The Only Man Who Can Stop Steph

ByEthan Sherwood Strauss ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 2, 2017

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 8 NBA Playoffs Issue. Subscribe today!

It's March 15, and Stephen Curry is hard at work in his laboratory, firing shots at the basket tucked in the corner of Golden State's practice facility. Steph's hoop has been a constant since 2012, back when he lived in a loft on the same block as the facility. Curry might change shoes at halftime if his shot is errant, but he's never changing baskets.

The hoop is on the fifth floor of the pinkish-beige downtown Oakland Marriott, resting above the city's attached, unassuming strip of a convention center. Atop the beige box sits a panopticon where media and visitors stare at the efforts of a man too focused on the rim to notice. It's a window into the drudgery that informs the fireworks. He's sprinting through his shooting routine with purpose, having made 25.8 percent of his 3s over his past eight games. No matter who you are, that's not good. If you're Steph Curry, who hit 45.4 percent of his 3s last season, it's awful. SportVU tracking data says Steph has missed 28 of his past 35 "wide open" 3-pointers. He's searching.

He's also singing.

"I am not throwing away my ... shot," Steph belts out, followed by the whoosh of leather hitting twine. "I am not throwing away my ... shot." Another swish.

Curry has just seen Hamilton in San Francisco. Not having known much about it going in, he was entranced by the production and has since embraced "My Shot" as an anthem ("for obvious reasons," Steph explains with a smile).

Hamilton uses "shot" as a metaphor for opportunity. And there the parallels between man and musical end. Alexander Hamilton, or at least the stage version of him, is a selfish jerk whose arrogant undoing causes his wife to belt, "I hope that you burn." Meanwhile, Curry might lead the league in G-rated, adorable portrayals of his marriage on social media. But while he has little in common with the Hamilton of Hamilton, after a night at the Orpheum Theatre with his wife, Ayesha, he's feeling an ambitious ode to reclaiming what's his.

Curry really is nice. Ask anyone in the organization. Ask anyone who's had multiple interactions with him. As Draymond Green often says of his teammate, "It's not a front." If "nice" is Steph's brand, it's a brand buoyed by authenticity.

In many ways, nice built this team. It's allowed Steph to delegate powers to others who, fortunately, have used those powers well. It's allowed him to focus on improving himself, while leaving others to do the kinds of jobs that augment his efforts. It's allowed the Warriors to fire Mark Jackson, against Curry's wishes. And it allowed the team to make its biggest, boldest move of all: force the very nice man who resurrected the franchise to marginalize himself -- and like it.

THE MIAMI superteam was born out of the deep friendship between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a bottom-up coup -- one, some would hazard, that began brewing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when they won gold for Team USA. The Kevin Durant-era Warriors began differently. It wasn't two superstars turning their friendship into a working relationship. Golden State's Durant liaison was, in fact, Green, not Curry.

By most accounts, Curry gets along with Durant just fine. But according to team sources, the Warriors had to approach Steph and ask him to join the recruitment last summer. And he did. Ever the good soldier, Steph abandoned his Under Armour basketball camp, located in Hawaii, to hop on a plane and fly to New York's Hamptons. As The Undefeated's Marc Spears reported, "According to a person who saw the text messages, Curry told Durant in a text message that he could care less about who is the face of the franchise, who gets the most recognition or who sells the most shoes (Curry is with Under Armour, Durant with Nike)."

Curry's renouncement of shoe sales came at a curious time. A season earlier, he had been asked after practice whether he wanted the best-selling shoe in the country. "Of course," he responded. But last summer, his sneaker brand was in serious need of a rebound. The 2016 Finals saw his kicks roasted on social media before he and his team suffered an ignominious flameout. Under Armour sensed this opportunity and unveiled the slogan for its preseason ad for Steph: "Make That Old."

To make anything "old," though, Curry needed control of the narrative. And with Durant coming to town, he would have no such authorial power. Once Durant did arrive, he didn't exactly take it easy on the Curry brand either, telling The Ringer's Bill Simmons that Curry's maligned, bone-white Chef Curry 2s "were bad."

Today, if you look down at the floor during a Golden State practice or game, you'll notice that the most commonly worn shoe on the team is Kevin Durant's KD 9. There's a reason for this, beyond the shoe's inherent appeal. In training camp, Nike sent a shipment to every player on the roster. And while the Curry-Durant dynamic is cooperative on the floor, off the floor it's conquest. Nike, quite logically, wants to destroy Curry's brand and does not mind using Durant as a proxy. Or as Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted over the summer, "For Nike, this is a coup: It wanted to slow Under Armour's momentum with Steph Curry and Warriors. Now, KD promises to impact Curry's star."

