How Stephen Curry’s ‘organized chaos’ fuels his record-breaking career

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STEPHEN CURRY KNOWS exactly how far he has left to go. Now that he’s on the verge of passing Reggie Miller for second place on the NBA’s career 3-pointer list — he’s nine away from passing the Pacers great — Curry needs just 422 more to eclipse Ray Allen to become the top 3-point shooter in history.

To get there, Curry, the two-time MVP, will have to travel across roughly 275 more miles of hardwood while relying upon a part of his game that has, until now, received little attention. It’s a singular skill that’s been vital to Curry’s iconic career, Golden State’s three NBA titles — and even the Warriors’ current restart: his exhaustive, acrobatic work away from the ball.

It took Miller 18 seasons to reach his 2,560 3s. Curry is about to do it in just over 11 — in part because of his ability to run roughly 2.5 miles per game in order to get open. (That’s nearly 70 marathons over the course of his career.) In anticipation of Curry moving up the career list, and for a deeper understanding of just how he did it, we broke down, frame by frame, a scoring sequence from Game 4 of the 2019 Western Conference finals — the last time Curry and Warriors were at the peak of their historic powers.

It begins with a miss.

The yellow digits of the Moda Center’s game clock blink down to 1:10 remaining in the first quarter as Portland center Zach Collins’ corner 3 clanks violently off the glass. It floats softly above the rim, then down into the outstretched hands of Golden State’s Kevon Looney. The Warriors center hands it to Shaun Livingston, who takes one dribble, then shuffles it to Curry, who, from the right wing, takes the first step on this 226-foot journey.

Curry approaches midcourt with the ball and immediately falls victim to his own reputation. Over the past eight seasons Curry has, almost single-handedly, radically altered the geometry of the half-court offense. His range and accuracy have weaponized an area of the court 10 feet beyond the 3-point line that used to be largely dormant. Curry’s shooting has been so otherworldly for so long, in fact — he has led the league in 3s five times and is first among active players with a .435 shooting percentage — that even hoops historians have to reference other sports to find a suitable comparison.

“Curry has the same effect as Lawrence Taylor,” says David Thorpe, a analyst and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. “You always had to account for LT [a New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker], and it made people paranoid and wore teams down mentally and you could use that fear to free up other defenders because people were so scared of leaving LT alone. Curry has that same effect. It was everyone’s job to make sure LT didn’t break your quarterback’s leg in half. With Curry, it’s everyone’s job to make sure he doesn’t break your back with his shot.”

As Curry trots toward the top of the Moda Center court logo, still some 37 feet from the basket, five sets of eyes are glued on him. Three Portland defenders, including his younger brother, Seth, are above the arc and ready to engage. After more than a decade in the league, there are few freebies for Steph, even at 35 feet. On most trips up the court, and especially now with Klay Thompson still hurt and Kevin Durant long gone, this is the challenge that awaits Curry in the later part of his career: If he wants space to shoot, he has to carve it out by himself with his legs and his wits.

“Steph tests you in so many ways beyond just his shooting,” says veteran NBA coach and ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo. “He is one of the best in the league moving without the ball. It doesn’t get as much attention, but with his quickness and conditioning, Steph will run you to death. It’s about the biggest nightmare you can have in this league. I mean, as a defense you’ve got to be thinking, ‘Jesus, how many problems can we have trying to guard one guy on one possession?'”

Curry has been quietly working on this part of his game for nearly a decade. During the 2011 NBA lockout, he was home in Charlotte, where he joined former Hornets player Gerald Henderson for a unique workout — no frills, but cutting-edge — at Accelerate Basketball with trainer Brandon Payne, who specializes in neurocognitive efficiency.

Payne, 40, has a mad-genius approach to training and developing elite fundamentals, conditioning and cognition on the court. “Scoring without the ball,” he calls it. And after just one session Curry sensed it was exactly what he needed. He called Payne that same night and asked if they could train together. Payne agreed. “OK, I’ll be there at 7 a.m. tomorrow,” Curry replied.

