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Warriors will miss Kevin Durant’s lethal iso game, but history shows Stephen Curry can dominate in same way

Kevin Durant’s three-year presence with the Warriors fueled an unending litigation regarding his necessity. Did a 73-win team that had already won a championship really need Durant? Or was he merely a more luxurious vehicle in which the Warriors could ride to the same destination? Through the prism of water-cooler narratives, these questions don’t matter. But in the context of this coming season, they do. 

Before we go any further, let’s understand that Durant’s value to the Warriors wasn’t limited to the offensive end. Not by a long shot. His defensive length, versatility and rim protection will be deeply missed, and cannot be replaced by anyone on the current roster — a fact further magnified by the departure of Andre Iguodala. The Warriors’ defense is a serious question to which they simply might not have an answer. 

That said, a significant portion of Durant’s so-called necessity in Golden State was tied to his offense, and at least in the aggregate, there is greater reason to believe the Warriors can replace that production, particularly once Klay Thompson returns. In other words, don’t be surprised if you look up at the end of the season and see a Golden State offense humming into the playoffs with an equal or better rating than it had last season. 

But that’s big-picture thinking. The question, to skeptics and supporters alike, lies more in the realm of possession basketball, when the macro turns to micro and you just need a bucket. As the thinking goes, Steph Curry is great and all, but he can’t get his shot any time he wants. Late in games, late in the playoffs, Curry, and that smooth-sailing offense he so masterfully captains, is going to run up against a figurative and literal road block that Durant, at basically 7-feet tall, can see, and shoot, directly over. 

Durant himself recently spoke to this:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” Durant recently told the Wall Street Journal. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of the playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.”  

Durant is right on about this. I’ve talked to numerous scouts about the lifeline that is individual scoring. When you’re not only facing the best defensive teams, but those teams are more specifically prepared for a playoff series and become increasingly familiar with your actions with every game of that series, at a certain point nobody is fooling anyone anymore — and when that happens, the only way to create consistent offense is to have someone who can just flat-out beat his defender straight up, no gimmicks, for either his own bucket or to command a double team that then triggers a chain reaction of ball movement. 

For three years, Durant occupied this role for the Warriors, but have we confused Curry’s lack of equal one-on-one opportunity for an inability to generate equal production? More pointedly, is the generally unquestioned idea that Durant is a superior one-on-one player to Curry more perception than reality? There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that might be the case. 

A few numbers to chew on:

Isolation Points Per Possession Stephen Curry Kevin Durant

2018-19 regular season

1.08

1.06

2017-18 regular season

1.05

1.06

2016-17 regular season

1.09

1.05

2015-16 regular season

1.08

0.99 (In OKC)

These are both elite numbers, but as you can see, Curry was slightly more efficient as an isolation scorer in three of the past four seasons, and basically dead even in the other one. The difference is Durant isolated more often — three times more often, for example, in 2018-19 — than Curry. This theme of Durant isolating more often but Curry doing it more effectively can be traced back for years. 

There is, to be fair, a score-frequency rate to consider. In 2017-18, for instance, Durant scored on 47 percent of his isolations, while Curry only scored on 40 percent of his. Yes, Curry ultimately scored as efficiently that season because he generated more bang for his buck by making more 3-pointers, but again, that extra point adds up over time. For one possession, for that one season, Durant was seven percent more likely to put the ball in the basket in isolation situations. 

That said, that season was more the exception than the rule.

Isolation Scoring Frequency Stephen Curry Kevin Durant

2018-19 regular season

48.4%

48.8%

2016-17 regular season

47.4%

48.0%

2015-16 regular season

47.3%

46.5% (In OKC)

As you can see, Curry and Durant isolated with nearly identical rates of success in three of the past four years, but again, Durant’s made shots were more often 2-pointers, while Curry’s appreciably higher effective field goal percentage reflects all his 3-pointers. If two guys are making the same percentage of shots, but one guy is getting three points and the other is getting two, well, you do the math. 

