August 20, 2018, 4:27 pm
Over the weekend, the Portland Trail Blazers’ marquee free-agent acquisition played five-on-five for the first time in 10 months. The video Seth Curry posted on Instagram is more a collection of successful possessions in a pickup game than an eye-popping highlight reel displaying his enviable package of offensive skills. Barely considered an average athlete by NBA standards, the montage almost makes unintentional mockery of Curry’s lack of explosiveness, with a simple right-handed layup – uncontested and in transition, mind you – slowed down for dramatic effect.
Progress is progress by any measure, no matter how small. That Curry is healthy enough to play competitive pickup basketball again for the first time since going under the knife in February to repair a stress fracture in his lower left leg is cause for celebration all by itself. He was originally slated to be available for the Dallas Mavericks’ season opener last fall after suffering a stress reaction early in preseason play, and was then scheduled to resume full basketball activities only three months after surgery. After almost a year away from the game, Curry finally seems on track toward being ready to play.
Counting on significant contributions from a player so recently encumbered by injury is a risk, but one the Trail Blazers were forced to take out of necessity. They didn’t have nearly enough cap space to back up Neil Olshey’s hollow talk of adding a playoff-caliber wing this summer, and only had the opportunity to sign a player of Curry’s caliber using half the taxpayer’s mid-level exception due to the distinct possibility his health issues linger into the regular season. There’s still no guarantee he’ll be suiting up against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on October 18, let alone reach the esteemed level of play he did with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016-17 – whether by the season opener or over the ensuing six months. But for Portland to defy expectations and overcome an offseason that did little to strengthen its standing in an increasingly loaded Western Conference, Curry will need to do just that, and sooner rather than later.
Last season, lineups featuring Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Shabazz Napier posted a net rating of +21.9, per NBA.com/stats, an easy team-high among the 60 Blazers trios that shared the floor for at least 200 minutes. Sample size matters here. Opposing teams surely would have been better equipped dealing with that three-guard look if Terry Stotts had employed it on a nightly basis, and statistics gleaned from a configuration that played less than five minutes per game always lend themselves to random variance. Anyone who watched Portland regularly in 2017-18, though, understands all too well that the team was routinely at its best and most exciting putting Napier next to Lillard and McCollum, pushing the pace, fighting like hell defensively and letting its star guards focus on doing doing what they do best: getting buckets.
The Blazers played at a pace of 103.14 with Lillard, McCollum and Napier on the court together last season, higher than the New Orleans Pelicans’ league-leading mark. Opponents turned the ball over on 15.6 percent of their possessions, a team-high among triumvirates, owed to the natural pressures of tempo and ability of Portland’s guards to play bigger than their size suggests defensively. Both Lillard and McCollum posted true shooting percentages well north of 60.0 playing with Napier, too, major efficiency upticks accounted for by increase sin assisted 3-pointers and free throw attempts, according to NBA.com/stats.
The notion that Lillard and McCollum would thrive next to another playmaker is what prompted Olshey to give Evan Turner a four-year, $70 million contract in the ill-fated summer of 2016. But not all reserve ball handlers are created equal. Napier has his inherent faults, certainly, and failed to sustain the hot long-range shooting over the full 82-game grind that made him such a pleasant early-season surprise, yet nonetheless proved a far more dynamic fit beside his star teammates than Turner. A third guard who isn’t quick enough to consistently beat his man off the dribble, derives most of his individual offense from schemed post-ups and can be left alone beyond the arc away from the ball is only capable of changing the equation so much. The last thing Lillard and McCollum need is a perimeter partner who stops the ball and shrinks the floor.
Curry does neither. He shot a solid 41.1 percent on catch-and-shoot triples two years ago, and led the league by making 44.9 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers, a weaponized threat Lillard and McCollum exploit time and again to bring two to the ball in pick-and-roll play and create a numbers advantage behind the point of attack. He also shot a tidy 50.0 percent from the field in ball-screen situations, third-best behind Tony Parker and LeBron James. Still, Curry won’t do the lion’s share of ball handling in Portland’s updated three-guard lineups. Its best allocation of resources means Lillard and McCollum setting the table while Curry spots up off the ball, keeping defenses honest to an extent none of the Blazers’ role players could last season. His ability to create efficient offense out of ball screens looms large regardless, though. Lillard and McCollum are tough enough to stop as primary creators; just imagine what they could do on second side pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs, as the defense scrambles back into position after initially accounting for the prospect of Curry knocking down pull-up threes.
Of course, Curry’s overall influence will depend on health and re-acclimation more than anything else. He still has utility as a standstill marksman, like fellow offseason signee Nik Stauskas, but will only impact the game like Portland needs him to if he regains the form that made him a breakout player for Dallas in 2016-17. All this optimistic analysis of the Blazers’ three-guard lineup won’t matter much unless Curry is physically prepared to do the dirty work inevitably associated with downsizing, too. Napier was, and Wade Baldwin always relishes the chance to prove his defensive chops. If Curry isn’t ready physically come mid October, maybe Baldwin jumps at the opportunity to replace Napier, adding a much-needed sense of athletic verve that changes the game for the positive on both sides of the ball.
Baldwin’s growth into a viable rotation player would be a welcome development for the Blazers, but not what raises their ceiling highest. Curry is one full season and one vexing injury removed from emerging as one of the most efficient, role-playing guards in basketball. At his best, he’s a better player than anyone Portland brought off the bench last season, and has the skill set needed to make Stotts’ three-guard lineups even more dangerous than they’ve been in the past.
Is the scope of Curry’s potential influence ideal for the Blazers? Hardly. A veteran team with limited flexibility, likely to be right in the middle of an ever-heated playoff race, would be best served not relying so much on a player who missed all of last season with injury, and is only just now getting in basketball shape. Variance is better than stasis for Portland, though, and Curry, at the very least, provides a hopeful dose of it. We’ll begin finding out whether he offers much more than that come October.