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The Great Stephen Curry vs Kevin Durant Debate (2017 Finals)
I’m sure this nuanced, evidence-driven take will settle the never-ending debate.
Notes From 2022
Why I Haven’t Re-Published This Before
I wrote this article in 2017 for BBallBreakdown.com, but the whole site was vaporized from the internet by ClutchPoints. I re-published here a number of articles, but I didn’t re-post this one.
The reason is that in 2017 I wrote it to take a subtle nuanced look at how Steph and KD helped each other in the offense. In 2017, the narrative was “Steph is no better than Steve Novak with a cute mom, and was being carried by KD’s greatness”. Today, the pendulum has swung the other way into “KD was just Alfonzo McKinnie with a sneaker line who got all his points from Steph’s gravity”.
Those are both completely wrong. Both players played at a Finals MVP level and would have been very deserving. It wasn’t Steph’s team, it wasn’t KD’s team, it was THEIR team, along with Klay and Dray and Andre.
So, I don’t really want to be part of these kinds of yelling matches, so I haven’t reposted the article.
Why It’s Time to Re-Publish It
Recently, people have been citing the article even though it doesn’t exist on the internet anymore!
For instance it was the basis of this NBC Sports article from Jun 2 2022:
which extensively quoted from a self-aggregation I did on GSOM. And then it comes up randomly like here:
from someone’s trawling archive.org.
So I’ve decided it’s better just to have it out there with the full text and original videos so people can look at the data themselves.
From 2017 onwards, the example of KD was used by bad faith or ignorant commenters to discredit Steph Curry, but that is not a reason to over-compensate today.
Kevin Durant’s fantastic play elevated the 2017 Warriors to become probably the greatest basketball team in history.
KD was an essential part of the dynasty, and sacrificed stats, money and health for team success.
Going out the door, KD did the team a gigantic favor by agreeing to the sign-and-trades that resulted in GSW getting Russell and eventually Wiggins and Kuminga. In fact, that was against KD’s self-interest, so it was a real goodwill gift.
Update: belilaugh brings up a great point that it actually benefitted KD.
Here is my reply: Ah, that tweet thread is very interesting. In summary, the trade gave BRK the cap space to (1) offer about $16M more to KD and KI guaranteed (as opposed to offering it as unlikely bonuses), and (2) sign DeAndre Jordan and (3) sign Nic Claxton to a 3 yr contract and not 2 yr. Plus there was also a Top 20 protected GSW pick.
So, it definitely *was* in KD’s self-interest.
But I can also see that if KD was mad at GSW he could have easily said no and told BRK to clear the cap space by trading Napier and Graham to some other team. And even if they couldn’t, (1) probably means nothing to the Ks in the context of their mega-contracts, earnings, and (3) I don’t know if KD cares about NC, so the main attraction was (2) because KD really wanted DAJ on the team.
Yes, KD gave up certain championship contention to try to form his own team where he could be the undisputed #1 with his flaky friends. As a basketball artist, it is natural for KD to try to make new things and he’s reaping the whirlwind today. Even if you delight in the implosion of the Brooklyn Army Of Flakes, don’t erase all of his contributions to The Dynasty Warriors.
The Original 2017 Article
by Eric Apricot, Sept 20 2017
For the better part of two seasons, Stephen Curry was the most decorated basketball player on the planet; winning two MVP awards (including the first unanimous selection), an NBA championship and leading a 73-win Golden State Warriors. Between otherworldly shooting, advanced handles and highlight reel playmaking, the NBA had never seen a player of Curry’s physical stature in such a dominant position. Perhaps that’s a reason why some players—retired and active—and pundits have downplayed the heights Curry reached.
With the signing of Kevin Durant, the Warriors finally had a superstar with a more conventional physical profile. As the Warriors’ leading scorer and part-time LeBron James defender, Durant had the Finals’ iconic moment—a go-ahead pull-up jumper at the end of Game 3— and had such a marvelous 2017 NBA Finals, that it was easy to overlook Curry’s vital contributions.
When asked what the series difference was, LeBron James simply said, “KD.” Even normally sober sites like FiveThirtyEight declared “They Are Kevin Durant’s Warriors Now,” barely mentioning Curry in the series wrap. This neglect reached comedic heights when Coach Steve Kerr forgot to mention Curry in his parade speech.
Despite willingly sharing team leadership, Curry managed an impressive Finals line himself, averaging 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 9.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Furthermore, Curry got double-teamed aggressively throughout the series, sometimes leaving Durant wide open as defenders scrambled to cover Curry instead.
An argument could be made for Curry remaining the most valuable and best player on the Warriors. When he has a bad game, Golden State loses. Curry’s most ardent supporters even argue that Curry got Durant the Finals MVP by taking all the defensive heat. In fact, Durant himself recently argued against a fan levelling this exact criticism on Twitter.
Judgment of who was the “true” Finals MVP is ultimately subjective. But we can analyze the basketball question of how much of Durant’s amazing production was due to Curry’s help and vice versa.
The simplest, most holistic answer is having two of them on the court creates space for both, relieving them of the pressure of creating offense every single play. It’s not Durant’s team or Curry’s team; it’s THEIR team.
But that would be a boring, mature answer not worthy of creating multiple Twitter accounts to address. Instead, let’s look at some statistics and go play-by-play through actual video of the Finals.
