How Curry overcame ankle issues

ByTom Haberstroh ESPN logo
Friday, June 5, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry shook LeBron James.

It took place at the top of the key, after the four-time MVP switched onto the reigning one, hoping to bottle him up with 3:45 left in the fourth quarter down and the Cavaliers up by one.

Curry planted hard on his right foot, darted left with a crossover through the legs, spun counterclockwise with a back pivot and spun back around again with such force that it sent James stumbling backwards into the paint, as if Curry clubbed him in the jaw.

Curry stood James down. James surrendered. Curry rose. Splash. Warriors up one.

It's moments like these -- when Curry puts defenders in a blender -- that make Curry's past ankle problems harder and harder to remember.

Three years ago, Curry's papier-mch ankles, not his wet jumper, was what he was known for. Curry played just 26 games in 2011-12 because of ankle problems and, as a result, signed a team-friendly four-year extension that offseason that pays him an average of $11 million annually. The MVP's salary this season wasn't even high enough to place in the top 50 richest in the sport.

But Curry played 80 games this season. He missed one game because of a sore ankle back in February and another for rest. That would seem like a pipedream three years ago.

So how did we get here? How did Curry put those ankle worries to rest?

It's all in the hips. Literally.

That's the answer given by the Warriors' director of athletic performance, Keke Lyles, a leading expert in injury prevention and maximizing body potential through the use of cutting-edge technology like STATS LLC's SportVU cameras and Catapult Sports' GPS accelerometers to track movement.

When Lyles joined the Warriors' training staff two summers ago, he asked Curry to perform a simple stationary pose you might find in a yoga book: the single-leg hip airplane.

You can try it yourself. Stand on one leg, tilt your body forward at the hip and get as long as possible with your arms out and opposite leg outstretched to resemble a Boeing 747. Once you have that, slowly open up your hip toward the sky.

Did you struggle? Curry wobbled and swayed at first, too.

"He wasn't awful," Lyles says. "But now the difference is night and day."

Lyles' prognosis was simple, yet perhaps a little counterintuitive. He hoped Curry's issues could be mostly solved not by strengthening his ankles, but his hips and glutes.

Those kinds of herky-jerky movements, at game speed, tax joints like ankles. The remedy is balance and core strength to make those movements fluid and stable. "I think Steph really liked to use his ankles to control everything," Lyles said. "But now he's using his hips instead. You know how everything laughed at Tiger Woods saying he just needed to activate his glutes? Well, Tiger's right."

Lyles likes to say that Curry is the most impressive athlete he's come across in the NBA. That doesn't mean Curry is the strongest. That honor goes to Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic, whom Lyles trained as part of the Timberwolves staff years ago. "He's a beast," Lyles said.

But in just about every measure of body control, Curry is off the charts.

"His ability to control his body in space is unlike anyone I've seen," Lyles says. "He's super quick, but the whole time he's in total control. He's doing such high-speed movements, accels, decels -- and he's in total control."

That James play in the fourth quarter may seem like improvisation, but every moment was calculated.

Same thing when he produced perhaps the Vine of the Year in early March by somehow dribbling his way out of a web of Los Angeles Clippers defenders and hit a stepback 3. Every move, every odd contortion of the body, every sudden jolt was worked on ahead of time.

"That wasn't an accident at all," Lyles says. "We do a lot of things to teach guys how to control their bodies in weird positions. To me, injuries happen in awkward positions and if you can't control yourself in those awkward positions, you're going to get hurt. So we try to teach our guys about awkward positions and extend their limit of range of motion with the body. And Curry just excels."

To leverage those skills, Curry needed to strengthen his core so he could move with conviction and power. Don't be fooled by a lanky body with a listed weight of 190 pounds.

"He's probably 10 times stronger than what people think," Lyles says.

Exhibit A: Curry can deadlift 400 pounds.

The exercise the Warriors prefer is the trapbar dead lift, which is basically a safer way to mimic lifting a giant boulder off the ground. One of the primary muscles that it works? Yup, the gluteus maximus.

"Steph's the second strongest on our team pulling that one," Lyles says with a straight face. "For his size, Steph is ridiculous strong."

Only center Festus Ezeli, who stands about seven feet and 270 pounds, can top Curry on that particular lift. That may be hard to believe, but that core power is the secret that unlocks Curry's magic.

"We knew he was strong," Lyles says, "but when he started pushing that kind of weight, I was like 'This guy is just a freak.'"

Curry and the Warriors don't think they can prevent a sore ankle with 100 percent certainty. That stuff happens no matter how strong your core is. But they've found ways to ensure Curry isn't so dependent on his ankles like he used to be.

Now, as Curry weaves through defenders, he's not counting on his ankle to provide all the stability -- instead the larger muscles of his core are doing a lot of the work to hold his leg in place.

The more Curry doesn't rely solely on his ankles, the less we'll hear about them wearing down.

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