September 24, 2018, 1:01 pm
Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.
Player: Seth Curry
2018-19 salary: $2,795,000
Age, experience: 28, sixth year
Measureables: 6-foot-2, 185 pounds (6-foot-4 wingspan)
Strengths: 3-point shooting, pick-and-roll ball handling, defensive instincts
Weaknesses: strength, defensive versatility, quickness
Swing factor: health
Likely role: third guard
It’s all about health for Seth Curry. In 2016-17, after proving himself a viable NBA player the previous season with the Sacramento Kings, Curry finally found the blend of fit and opportunity that allowed him to step out of his older brother’s shadow. The former second-round pick and G-League standout averaged 12.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals in 29.0 minutes per game for the Dallas Mavericks, shooting 52.8 percent on two-pointers and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc. He wasn’t just a standstill shooter, either, emerging as a highly effective pick-and-roll ball handler under Rick Carlisle, to an extent suggesting his playmaking skills should have been cultivated from the very beginning.
Dead-eye shooters with high-level ball-handling chops don’t come cheap. The only reason the Portland Trail Blazers, still cash-strapped after the summer of 2016’s reckless spending bonanza, had the financial wiggle room to bring Curry in is because he missed the entirety of 2017-18 under troubling injury circumstances. Despite first being sidelined by a stress reaction in his left leg during preseason play, an injury initially deemed of the mild variety, Curry didn’t go under the knife until February. He was only cleared for full basketball activities in mid June.
There’s no guarantee, basically, that Curry will live up to the modest expectations normally associated with a one-year deal worth half the tax-payer’s mid-level exception. Getting re-acclimated to the speed of the game following injury is one thing; doing so after a full season removed from the league is another one entirely. But even if Curry is somewhat limited by that reality, perhaps a half step slower than he was with the Mavericks, his stroke should be unaffected, and the natural court sense honed after a life spent around the league will surely re-materialize in time. Once it does, there’s every reason to believe he’ll eventually become Portland’s most consequential acquisition of the offseason.
That’s part of the problem, unfortunately. Neil Olshey never had the necessary team-building capital to make good on his hopes of adding an experienced, high-impact wing. The Blazers split their most valuable spending chip between Curry and guaranteed money for Gary Trent, Jr., a 19-year-old marksman drafted in the second round who connected on just 30 percent of his 3-point attempts in Summer League. The one player who was supposed to change the composition of Portland’s roster, modernizing it to help the team compete at a higher level in the playoffs, never came, and was never going to come.
If the Blazers are going to be better in 2018-19 than they were a season ago, it will be due to improvement on the margins, which is where Curry’s skill set looms so large. Shabazz Napier, an objectively pleasant surprise in Portland, wasn’t a consistent enough shooter to keep defenses honest – both when spotting up away from the ball as Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum probed, and relieving them of playmaking duties as a high-usage creator. Curry, on the other hand, made a solid 40.8 percent of his spot-up threes with the Mavericks, and 44.9 percent of his pull-up tries, the second-best mark in basketball.
The potential significance of putting another imminently-threatening guard next to McCollum when Lillard goes to the bench can’t be overstated. His true shooting percentage dipped well below league average without Lillard last season, per NBA.com/stats, and the Blazers team-wide offensive rating cratered. In a down season individually, McCollum wasn’t close to good enough to keep Portland afloat on offense by himself. Whether or not that’s the new normal was tough to tell given the inconsistencies of Napier, but Curry should provide enough stability as Terry Stotts’ third guard to know for sure one way or the other, a realization that could help decide the overall direction of this franchise going forward.
Curry’s import won’t come anywhere near such a level, though, if he’s a physical shell of the player he was two seasons ago. Athleticism was never Curry’s strong suit, but his quickness was underrated and he fought like hell defensively, allowing him to make up for lackluster tools on both sides of the ball with instincts and cunning. What if he’s just a stationary shooter now? Or he’s the defensive liability everyone thought he was early in his career?
That’s the risk forced on Portland by its financial constraints. Either way, Curry won’t be the wholesale panacea Olshey thought would be his team’s biggest free-agency signing, but could nevertheless become one of the summer’s best bargain-bin pickups. More likely? That his play falls somewhere in between, serving as a referendum on the Blazers’ awkward place between contending and rebuilding.