Now, it’s probably at this point that someone will deliver the “regular season doesn’t matter” dismissive hand wave and tell you it’s an entirely different game in the playoffs. Fair enough. Let’s look at the playoff numbers:

Isolation Points Per Possession Stephen Curry Kevin Durant

2018-19 postseason

1.21

0.96

2017-18 postseason

0.99

1.08

2016-17 postseason

1.24

1.16

2015-16 postseason

1.14

0.75 (In OKC)

If the regular season numbers are close, the playoffs, probably much to the surprise of most people reading this, are a blowout in Curry’s favor. That 2015-16 comparison is especially eye-opening not just for the appreciable discrepancy on Curry’s half of the ledger, but for the fact that this is the last sample we have of Curry and Durant operating entirely independent of each other. When they had to go at it alone, Curry was flat out better — and anyone trying to make the argument that Durant made things easier for Curry, rather than the other way around, would be wise to consider this information. 

Also, if you want to take the “small sample size” argument, try again. In those 2016 playoffs when Durant was still in OKC, and thus wasn’t around to gobble up the majority of the Warriors’ isolation possessions, Curry isolated 18.6 percent of the time, while Durant did so at an 18-percent clip. Translation: Curry, yet again, isolated more effectively than Durant, but this time he was able to do it just as often, too. 

It’s important to note, none of this is aimed as an attack on Durant’s time with Golden State. He was brilliant. Obviously. It is just a reminder he wasn’t the heart of this Golden State team. He was more like one of its kidneys, with Curry being the other one. Given a choice, sure, everyone would choose to have two kidneys, but you don’t need two kidneys. You can survive, and even thrive, with just one. 

So long as — and this is the whole deal — that one kidney is functioning at maximum capacity, making up for the absence of the other. That is Curry’s job now. He won’t, he can’t, do it the same way as Durant, who is widely regarded as the best one-on-one scorer in the game, and perhaps in NBA history, for the simplicity of his success. There isn’t a statistic on earth that can quantify the value, the security blanket, a team is afforded when it has a player that can score any time he wants, however he wants, from wherever he wants. 

It’s a bit more complicated with Curry. You can’t just throw it to him at the high post and get out of his way. Space, maybe a screen or two to trigger a switch to then get him in the right matchup, has to be accounted for. That said, these numbers don’t lie. Neither do opposing coaches. If the simple idea of a bigger, stronger defender being able to flummox Curry one-on-one was actually true, the Raptors would’ve just stuck Kawhi Leonard on him in the Finals, when Durant was out, and called it good. But when Curry got his chances one-on-one against Kawhi, he beat him plenty, too. 

The Raptors eventually resorted to a box-and-one defense, which said as much about Durant’s absence as it did Curry’s presence, but the fact remains that even when the whole world knew Curry had to score, and there wasn’t anyone else out there to create one-on-one offense, and one of the best defenders and overall defenses in the league was on the other side throwing everything it could possibly think of at him, Curry averaged 30.5 points, 6 assists and 5.2 rebounds and had a Warriors team that was down Durant and Klay Thompson one shot from Game 7 of the Finals. 

Yes, he was the one who missed that shot, and it’s true, that one shot is largely what this entire article is about. Had Durant been around, the Warriors could’ve just thrown it to him and gotten out of the way. With Curry, they had to design a complicated out-of-bounds play to get him a semi-fading 3-pointer. These super-magnified possessions won’t be as easy to navigate without Durant, all these situational stats notwithstanding. 

But Curry has made a Hall of Fame career out of turning complicated tasks into simple production. He has made 28-foot, off-the-dribble 3-pointers good shots. He flips sidespin layups through and over forests of outstretched arms. Nobody will ever be able to look at Stephen Curry and see a better one-on-one scorer than Kevin Durant. It’s 6-foot-3 vs. 6-foot-11 every time. But don’t let the eyes fool you. Look at the numbers. Don’t confuse Curry’s recent, and relative, lack of isolation opportunity with an inability to dominate, in his own way, at a level at least on par with Durant, if not a notch higher. We’ve seen it before, and chances are, we’re about to see it again. 

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