(Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

A Shooter's Guide to Passing

by Brian Witt and Dr. Oliver Eslinger

Stephen Curry saunters across half court, his eyes up, the ball his toy. With each dribble he slithers and surveys. As he gets into range, he pines for a teammate’s drag screen. Any sight of driving space and he’ll swiftly turn the corner for an aggressive push into the paint. If not, he loiters, daring defenders to double him.

With an extra bounce or two to draw the trapping defenders away from his teammates, Curry’s waiting game becomes a baiting game, a delicate balance between attracting and attacking. If Curry acts too early, before his teammate is open, it could lead to a costly turnover. Too late and the trapping defenders may have him dead to rights. The wrong angle, it’s a steal.

An escape dribble creates just enough space and time for his teammates to move into threatening pass destinations (PDs) in the middle and corners. After a slick pass, the simple math is inescapable. His two defenders are out of the play, and a five-on-five game tilts into a four-on-three mismatch.

Take a look.

As the league’s premiere shooter, you might expect that defenses put some extra pressure on Steph high up the court. The data backs up our intuition; take a look at the figure below. Following ball screens, defenses show higher on Steph (yellow) than the average NBA guard (blue), and as a result he passes out of traps further from the basket. For the defense, all this attention comes at a price, namely leaving plenty of space for his teammates to get free. And as an elite playmaker, he makes defenses pay.

When defenses crowd Steph off of ball screens, the Warriors look to get the ball to playmakers in the middle of the floor, while spreading shooters around the perimeter. In the next figure you can see the most frequent pass destinations for Steph as he gets crowded after a ball screen. Within one pass, the Warriors are ready to strike from the elbows or the top of the key. In Game 1, this strategy carved up the Clippers’ defense, leading to great looks and the eventual early series lead.

When a blitzing defense takes away the middle flashes, Curry’s able to find shooters in the corners with his crafty skip passes. Here’s an example of Steph’s signature left-handed fling pass to a wide open Draymond Green.

Now, following aggressive traps by the defense, check out the PDs broken down by region. The plays following Curry’s passes to these areas result in higher points per possession (PPP) than do the plays following passes by the average NBA point guard.

With his ability to score off the dribble or find cutting, popping, and spotting-up teammates in a number of scenarios, he poses a major -- possibly the major threat -- of all guards. When he’s in a groove, aggressively playmaking for himself and others, Golden State seems unstoppable.

Particularly in Game 6, Curry controlled the Clippers. His aggressiveness kept LA on its heels.

“Early in the game I was able to get downhill and keep them honest,” Curry said. “And not let them go all out above the key, to trap and take us out of our offense.”

This dramatic sequence in Game 6 demonstrates Curry’s mastery in mucking up the Clippers defense.

Downhill he goes and finds Green in the middle, who executes the next pass to Iguodala for a made 3-pointer and possible four-point play.

Following Game 6, Curry's unselfishness and understated confidence was evident when he said to win Game 7, they’ll need to “just stick with the program when it comes to how we run our offense.”

In other words, let Curry run the show.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Golden State Warriors.