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The Steph Curry system: How the superstar's longevity has propelled Warriors back into title contention

·10 min read
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It’s such a familiar sight, a Steph Curry shimmy, quick two-step and point to the sky after a flurry of backbreaking threes, one forgets he wasn’t always like that, like this.

The skinny kid wearing the oversized Davidson jersey with the low fade has filled out, grown up and gotten acceptably cocky, expressive even.

The greatest show in the NBA has turned into arguably the greatest showman since the Magic Man, and it has seemingly come out of nowhere.

“I was watching Davidson highlights like a month ago,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “I realized like I didn't have many animated reactions, not even in the tournament.”

Emotional, but not animated.

“I still enjoy, I have fun, that's always been a part of my DNA. We realized when we get to this level, sometimes you manufacture that because of the physical, emotional toll of playing professional sports, the expectation every night of trying to live up to that. I have to have gas in the tank,” Curry said. “Sometimes you do have to manufacture that to the point where you really enjoy yourself because of all the other stuff that comes with it.”

There was a point where all the preening and celebrating brought some mild backlash, sort of a new-kid-on-the-block resentment that seemed to bypass the usual norms. But now the novelty has quietly, in a way, become a standard for longevity in an ever-changing NBA.

The Golden State star has changed the game — an undeniable fact — but he’s still ahead of the curve and extending the lead on his followers as he approaches age 34 this season. He’s an MVP frontrunner (with the best betting odds, +200 at BetMGM), if there is such a title as the season is barely 15 games young.

He’s had four games of nine threes already, two 40-point bonanzas, a 45-point outing and a 50-ball against the Atlanta Hawks, with the Warriors making quick work of a favorable schedule to start out a league-best 14-2.

Stephen Curry smiles and yells in celebration.
Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry isn't a system player, he is the system. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

A third MVP wouldn’t vault him above anyone, not necessarily. But the gap between MVPs would put him in air occupied by only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

He could go seven years between his first MVP and this one, a gap eclipsed by Jordan (1988-98), Abdul-Jabbar (1971-80) and Chamberlain (1960-68). What feels more improbable, if it were to happen, is the evolution the league has taken in that time period.

The hand checking, bump-and-grind change defined the 90s compared to the late 80s when Jordan’s athleticism and skill took form. The ABA-NBA merger changed the style from Abdul-Jabbar’s first MVP to his last. And Wilt just dominated the NBA from start to finish, period.

MVPs are usually won in a concentrated span, not spread out.

LeBron James won his four MVPs in a five-year span, interrupted by Derrick Rose in 2011. Larry Bird won three straight from 1984-86, and arguably had a better 1987 season.

Magic Johnson won three in a four-year span, with Jordan’s first preventing a four-peat.

“At this point, anything is flattering,” Curry said. “Now it’s the context of ‘the oldest player to do this’ or ‘the oldest player since Mike or Wilt to such and such,’ which is wild to think about. There’s a sense of pride, that whatever that means, it feels pretty good.”

How Steph Curry has evolved to become the system

Curry’s longevity feels like the most unlikely part of his story, considering his frame and early history with ankle injuries.

But the league he began to dominate relative to the one he conquered compared to now feels like three different NBAs — and he’s been a constant.

“My first two or three years, knowing it was my main skill set, I shot three to five threes a game. Now it’s 13,” Curry said. “The way teams are put together, with position-less basketball … I can’t imagine watching Vince [Carter], being 12-13 years old, and he just retired. It’s such a dramatic change. I’m right in the middle of it, but it’s dope to have your game evolve and have the game evolve at the same time.”

It’s evolved because he’s the system, the Steph system.

Perhaps catching Magic for the crown as all-time point guard is impossible, but being the greatest system of all time is a conversation Curry is assuredly part of.

Magic was “Showtime,” his gifts, personality and talents chief reasons why the Lakers could go from having Norm Nixon to Byron Scott, from Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes to James Worthy, from a prime Abdul-Jabbar to an aging one. Magic was the constant conductor who made all the pieces fit, defining the style of play and keeping the Lakers at the top of the league during its greatest era.

Jordan holds the mythical GOAT title because he could do both: operate as a system and be a system player, inside Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. James is a sophisticated system, requiring specialized parts that enable him to be his best self — before inevitably moving on to his next adventure.

The Curry system feels like the whole is greater than the sum parts. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will likely make the Hall of Fame, but don’t come across like franchise-changers on their own. All seem to work so well within the Curry system — there’s enough space on the floor and oxygen off it for all to feel complete.

“It’s built around the fact he’s equally as powerful on the ball or off,” Steve Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “We have a bunch of smart guys who understand leverage. The young guys come in and it takes them a little while to learn the power of Steph moving off the ball.”