They’ve been working together ever since. And they remain close enough to this day that, on mornings after big games or tough losses, you’re likely to hear Payne on the phone chatting with Curry from his cramped, messy headquarters in an old metal-framed warehouse south of Charlotte. “I have a tough job,” Payne says. “I have to tell the greatest shooter who ever lived, over and over, ‘It’s not good enough.'”

Because Curry’s pregame shooting routine is done in public and so widely known, most people assume that his offseason workouts are similar. The viral pregame routine, however, is not a workout. It’s a kinetic activation process, like batting practice in baseball or hitting the range before a round of golf. The truth is, in his private offseason workouts with Payne, Curry rarely takes more than a handful of shots from the same spot and never runs traditional draconian hoops-conditioning drills such as wind sprints or gassers. Instead, he combines the two.

For Curry, a typical offseason workout looks something like this: Sporting a hilarious golfer’s tan and usually some kind of colorful, prototype Under Armour sneaker, Curry flies through a nearly impossible, full-court version of the conventional star shooting drill. Designed by Payne, it consists of 10 shots — from the corner, baseline and wing — with full-court 94-foot sprints in between. And it must be done with a minimum 80% accuracy and in under 56 seconds or the drill repeats. Essentially it’s the same drill run in nearly every basketball practice on earth, turbocharged to an absurd degree for Curry, whose year-round conditioning goal is to always be ready to take the floor within two weeks.

Last offseason, when Curry did this workout at Stanford, several Division I players in attendance begged to join in on Payne’s ultimate scoring-without-the-ball drill — they all either collapsed from exhaustion or gave up halfway through. That’s exactly what Payne expects, though, since the drill is designed specifically to challenge Curry’s remarkable conditioning and unique skill set in order to prepare him for challenges like the one against Portland.

“Steph’s definition of conditioning is different than most,” Payne says. “Lots of guys are in great shape. Can you be in the kind of great shape where you are fatigued after a long play like this and your quads are burning and you can’t breathe but you can still maintain perfect mechanics and still make good decisions? Are you fatigued but can still execute at the highest levels? Because that’s what truly matters.”

Back in Portland, as the play unfolds, on Curry’s far left, Warriors forward Draymond Green blows through midcourt on his way to the basket. Green had been guarding Collins in the far corner of the court on the previous possession, but now he wills his 230-pound frame the length of the floor in less than five seconds because, after seven years together, he understands that Curry’s range isn’t a weapon if there’s no anchor under the basket to stretch the defense.

Curry continues dribbling toward the right wing, glancing up (and, then, trying not to stare) at the right side of the frontcourt. It’s wide open. The only thing standing between Steph and an easy bucket is little brother Seth. The Currys are the first siblings in NBA history to face each other in the conference finals. But they’ve been in this position thousands of times before on the driveway court behind their family home in Charlotte. Steph says those endless, knock-down, drag-out games of one-on-one would go on for hours — until someone either cried or bled.

The Curry family court is framed on three sides by a long driveway and flower bed, a three-car garage with light-brick archways and a row of dark-pink crepe myrtles in back. The pool runs down the right side of the court. And now, back in Portland, as Steph approaches the right wing, Seth, like any annoying little brother, seems to sense a split second early exactly where big bro intends to go: to the pool.

Steph offers up a halfhearted head fake to the left while sending the ball behind his back to his right hand, only to be cut off immediately. There’s no blood or tears this time, but, in a win for little brothers everywhere, a startled Steph is forced to retreat and turn his back to his little brother to protect the ball and regain his composure.

Without hesitating or looking up, Steph instinctively drives to the middle of the court. This is no accident. The fundamental philosophy of the Warriors’ offense — the highest-rated offense in NBA history just two years ago — is to relentlessly move the ball and all five bodies, to slice and dice defenses by constantly forcing them to think, react and choose all while operating within a tempest. So the reason for Curry’s cut is simple: the middle of the court has the most options. When the ball is in a corner, the other players are at least two passes away from being a threat, but when Curry attacks the middle of the court, it activates everyone on the floor.

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