This tweet has been prophecy.

IT'S CHRISTMAS Day, and while Durant is having his game of the year -- 36 points, 15 rebounds -- Curry is having one of his worst, ending the day with 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting. It also happens to be the most viewed game of the season. On the final six possessions, Curry touches the ball twice: once to simply hand off the ball for a play run by Green, the other, a swished 3-pointer by Curry that came from the ether of transition. Otherwise, in the half court, Steph is merely a decoy, a screen setter.

On the final defensive possession, after having guarded Cleveland's Kyrie Irving well the play before, Curry is benched for the longer Shaun Livingston. As Irving hits the game winner, Curry's head is in his hands.

After the game, coach Steve Kerr criticizes Curry's decision-making. "I think he can be a little smarter, I think he can make better decisions, and that'll help against anybody," Kerr says. "I'm not worried about him missing shots; I'm more worried about just decision-making and making sure that we're where we need to be as a group."

Later, Curry takes to the interview room and is asked whether he was frustrated by the benching. "Yeah," he starts, followed by a smile and a snort. On the Curry scale, this is DEFCON 3-level subversion. (On the Draymond Green scale, it's just Tuesday.)

The smile fades as Curry returns to safe mode. "It's his call, obviously," Curry says. "But you'd love -- the competitive nature, you want to be out there to try to make a play. So that'll never die in me."

At the team's next practice, Curry tells the media he wants more pick-and-rolls in Kerr's offensive scheme (DEFCON 2). Curry had long bought into Kerr's off-ball-movement offense, the one they'd both ridden to a championship, but it was no secret he had grown weary of its costs this season. Curry was happy to leverage his shooting ability to free teammates up with screens (thus his massive plus-minus numbers in a less-than-dazzling season). But even team-first Steph has his limits.

It's a fairly common battle between coach and perimeter superstar (see: LeBron James vs. Erik Spoelstra in Miami): The superstar wants the control that pick-and-rolls afford, the coach wants a more sustainable method. Still, Kerr has reason to avoid the pick-and-roll beyond a stubborn adherence to philosophy: Both of his superstars wish to be the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, and Durant's screening ability leaves much to be desired. So for Kerr to go heavy on pick-and-roll is to marginalize one of his superstars. Kerr's solution thus far? To simply run fewer pick-and-rolls.

AFTER CHRISTMAS, KERR acts like a man who has gotten the message. He readjusts the offense, running more pick-and-rolls, which coincides with a Steph surge. The downside? Durant hits an uncommon snag in the first three games of February, a regular kind of NBA dip but an unusual one for a man so accustomed to controlling the offense. In a game in Sacramento, Durant goes 2-for-10 as Green screams at him. "Kevin looked tired tonight," Kerr says after the game. "I think he was out of gas. He's been so incredible all year, been so efficient. He's allowed to have one of those." When asked whether Kerr was correct about fatigue, Durant says no: "Me? I wasn't tired. ... I was trying to make the right play, but sometimes you just gotta break it off and go score."

Then the pendulum swings back. Over five games, from Feb. 8 to 15, Curry slumps his way into the All-Star break, and Durant gets rolling again. Curry shoots just 25 percent from deep, his usage dipping from 28.4 percent for the season to 25.8. Durant's usage rises to 30.7 percent as he averages 25 points at a 67.1 percent true shooting rate. The KD-Steph dynamic is proving to be less complementary than expected -- less a symbiosis than a seesaw.

It's likely no coincidence, then, that Curry's best stretch of the season comes while Durant is rehabbing his injured left knee. At first, Curry and the Warriors sputter in Durant's absence, dropping five of seven. But in what would become a win during this stretch, a Warriors triumph at Madison Square Garden, ABC mics pick up Kerr trying to encourage Curry out of his slump: "Here's what I'm going to show you. That's your shooting totals [3-for-13 at the time]. That's your plus/minus [plus-15 at the time]," Kerr says, seated next to Curry on the bench. "All right. So it's not always tied together. You're doing great stuff out there. The tempo is so different when you're out there. Everything you generate for us is so positive. It shows up here. Not always there, but it always shows up here. You're doing great. Carry on, my son."