Stephen Curry, facing away from the camera, celebrates after making a 3-pointer.
Stephen Curry has four games this season with nine 3-pointers and is the lone player to score 50 points in a game so far this season. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and the like aren’t what you’d call stars. Wiggins has found a place where the first thought isn’t “underwhelming No. 1 pick” but contributing player who can help win games on select nights.

“We established the culture here, obviously Coach is huge,” Curry said. “You got to grow up pretty quickly, those first two playoff runs then the championship, then the next era. There’s a winning mentality that you protect at all costs.”

His emergence happened like a streak of lightning as opposed to the Giannis-like stairstep road. So his on-floor hiccups gave life to those who felt he was more novelty than tastemaker. Then his union with Kevin Durant, the irresistible force meeting with the unstoppable object — the ultimate player who doesn’t need a system with the greatest system ever — somehow managed to diminish both in the eyes of the public despite the beautiful game that was birthed.

“I saw someone yesterday say, if you show up to Rucker Park and playing pickup, you’ll obviously pick KD first,” Curry said. “He’s got all the attributes, 7-foot, all that. If you put five guys that want to work and play efficient, you’ll pick me. I love it. There’s a lot of ways to do this; everybody has their way, I have mine.”

He’s Magic-like in the way that there’s a sense his teammates are playing for him, not just with him. And the carrying on seems to invigorate the team — pressing Curry on when he goes on a streak, watching and participating while admiring a feat you’ve seen over and over again, yet never feels old.

“He's more comfortable than ever in his own ability to lead especially as the team has gotten younger,” Kerr said. “He’s aware more is needed from a verbal standpoint. He’s more likely to speak up to guys.”

Why Steph Curry is the Golden State Warriors' key to another title

Curry is Berry Gordy, he’s Sean “Puffy” Combs, he’s Dr. Dre.

The music just sounds better when they’re doing it — you hear it, you feel it, you recognize the signature sound because of the secret sauce.

He’s the Motown sound, just as a Bay Area cousin.

On this day in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, hours before Curry turned a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit into a double-digit win with a 20-point masterpiece, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “1st of tha Month” is blasting while the Warriors are getting in extra work.

Sometimes it’s The Gap Band’s upbeat “Outstanding” blasting.

But inevitably, it’s Curry’s voice bellowing, speed-rapping lines from “Chappelle’s Show” to teammates, while receiving treatment on the sidelines, that draws laughter and energy.

It doesn’t help a team win games, but you know what you’re walking into, and you immerse yourself.

“You look at the Spurs, with Tim and Manu and Tony, they’re the model. They didn’t go back-to-back, but they were relevant on that championship scene,” Curry said. “Keeping that core together then adding young talent like Kawhi [Leonard]. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve done at the highest level, the heights we were at. [Then] the two-year low.”

Durant’s departure followed by Curry’s wrist injury in the 2019-20 season cast a long shadow over the Warriors’ ability to be contenders again, and subsequently, Curry’s days as a championship player.

Drafting James Wiseman then Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody puts the Warriors in a spot to be better in the future, but Curry’s longevity and excellence requires management and ownership to consider the present just as much, if not more.

The Spurs morphed into a different team around Tim Duncan, adding a superstar talent in Kawhi Leonard down the line. The Lakers added Worthy as a No. 1 pick in 1982.

There’s precedent, but there’s no guarantee the thin line will be walked.

“I had no choice to be patient. Last year turned into a story of its own, trying to chase the playoffs,” Curry said. “I had something to distract me the entire time. I missed the ability to compete at a level night in and out. Fifteen games in [now], we’re one of the best teams in the league.”

Golden State Warriors players Draymond Green and Stephen Curry look on against the Charlotte Hornets.
Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have the best record in the NBA through the early part of the season. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Curry said his conversations with general manager Bob Myers about personnel moves were productive over the past two years, even before he signed his four-year extension in August — and he expects the front office to be aggressive as the season progresses.

“That’s something Bob and Steve and the front office are constantly doing,” Curry said. “Anybody who doesn’t understand that doesn’t know how this business works. But meanwhile, what you have and the pieces you put together, it’s our job to make the most of it. We have a lot to work with.

“Losing sucks. Nothing about that timeline discouraged me from what could be coming around the corner. As long as I could keep playing at this level, Draymond, Klay coming off the injury …”

There was doubt about Curry being able to stay healthy and play this way — dragging the opposition to exhaustion — along with Green’s durability and suddenly Thompson coming off two major lower leg injuries.

But the early returns look good, with no end in sight and Thompson on the mend, as Curry cracked a joke about the conversation surrounding him being a product of the Golden State system.

“It all happens in the confines of what we’re doing and me being a system player,” he said with a wink.

No, Steph. You’re the system.