Stephen Curry: Cutter? Not As Crazy As You Think

The Golden State Warriors have stormed out of the gate as one of the most surprising elite teams in the Western Conference. Much of the Warriors’ leap can be credited to their improved defense, but they have also shown a few new tricks on offense – specifically in sets involving point guard Stephen Curry.

Curry is well-known for his ability to hit jumpers, especially in spot-up opportunities where he is averaging 1.37 points per play (PPP) this season in 83 field goal attempts, the 4th highest efficiency among qualified shooters in the NBA, per mySynergySports. But spot-up plays aren’t the only off-ball plays in which Curry excels. He also averages 1.82 PPP in Cut plays, an absurdly high level of efficiency in a very small sample size (just 11 plays, nine official field goal attempts).

But even this small sample size is an improvement over last year. Last season, Curry averaged 1.29 PPP on just 7 total cut plays last season, so he has been used in cuts more already this year than he did was all of 2011-12 and he has still been considerably more efficient. This year, he has looked more confident, and his teammates have seemed more comfortable dishing to him. Curry has shown a strong recognition of angles and timing, utilizing a variety of backdoor cuts and spacing mistakes by opponents to get easy layups, and Golden State has run several simple but effective plays to get him easy looks playing off the ball.

This is just a simple give-and-go set that almost seems to work by accident. Curry is being defended by Dion Waiters and Samardo Samuels. Andrew Bogut gets the ball near the baseline, but he leaves enough room for Curry to squeeze by. Samuels fails to cut off Curry’s baseline cut, and Bogut hands off to him for the easy two. It’s not apparent that the set was meant to be for Curry because the basket happened so easily and so early in the shot-clock, but Bogut recognized that Waiters was well out of position, and Curry got an easy basket as a result.

Even without a big body screening for him, Curry has seen successful cuts thanks to passes from his teammates. David Lee is not without his offensive faults, but he is a talented high-post forward and a very good passer.

Here again we see the Warriors using a simple set to take advantage of a defensive slip, but this time David Lee is the one who makes the play happen. After getting the ball in the high post, Lee recognizes that Greivis Vasquez is watching Curry with his back turned. So as Curry cuts backdoor to the basket, Lee throws him a well-timed bounce pass. Compounding his mistake, Vasquez turns his head at exactly the wrong moment as the ball is passing him on its way to Curry. If Vasquez hadn’t looked away from Curry (and if Lee hadn’t thrown a picture perfect bounce pass), he could have broken up the play fairly easily, and if he hadn’t looked back at Lee when he did, he probably could have fouled Curry, preventing a layup (although Curry at the free throw line is essentially as good as a layup). But he didn’t, and Lee threaded the needle to give the Warriors an easy basket.

Curry also improvises well when the defense breaks down.

First, take a look at this.

Screen shot 2013-01-04 at 4.02.31 PM

Kobe Bryant gets caught several miles away from no-man’s land staring in the wrong direction. It’s not really clear why he allows Curry to run along the 3-point line with his back turned. Steve Blake appears out-matched in the post by Klay Thompson (and let’s briefly give Thompson credit for some nice footwork getting free for Curry’s pass in the post), but Curry is always a pressing threat to score, and Jordan Hill was in better position to help on Thompson anyway. And once again, Kobe compounded his mistake by looking away from Curry completely, which Curry recognizes and exploits by changing directions and charging down the middle of the lane. Thompson saw the same thing and got Curry the ball for the basket.

Now, it’s worth noting that Curry’s 1.89 PPP in Cut plays wouldn’t hold up in a bigger sample size. Their infrequent nature is part of their effectiveness, and defenses would eventually learn to adjust to another offensive threat. The plays would, however, continue to be an efficient part of Curry’s game, and when defenses adjusted to cuts, they would create other mismatches and defensive problems.

The Warriors average 0.94 PPP, good for 7th in the NBA, so their offense is already dangerous. But it seems plausible that it could become even more dangerous if they called more off-ball sets involving their talented young guard.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

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