Then something funny happens. After Curry belts those lines from "My Shot," his Warriors begin singing a different tune. Over the next 13 games, he goes on to average 27.5 points on 52.1 percent from the field and 50.4 percent from 3 (on 9.9 attempts per game), to go along with 8.2 assists. It is the Steph of old.

A March 18 pregame text from Curry's private trainer, Brandon Payne, had predicted it. "He will shoot better tonight," it read, followed by his reasons. Payne had met with Curry and they'd worked on posture and how it relates to Curry's follow-through. By influence or coincidence, he bursts out of his slump that evening. It begins with Curry's old 2015 Finals muse and antagonist, Matthew Dellavedova. Steph puts the ball between his legs, lurches at Delly, leaps back and cans a quarter-ending 3. It's the kind of isolation magic that's been missing, the sort of improvisational jazz that had been both mesmerizing and routine before Curry was focused on incorporating another superstar. Later, with 30 seconds left in the half, Steph makes the return official when he eagerly sprints into and launches a 3-pointer with his heel on the half-court logo. Swish. Steph hunches over and duck-walks away from his creation. As one does. He'll finish with six 3s in only three quarters of play.

"I think Steph catered to the whole theme of pleasing," Bruce Fraser, the Warriors-appointed shooting coach, would later say. "He wanted to please. He catered to the whole, took less for himself. The irony in this season so far is that we had to learn how to play with KD, had to learn how to play without him. And both of those were challenges."

BACK ON JAN. 17, the Warriors are breaking ground on the Chase Center. The team, for years a nonentity in glitzy San Francisco compared with the beloved Giants, is building a modern arena in, as it's termed in the real estate community, "the last good piece of land in San Francisco." Three hundred South St. in Mission Bay is the sweet spot -- proximity to the Financial District, proximity to public transportation and the Giants' AT&T Park, plus the booming surrounding area. A San Francisco developer can't expand north; there are simply too many existing structures. Expanding west is unwise; there's a dearth of public transportation. The Chase Center popped up in the only place that makes sense, a spot that happens to be adjacent to the Bay Area's hottest startups. It is perhaps the most coveted open land in America.

Curry, a Chase endorser, is not in attendance. His agent, Jeff Austin, assures that Curry was offered the opportunity but declined due to a busy schedule. Instead, it's Durant on the stage, primed to grab a golden shovel. Of his absence, Curry would later say, "We had a day off, and KD stepped up and took my place."

This is a San Francisco event of the highest order, the poshest of the posh, the rare midday Bay Area party at which attire is formal. Billionaires are in attendance. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is here. Former mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom are as well. And while Curry is not in attendance, Austin is, and he's one seat away from Golden State general manager Bob Myers. The man between Myers and Austin is Rich Kleiman, Durant's agent and a now-ubiquitous figure in the halls of Oracle Arena.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob is happy. This is the apotheosis of what he wanted, the kind of validation that matters in this town, his town. After discussing the "ordeal" of getting this done, he acknowledges those who made it possible. He thanks Chase Bank. He thanks San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. He thanks "all the agencies that had an impact." Various architecture firms are name-checked. Finally, he looks toward Kevin Durant. "Thank you, Kevin," he says.

Steph Curry, the Warriors' two-time MVP, the man who in many ways made all of this possible, goes unthanked.

IT'S MARCH 14, the day before Curry's shootaround sing-along, and Steph is celebrating his 29th birthday. He and the Warriors have already celebrated it, in the sense that they got to beat the woeful 76ers. Now, after the game, they've blessed the occasion with a cake in the locker room, the confection burnished with an Under Armour logo and icing forged into the form of his trademark mouthguard, next to a pi symbol. Steph's birthday is 3.14.

It's a geeky math joke. Steph's always had an affinity for math. He possesses a knack for recalling the geometry of a play, explaining where everyone was and where they were supposed to be. Otherwise, he's a reticent man, his monotone languidly strolling along, avoiding matters of controversy like a low-speed Roomba ambling away from sharp objects. "You can hear him boring himself," San Francisco Chronicle writer Rusty Simmons used to say of Curry's interview technique.

Now, after the beating of the 76ers in circumstances too close for comfort, 106-104, Curry prepares for another drone-fest. He didn't have his best game, shooting 8-of-23. Still, he's had worse outings.

