Seth Curry has always, to use a very technical term, been able to shoot the ever-loving sh*t out of the basketball. He is a Curry, after all, and dating back to his college days — first at Liberty, then at Duke — shooting has been the prominent tool in his aresenal. Even though he went undrafted and had to work his way through the G League, it seemed like a safe bet that Curry’s sheer gravity as a shooter would get him a look somewhere.
It took him a few years of bouncing around — he’d never stayed in one place for more than one year — but last season, Curry signed the first lengthy contract of his career when he put pen to paper on a four-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. Even with his gaudy stats, averaging 12.4 points per game and connecting on 45.2 percent of his triples in 64 games with 25 starts, Curry yet again found himself on the move this offseason. Dallas, in an attempt to shore up its defense, and Philadelphia, desperate for some shooting, agreed to a Curry-for-Josh Richardson swap that made sense for both sides, even if the general sentiment is that Richardson is a better player on the whole in a vaccum.
That last thing was what made the trade so interesting from the Sixers’ perspective. Richardson never quite fit in alongside his trio of big-money teammates in Philly (Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons) and their major free agent signing that summer (the likewise-jettisoned Al Horford). But he is still a good player, and if someone wanted to take a more macro perspective of this deal, it theoretically could serve as an interesting data point in the value of fit vs. the value of talent.
So far, the returns have been quite good for Philly. Just looking at lineups that feature Embiid, Harris, Simmons, and Curry/Richardson, via Cleaning the Glass, two things stick out. The first: The Sixers’ offense went from really bad at scoring last year (106.9 points per 100 possessions with an effective field goal percentage of 51.2 percent, good for the 21st and 23rd percentile, respectively, of lineups) to incredibly good at it this year (125.1 and 62.1 percent, respectively, both in the 99th percentile). There are obviously other mitigating factors — for example, the most-used lineup with that quartet last year also included Horford, while this year, he’s been replaced with Danny Green, giving the team more floor spacing and off-ball movement — but the general sentiment of “Curry has played a major role in transforming the Sixers’ offense” is not off-base.
We’ll dive into him, specifically, more, but the thing I find particularly interesting is this second point. Curry is a worse defender than Richardson. Green is a different defender than Horford. The entire idea behind last year’s Sixers was to be bigger and stronger and nastier than other teams on defense, and have that carry the team through offensive slights. And despite this, the lineups with Embiid, Harris, Simmons and Curry have not experienced a gigantic drop-off compared to when Richardson was plugged in. Last year: 102 points per 100 possessions, 50.6 effective field goal percentage allowed. This year: 103.2, 51.6 percent. Their turnover percentage is slightly up even if it is in the same ballpark (11.9 percent last year, 13.9 percent this year), same for their offensive rebounding percentage (19.7 percent up to 20.1 percent). Their free throw numbers, again, are fairly similar — a 16.6 free throw rate last year, up to a 17.8 free throw rate this year.
Basically, Philly could afford to surround Embiid and Simmons with shooting, bolstering their offense and giving those two (particularly Embiid, an MVP frontrunner) space to work because it is extremely hard to be bad on defense when your basketball team has Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on it. Besides, it’s not as though the Sixers added guys who are completely incapable on that end. Green is a solid defender, Harris has size, length, and is active (three things that help you get by on that side of the ball even if you’re not exactly Gary Payton), and Curry is good at using his inherent high hoops IQ as a Curry to his advantage.
Good one-on-one defense between Simmons and Grant. Grant is so engrossed in the battle he doesn't notice Curry coming in for the strip. pic.twitter.com/mVd0dvoZQO
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) January 24, 2021
Among their starting five, Green has given them good shooting (36.2 percent), while Harris is hitting triples at a career-best clip (43.8 percent). Curry, though, is torching teams with his ability to hit from downtown. He’s connecting on 50.7 percent of his triples, the best mark in the league. Funny enough, a higher percentage of his field goal attempts are from two (52.8 percent of them) than from three, and he’s hitting half of them, as well. He doesn’t get to the free throw line a ton, but when he does, he does not miss. Curry is, much like a revered ESPN docuseries, 30-for-30 from the charity stripe this season.