Using the Official Numbers
A slightly less boring answer is to say that Kevin Durant scored 176 points, and Curry assisted on 18 of Durant’s baskets for 40 pts, or 8.0 PPG which is a big chunk of Durant’s series-leading 35.2 PPG. Without these points, Durant and Curry would have finished with almost the exact same number of points in the Finals (KD ahead 136 to 134).
However, the boxscore assist stat can be deceptive because it omits plays where Curry didn’t directly pass to Durant and where the defense broke down due to Curry, and it also gives too much credit for plays where Curry made a basic pass to a virtuoso Durant play. Instead, we are going to look at video of every basket Durant scored in the Finals and see which ones came from individual excellence, which came from Curry’s gravity or playmaking, and which were enabled by other playmakers.
Using Video Evidence
Let’s cut right to the chase. I made a supercut of every Durant basket and put them in three categories: (1) Durant baskets created by Curry through passes, gravity or screens, (2) Durant baskets created by other Warriors, and (3) Durant baskets created with individual excellence. I acknowledge this is subjective, so if you disagree with me, you can use the videos to write your own analysis.
For completeness, I made the same supercut for every Curry basket in the analogous three categories. All three Curry videos are in the same video file.
Statistics follow after the videos.
Kevin Durant’s Scoring
Stephen Curry’s Scoring:
Notes on the Video Evidence
Here is the breakdown of Durant’s and Curry’s points by game.
The eye test differed with the official assist judgment on many plays, but amusingly, it gave almost the same final total: Curry created 42 pts for Durant by eye (as opposed to 40 official points assisted).
The first thing that probably jumps out at you is that Curry created a LOT more points for Durant than Durant did for Curry (almost four times as many!). This makes sense as Curry is meant to be more of a facilitator and Durant more of a finisher, but I was still surprised by the big difference. My count was even generous to Durant, giving credit for a sloppy screen for a long 3, and a Curry foul shot for Dahntey Jones yelling at KD. I was stricter with Curry, and counted some plays as Others which had Curry’s impact.
I was also surprised by how much of his own scoring Curry generated himself. It really stands out when you watch the supercut video. Curry generated 78% of his own scoring, while KD generated 61%. The Warriors collectively produced more points for Durant than Curry, 26-25. In fact, not counting the bizarre Game 4, Curry produced more points solo than Durant did, 89-83.
One other interesting pattern. The Warriors system and other players created very few points for KD in the road games. This supports the conventional wisdom that in playoff games on the road, defenses are tougher (probably due to energy, comfort, friendly whistles) and it’s important to have players that can generate offense when plays are foiled.
Game By Game Comments
Looking at Durant’s points, Curry created the most points for KD in Game 1. This is because the Cavaliers defense (particularly in transition) was a disaster and they did memorably allow Durant dunks on a couple of fast breaks to prevent a Curry 3.
In Game 2, Cleveland cleaned up the very worst of the transition errors, but still had trouble keeping up with the Warriors motion offense. Notably, the Cavs double teamed Curry when Durant set a screen for him, allowing Durant to attack a rotating defender.
Game 3 was a different story. Desperate and on their home court, the Cavs played much tighter, physical defense, which gummed up the Warriors flow offense. The Warriors did NOT counter with a tight rotation and a heavy dose of Curry-Durant pick and roll, choosing instead to rely on a deep bench to wear down the Cavaliers. This resulted in Durant having to create much more of the offense through individual excellence, which he did in the crucial last part of the fourth quarter, making up for a so-so rest of game (KD ended up +0 for Game 3 with 3 TOs, Curry was +11 with 1 TO).
In Game 4, the Cavs not only had the greatest playoff shooting game in history, but they started to double team both Curry and Durant on pick and roll actions. Lost in the historic offensive bombing, was the growing pattern that Curry created easy baskets for Durant when double teamed. Also notable is that Curry’s bad results in Game 4 came basically from a dip in his individual shot creation/making.
This led, in Game 5, the Warriors to emphasize the Curry-Durant pick and roll, as we analyzed carefully earlier, forcing the Cavaliers to double team only one of them, and the Cavs chose to trap Curry. This opened up the floor to Durant for 9 points and a number of assists as well.
Curry directly created a lot of points for Durant in the 2017 Finals, through a combination of gravity, passing and screening, about 8 PPG on average. He continues to be an underrated player, and would have been a plausible Finals MVP.
Durant created a lot of points through individual excellence, about 21.6 points per game. So it is unfair to say that he was carried by Curry or the system. The video shows he made numerous difficult contested shots. He was a very deserving Finals MVP, especially considering his defensive contributions.
Furthermore, Durant had the least help and created the most points in the most crucial road Game 3, which sealed the series. He had a stellar last half of the fourth quarter when he created 14 points.
Durant had the most help from Curry in Game 1 and Game 5, causing observant fans to slightly overrate Curry’s effect throughout the series.
BOTH Durant and Curry were trapped by the Cavs when running the pick and roll separately. However, when Durant screened for Curry, the Cavs did always choose to double-team Curry.
Thus, we judge, In the matter of Curry’s effect on Durant’s Finals offensive production, that Curry is very underrated by mainstream pundits and fans, but somewhat overrated by his strongest advocates.