"How can Stephen Curry improve?"
It's a question usually asked more with incredulity than curiosity. It would seem the 2015 NBA MVP has topped out, optimized as much as one can from a skinny frame and normal-person height. In theory, Curry has less upside to work with than the game's athletic wings and burly bigs. His MVP award doesn't come with a popular expectation that he'll ever claim status as the NBA's top player. After all, the 6-foot-3 guard won't suddenly sprout as tall as Anthony Davis or jump as high as LeBron James.
Indeed, if Curry ever does claim that top-player status, it won't be because he starts jumping over defenders or bullying foes in the post. The improvements will result from something internal -- the slowing of time inside his mind. They will be the function of weaponized perception, a training of the brain to think quicker than your opponent can leap.
"You can be the fastest player in the world, but if you constantly make the wrong decision, it doesn't matter," says Brandon Payne of Accelerate Basketball, Stephen Curry's trainer since the 2011 lockout. That might be an obvious truth, but what's less obvious is that one can train his decisions in the same way he might strengthen his legs. This is why Payne says the word "cognitive" as much as he says anything about muscles or fat.
It's how we arrived at a point where, if you lack context, Curry sounds like a "Telegraph Avenue" drifter rambling about a fight against space aliens: "I'm coming down toward the light beam, I see a green color. I know what that move is, a between-the-leg move. So I got to do that, knock out the light with a beam and go make a play."
Beams? Green colors? There's a method to this madness.
"It's a neurological drill," Curry summarizes. He's talking about his use of the FitLight trainer, an increasingly popular tool among athletes and teams (seen here, demonstrated by the Toronto Raptors). The system boasts portable lights, manifold of color, capable of being activated and deactivated by touch. It also sends instant, downloadable data about the workout. The flashing lights train you to react, to focus, to choose.
That's a cool setup, but it's not exactly a road map for success. A tool is useless if improperly applied. This is where training becomes a frontier sport. There's no guidebook on how to make this gadgetry work for someone as uniquely skilled as Steph Curry. Through years of observation and interaction, Payne has an idea, though.
"We've come up with drills that are very specific to how Stephen plays," Payne said. This is why these lights often shine on the 3-point line, in situations that mirror what happens in Golden State's offense. More specifically, the lights often shine on that last stretch of space before the arc. This is where the battle truly takes place -- that buffer zone between the half-court line and shooting range.
Explaining such a drill, Payne says, "One light signifies, 'Are you supposed to shoot a 2 or a 3?' The second light signifies what move you're making into the shot. He's making those decisions in the last 6 feet right before he gets to the 3-point line."
These decisions must be made quickly, within the flow of Golden State's furious pace.
"We associate different moves with the color that you see, and so it's a reactive drill," Curry said. "It kind of simulates game situations where you're coming down in transition and you see a defender's left leg's higher than his right and you gotta make a move to get by him. That happens in a split-second decision."
This type of drill is augmented by myriad of others, including Curry's famous ballhandling exercises that feature ropes and tennis balls. The general idea is to overload his perception, to test and expand the limits of what his mind can make his body control.
Payne believes such drills to be the present and future.
"We have the technology and we have the things available to help people slow the game down in their minds. And why not use it?" he said. "Not using it would be like treating an ACL injury the way we treated it in 1983. Even though we have all this technology available, we're just going to put you in a cast."
Throughout the neurological work, there's the obvious focus on that incredible shot. Bemoaning having to "nitpick the greatest shooter who ever lived," Payne revealed a goal of "getting Stephen's right hip rotating faster." He assessed, "Sometimes, going right, his right foot will drag juuust a touch. Not a lot, just a touch. And sometimes that'll send the ball to the left side because he'll overcompensate with his upper body."
Payne, an efficiency obsessive, doesn't believe in eradicating this issue with tons of daily practice jumpers. ("I would rather you shoot 100 to 150 mechanically correct, perfect shots before your mechanics start to break down and then start to build on that the next day," he said.)
Efficiency just might be the watchword of Curry's season. Though he's an incredibly efficient scorer, perhaps he could get the shots he wants with even less wasted movement -- an economy of offense.
"We've got to create space with the least amount of dribbles," Payne said. "We want to create the most space with the least. We want to minimize things that take time."
And much conspires to steal time from Curry. Off the court, onerous demands are placed on the now internationally famous superstar -- interviews for this article included. On the court, the world's best athletes aim to "speed him up," as the saying goes, hoping to press and trap the point guard into mistakes. Curry's recourse is to slow it all down in his head, picking up rhythms that everyone's going too fast to notice. If it's hard to see how he'll improve, maybe it's because we can't see time through his eyes.