the final buzzer.
OAKLAND -- As the curtain is raised on a new NBA season, the conventional wisdom is the league consists of four distinct tiers, only one of which has a single member. That would be the Warriors, alone at the top and projected to lock up the No. 1 postseason seed several weeks before the season ends.
The reigning champions boast a collaborative work environment, a diverse and creative co aching staff and, conceivably, the most dangerous roster in NBA history. The Warriors are to the NBA what Tesla is to the electric car market and, moreover, they have the benefit of having Stephen Curry at the wheel.
And it’s quite a benefit when you have the most game-altering player, regardless of position, ever to set foot on a court.
The Rockets, who come into Oracle Arena to open the season Tuesday night, make no attempt to hide their aspirations. They want to push the Warriors in hopes of knocking them over. Warriors coach Steve Kerr concedes that his system is based largely on principles created by former Warriors coach Don Nelson and advanced by Mike D’Antoni, now the coach in Houston.
The Rockets, however, do not have a Curry. Neither did the Knicks or the Suns, D’Antoni’s previous NBA teams. The closest he ever came was in Phoenix, with Steve Nash running the point.
“Steph is like Nash on steroids,” Kerr says. “He’s faster and quicker and he’s shooting from 35 feet instead of 25 feet.”
Curry’s presence is not the only reason the Warriors have been able to separate themselves. It’s also a product of being the only team with four legitimate All-Stars, each of whom is uniquely superior. No one combines movement and catch-and-shoot excellence as well as Klay Thompson. No one affects a game in more ways, at both ends, as well as Draymond Green. No one even begin to approximate the gifts Kevin Durant or Curry. Can you imagine a Warriors opponent rummaging through its roster trying to form a scout team?
And while Durant may be the toughest matchup in the NBA -- and the better bet for league MVP -- it’s Curry who flavors the essence of the Warriors.
“Everything we do revolves around Steph,” Kerr says. "If you want to say who affects the game the most offensively, Steph’s the best player in the NBA.”
Kerr has been around the NBA for 30 years, been teammates with Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan and an opponent of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Curry is indeed a different beast, a transformative figure in a toned but hardly imposing 6-foot-3, 190-pound physique.
The Curry Effect has been generated by the devastating power of 1,545 3-pointers in five seasons, and the way they rain despair down upon the faces of opponents. He frightens defenses in such a way it opens up scoring avenues for his teammates.
David West has been playing basketball for 25 years, the last 18 in the NBA and in high-level Division I at Xavier. He has been an opponent and teammate of Curry. He has played with and against greats, from the primes of Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson and LeBron James, but can’t even begin to summon a fair comparison to Curry -- all because of the 3-ball.
“It’s become such a psychological weapon,” West says. “Having been on other teams and knowing how a coach will try to prepare, you can tell. A coach wants to protect the rim and guard the 3-point line. And it’s an absolute nightmare, because you’re giving up layups. You’re basically going against what you’ve been trained to do. You’re giving up layups and paint points, because these (3-pointers) are too deflating. These are too defeating. These are too damaging to the psyche.”
For an example, go no further than the comments of Clippers coach Doc Rivers after his team took a 144-98 lashing last Jan. 28.
"At halftime, I asked the guys what's hurting us, and they said 'the 3'," Rivers said after the game at Oracle. "And I said 'You’ve got to be kidding me. We're even. We were 8-for-13 and they were 8-for-13.
“It's amazing the mental thing when they make a 3. They needed Curry to make a halfcourt shot to tie us (in first-half 3-pointers). They had 46 points in the paint. The paint is what killed us tonight. Their drives, their cuts, their layups, and our guys are still thinking about the 3-point shots. That didn't hurt us. It did later, but in the first half it was all the layups."
Yet it was Curry’s triples -- including a 51-footer to close the half -- that tortured the Clippers. It’s all they could think about.
It’s all the Spurs can think about, too, because San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich demands his team guard the arc. The minute Curry gets free and hits one from deep, Pop is out of his seat calling w timeout, knowing that one often leads to two and then three.
“This is something we’ve never seen,” West says. “There have been great shooters. But nobody has ever inflicted the type of psychological damage that he does.
“They’re knockout shots.”
Curry’s 3-point shooting has spawned a legion of wannabes, pale imitators firing from 25, 30 and 35 feet. As much as Wilt Chamberlain, and then Michael Jordan, did for the dunk, Curry’s influence has been far greater because shooting the deep ball seems so much more realistic thank soaring for a dunk. The belief is that one can practice toward being a great shooter, whereas dunking generally requires superior athleticism.
So, now, you see 3-pointers coming off the fingers of players from all five positions. Even such centers as DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns won’t hesitate to float out beyond the arc and let it fly. Lurking beneath it all is the Curry Effect.
No team in the NBA averaged fewer than Minnesota’s 21 3-pointers per game, while D’Antoni’s Rockets launched a league-high 40.3 per game. Contrast that to 10 years ago, before Curry entered the league. The 76ers took the fewest treys, 10.0 per game, while Nelson’s “We Believe” Warriors and D’Antoni’s Suns tied for most attempts with 24.0.
Now, straight out of a D’Antoni fantasy, here come the Rockets, not only shooting a high volume of triples but spacing the floor -- as Curry does -- by setting up from well beyond the line.
“They’re saying, ‘All right, we ‘re going to space the floor to three feet beyond the 3-point line, because that’s even harder to guard.’ I never thought I’d see that,” Kerr says. “But Steph has played a role in that. So guys are actually practicing deeper shots. So there’s no question he’s making an enormous impact on the game and he’s changing the game.”
There is little doubt that rules changes, particularly on defense, also have had an effect on the direction of the game. Hand-checking is illegal but many teams are willing to employ variations of a zone defense.
Yet Curry continues to wage an assault on the record book. His 402 triples in 2015-16 were more than 116 better than the previous league record, his own at 286, set a year earlier. Curry owns four of the top five single-season bests, with the other belonging to Thompson.
Curry is 10th on the all-time list, with 1,971 3-pointers and it’s conceivable he could climb into the top five before his 30th birthday in March. Of the nine players currently ahead of him, four are retired and the five active players are all at least 36 years old.
So, yes, he’s changing the game. And Popovich, not a huge fan of the 3-pointer, doesn’t want to see any more changes. With Curry crushing triples during the 2015-16 season, the Spurs coach responded to those musing about a possible 4-point line.
Popovich wondered, well, why not a 5-point line before he answered his own question.
“The problem is, Steph would probably kill us.”