It's then that Lacob enters the locker room and enthusiastically congratulates Green on a performance -- 20 points, 9 boards, 8 assists -- that saved the team from disaster. Lacob, whom the Warriors did not make available to comment for this story, fancies himself something of a Draymond figure, full of brash energy, never one to mince words. In a talk given at his old venture capital firm, Lacob gushed of Green's pitch to Durant, "Draymond Green started off hard sell, and he was great. He gave the heavy pitch, which no one else there would have done, except for me, because I'm basically the Draymond Green of the business side." It's rare that Lacob will enter the locker room after a game, but when he does, he's almost certain to pay a visit to Green.

Then Lacob ambles over to Curry. Lacob rarely praises his best player, at least in public. If their relationship were a marriage, it would be best described as cold. "Happy birthday," he begins, his tone somber. "I know it wasn't the best of nights for you." Lacob says it loudly, in front of reporters milling about, a hand extended toward Curry.

Whatever you think of Joe Lacob, none of this -- four All-Stars on the roster, the championship, 73 wins, the highest TV ratings for national and local games -- existed before he got here. On Nov. 12, 2010, when Lacob officially took over, the Warriors were an NBA backwater, a no-go zone where functional basketball went to disappear. That's what happens when a team makes the postseason six times over a 33-season stretch. So it's difficult to exaggerate Lacob's run of success as an owner so far. He's an organization man, someone who constantly seeks credit for the various layers of Golden State's operation that fans can't see. Maybe that's why Lacob would later tell The New York Times Magazine that when it came to Golden State's success, "It's not just Steph Curry."

"It's not just Steph Curry." The comment isn't actually that ridiculous, in a vacuum. It's a true statement, albeit a curious one, in lieu of what Curry made possible. It's not just Steph Curry, but without Steph Curry, it also simply isn't.

It goes beyond the brilliant play and organization-bolstering equanimity off the court. Due in part to previous ankle injuries, Curry is the biggest bargain in sports thanks to the four-year, $44 million contract he signed in 2012 coming off season-ending surgery. It's the deal that set the table for everything else, a superstar at a super discount that allowed the Warriors to shore up the roster and profit in ways no other team could.

STEPH CURRY HAS his own take on things, and it might well differ from yours. He's outside the visitors locker room in Houston, still sweating after a practice in which Durant returned to the fold. It's humid and oddly empty at the Toyota Center event level, especially considering the cacophony of fans and autograph seekers that usually follows this man. It's late March in the season in which Curry led the league in plus/minus (plus-1,015) but was a nonfactor in the MVP debate, his statistics dwarfed by one-man offenses in Oklahoma City and Houston. It was the season in which he experienced declines in points, assists, rebounds, steals, 3-pointers, free throws and every major shooting percentage. It was the season in which Under Armour stock, of which Curry owns a significant amount, dropped precipitously in November on the news that his latest shoe was badly underselling. Now was the time to ask the question that dare not ask its name. What was his take on a year in which he was no longer an immortal?

"The way everybody phrases this is crazy," he starts. "It's crazy to me. It's like a conundrum. I'm playing well. Obviously I set the bar really high."

It's unusual to hear Curry, an obsessive perfectionist, be this complimentary of his own game. There's palpable disbelief in his voice, as though he's seeing something that should be obvious to all. "At the end of the day, if I've learned anything, it's what happens next."

Indeed, by season's end, the seesaw act had worked to the tune of 67 wins. And after Durant's return to the lineup in early April, the two combined for 119 points on 37-of-66 shooting in two games together in their first-round series sweep of the Trail Blazers. Still, two games does not a championship run make. In fact, it takes two months. Few have learned that lesson quite like Curry. One month he was touted as the "unanimous MVP." The next, after a disappointing loss in the Finals, "unanimous MVP" became a sardonic epithet, a cudgel against a guy who'd rushed back from injury and into his own basketball Waterloo. He knows all too well that a season of never-ending praise can be upended in days. "I know if I'm not playing well," he says. "And I can't say that anybody's right in the way that they talk about my year."

The tone is one of defiance, the nice guy offering a soft indictment of the superstar celebration process. The nice guy has done some nice things to facilitate wins. Maybe he won't get due credit, maybe he'll regret certain sacrifices, but he'll know what he did and why he did it. And as he slips into the locker room, he sighs, offering one final thought: "Hypebeasts are gonna hypebeast."

Steph Curry's a nice guy. He's not saying who the hypebeasts are. He's not throwing away his shot.

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