“There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”
These words come from the infinitely quotable martial arts expert Bruce Lee, who died in Hong Kong at 32, one month before his most notable Hollywood film Enter the Dragon was released. Lee is a legend, the very best at what he did, because he didn’t believe hardwired obstacles were real. In other words, he strived to avoid “the autonomous stage”: that last level of skill development coined in the 1960s by psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, wherein one loses conscious control over an action once they figure out how to sufficiently execute it.
As Joshua Foer summarized in his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything: “You could call it the ‘OK plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”
People need the autonomous stage to go about their daily lives — imagine having to think about typing when you’re typing — but experts in their craft, like Lee, force themselves to stay in “the cognitive phase”, one step before autonomous, when they’re “intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently”.
On the surface, similitudes between Lee and Stephen Curry are few and far between. Curry turns 32 in March. He’s alive, well, and emerging from the fog of five straight NBA Finals runs that have cemented him as an all-timer’s all-timer. But strands of similarity do exist. Both transcended their respective professions, overcame career-ending injuries, and squeezed an inconceivable amount of accomplishment from their youth. Even after they earned universal recognition as the very best at what they do, neither stopped finding new ways to improve — both understood that a hunt for the best version of one’s self never lets you out of the woods.
On the cusp of his 11th season, with the Golden State Warriors having just crashed back to Earth in spectacular fashion, that mentality makes Curry — someone who’s “mastered” the game of basketball — a terrifying figure. His numbers — raw and advanced — have either letup or declined since his magical 2015-16 season (an instantly mythological campaign), but it’s worth wondering how he’ll perform when no longer restrained by the most complementary ensemble in NBA history. Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston are gone. Klay Thompson can’t run. According to Cleaning the Glass, over the last three years Curry only played 245 non-garbage time possessions without any one of those four on the court. Their absence creates reasons for doubt but also unprecedented opportunity, the chance to watch an unleashed version of Curry who’s at odds with any we’ve seen since the meteoric rise that carried him to one scoring title, two MVP awards, and three championship rings.
Maybe he’ll drown in the flood of defensive attention that was once directed towards Thompson and Durant. Perhaps the physical toll and mental strain of yet another grueling season will crack his 190-pound frame. Or, maybe the exact opposite will occur and Curry will run away with a third MVP trophy, tying him with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. (For more perspective, three MVP’s would be one more than Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant combined. It’d also equal Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden’s bounty all by himself.)
Curry is still in his prime and arguably the best point guard ever, someone who ended last year eighth in True Shooting and fifth in scoring despite so much star power on his team. To the point, this year can be for Curry what 2018 was for LeBron James, when he had to devour the Eastern Conference for 82 games because none of his teammates were up to the task.
When the 2019-20 season’s MVP odds were released in early June, Curry’s were 8-1. They dropped to 5-1 once the money started pouring in. “We’re just trying to protect our position a little bit,” Adam Burns, a sportsbook manager for Betonline.ag, says. “We have to manage our risk.” The only player with better odds right now is Giannis Antetokounmpo (3-1) and Anthony Davis is the only one who’s taken more bets. (Curry has taken about 25 percent more bets than the third-place Antetokounmpo.)
A lot can change in a year. Curry entered the 2018-19 season with 16-1 MVP odds. He trailed seven players. That bet felt unnecessary because narrative matters and Curry’s superiority dulled his. Right now the opposite is true. The NBA’s proliferation of dynamic duos, evenly stacked pseudo-super teams that make 2020’s title chase as unpredictable as any in recent memory, carve a clear path for Curry to skate through. With built-in excuses should he or the Warriors struggle, the only place to go is up. For almost every other serious MVP candidate, the space is below, be it statistically (James Harden) or via their team’s performance (Giannis).
Curry is not only his team’s undisputed primary option every second he’s on the floor, but also their oldest and most experienced player. In that way he’s unlike every other star in the league: There is no spotlight to share, or championship expectations to meet. We’ve never really seen this before. The last time he failed, Durant’s free agency decision robbed us of a traditional response. There was no opportunity to rise from the canvas and fight back himself.
Curry’s next three years were like an extended Marshmallow experiment: a showing of patience and sacrifice for the sake of his team’s success. Winning made it worthwhile, but just imagine how enjoyable it would be to slide splinters of ice down the back of everybody who’s rooting for your jumpers to miss, when you both know it’s going in. if every time a jump shot left your fingertips it also sent splinters of ice sliding down the back of opposing fans across the globe. Now, Curry can let it fly more than he ever has.
His usage rate last year was only 2.2 percent below his career high in 2015-16, but there’s a strong chance — thanks to the third and seventh-ranked all-time three-point shooters in NBA playoff history no longer being around, along with the departure of invaluable institutional knowledge dispensed by Livingston and Iguodala — Steve Kerr alters Golden State’s offense and puts even more on Curry’s plate.
Molded by countless possessions over time, the Warriors’ system reflected their collective intelligence. D’Angelo Russell will help some, but it’s unfair and impossible to plug him into how they played the last few years and expect greatness. The Warriors have no backup point guards on their roster. These are reasons to worry. There are also reasons to believe that a different, more vibrant and assertive version of Curry that was never able to to exist will now appear.
Corralling him off the ball for an entire game has always been preposterous, like jumping rope to a Miles Davis record, or catching individual pieces of confetti as they float to the ground. It was a staple of his generous effect—that rare ability to elevate those who can’t produce on their own—and Golden State’s dynasty would never have happened without it. Those days aren’t entirely over, but a younger, less-capable supporting cast changes Curry’s role. He’ll still space the floor for those who can’t do the same for him, but the Warriors will also play him on the ball, more in situations where he directly sets teammates up and generates his own looks. He needs to be selfish, which shouldn’t be a problem. Despite finishing fewer possessions than Derrick Rose, DJ Augustin, and Jordan Clarkson as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, Curry scored in the 92nd percentile, averaging 1.02 points per possession. (In the playoffs, his frequency climbed nearly 10 percent and he averaged 1.13 points per possession.) Over the past few years he’s isolated far less often, but in 2016 Curry finished in the 94th percentile, and never below the 86th percentile. He’s a heart-stopper in all these spots, marvelous enough to pull everything off for no better reason than he has to.
Like Lee, Curry erupted ahead of his time, on a scale that came out of nowhere. He won’t be eclipsed anytime soon by the millions he continues to influence, either. The opposite of pastiche, he’s traveled so far in such little time that everyone trying to keep up can’t help but get lost. Someone will make 400 threes in a season at some point, but not before Curry attempts to raise the bar even higher. (He sits 490 behind Ray Allen for the all-time lead.)
No player ripples the Earth’s crust like he does. No player culls the same desperate creativity out of bleary-eyed opposing coaches. Assuming he spends this year filling the void his team suddenly needs him to, expanding and even improving skills that spent time on ice over the past three years, the MVP race won’t be close.
Objectively, Curry has nothing left to prove. But, like all true greats, that doesn’t mean he’ll ever be satisfied, either.