Philly is doing a phenomenal job of getting Curry the easiest sorts of looks, and he is doing an even better job knocking them down. He’s getting just a tick under three catch-and-shoot triples a game, which makes up about a third of his shot profile, per NBA.com’s stats site. He’s hitting 57.7 percent of them. On triples classified as “open” (nearest defender is 4-6 feet away) or “wide open” (6+ feet away), he’s hit 53 percent of his attempts. These make up 41.5 percent of the shots he takes. My favorite Curry number: He has been ridiculous on corner threes, where he’s not shooting a ton (a little more than 21 percent of his three-point attempts are in the corner) but he is connecting on 81.3 percent of those looks from the corner.
It helps that Doc Rivers has realized that keeping Curry on the floor alongside Embiid and Simmons would make everyone a little better. It’s easier for Embiid to set up shop inside the three-point line when Curry is there to space the floor, and Simmons has more room to work when the person defending Curry is unable to help off of him. Curry, meanwhile, obviously benefits from playing alongside the best or second-best center in the league (Nuggets and Sixers fans, debate among yourselves) and a 6’11 point guard who can see any sliver of light and pick a pass.
Cleaning the Glass indicates that Curry has played 1,038 possessions this season. Of those, 54 have come with both Embiid and Simmons off the floor, 152 have come while Simmons is resting, and 191 are sans Embiid. In the least shocking thing you will ever read, the numbers back up the benefit of having Curry out there with them:
Here’s a pair of very simple examples of how Curry helps both of them out. Starting with Embiid, look at this moment against the Kings from earlier this week. The big man has the ball in the corner with Curry standing just above the break. Embiid puts the ball on the deck and Buddy Hield, despite looking directly at Embiid, decides it’s not worth trying to slide down to poke the ball away, because doing so would leave Curry wide open. While Harrison Barnes eventually helps from the weakside, letting Joel Embiid get into the paint unperturbed is a really good way to let the Philadelphia 76ers score two points. This is exactly what happens.
With Simmons, here’s a moment of him and Curry working on a two-man game from the same tilt against the Kings. Simmons gets the ball on the block against Barnes and begins to back him down, but springs out to the perimeter, dumps the ball to Curry, and sets a screen on De’Aaron Fox. Barnes can’t get out there quick enough, and the combination of Simmons’ hoops IQ and Curry’s savvy and quick release gets three points for the Sixers.
Great job by Ben Simmons with the impromptu DHO and good screen to spring Seth Curry loose for the 3 pic.twitter.com/gUoVluYMgg
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 10, 2021
Curry and Simmons forming a fun little pick-and-then do something game isn’t a big surprise — Simmons as a screener and Curry running off of it creates quite the pick your poison scenario. Give Curry any space at all and the above is going to happen, give him too much respect and you’re running the risk of this happening.
I like how much Ben Simmons is screening early in this game.
Runs a good DHO with Seth Curry here. Sets a solid screen, Thompson is forced to step up against a potential jumper, then Simmons dives into space for a dunk. pic.twitter.com/mBFybuzXU1
— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) January 23, 2021
A basketball team going from where Philly was last year — listless, stuck in the mud, extremely injured, etc. — to where it is now doesn’t happen because one player came in and did one thing. It’s a collection of things piled on top of one another paying off in the form of better basketball. The Sixers went through, more or less, a top-down reshuffling, with changes to the front office, coaching staff, and roster. Curry is merely one of a number of changes that have gotten them to this point, but having said that, a whole lot of NBA teams make changes every offseason, and not all of them work, not by a longshot.
Adding Curry, though, has paid off in a big way for Philadelphia. Things just make more sense for them when he is on the floor, in large part because he has reciprocated their faith in his ability to make life easier on Embiid and Simmons by knocking down shots at a torrid rate. Perhaps it will fall off a bit — hitting 81.3 percent of his corner threes is gonna be hard to keep up! — but at the very least, any falling off he might suffer would merely take him from “potentially historic shooting season” to “remarkably good shooting season.” The Sixers would, assuredly, be happy with that.