Steph at 30: Can Curry's otherworldly shooting fight the test of time?

STEPHEN CURRY PEERS toward a far wall and tries to imagine his future. He's sitting beside a practice court at the Warriors' downtown Oakland facility on a late September afternoon as his tenth training camp nears its close.

Practice ended an hour ago, after which he sank 69 out of 77 3-point attempts, then knocked down 10 consecutive free throws, five of which he swished, his punctuation to close every post-practice session. (If he doesn't swish five of the 10 consecutive free throws, he'll start over.) After finishing, he wraps a towel around his neck and retires to a cushioned bench near the training room door. On a distant wall facing him, the franchise's championship banners hang. Curry gazes at them and begins thinking about his father.

Dell Curry wasn't the NBA superstar that his son would one day become, but he more than made his mark as a spark-plug reserve, a perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender who won the honor in 1993-94. Like his son, Dell possessed deep shooting range, even leading the NBA in 3-point percentage (48 percent) in 1998-1999.

But Curry isn't pondering his father's heyday; he's thinking about its end -- a closing act that played out in NBA arenas in Milwaukee, Charlotte and Toronto, the final stops in Dell's career. Dell's 6-foot-4 frame once glided through the schedule; then, in his mid-to-late 30s, it betrayed him. Years prior, he hadn't iced his joints unless something truly hurt; later, those joints hurt almost daily. His ankles. His knees. His back -- oh, his back!

The first time his back began to act up, Dell stepped onto the court before a game and felt tightness. Thirty minutes later, the veteran shooting guard couldn't walk. Those spasms came and went, once or twice a year, for weeks at a time; he'd take an epidural shot, ice his back after games, sometimes sleep on the floor of his apartment just to get comfortable. A hamstring or calf strain took weeks to heal. After games, he'd wrap his knees and ankles in ice and sit there for so long that his wife often complained that he'd be the last one to leave.

Steph, first as a young boy, then as a teenager, saw it all from the locker room -- how much work it took his father just to be able to play a game and how difficult it was to recover afterward.

"I got to see Father Time take over," Curry says now.

If watching his father's decline taught Curry one lesson, it was this: how diligent the fight against those inevitable forces of decline must be. So when Steph entered the NBA, he was determined to stave off a similar fate.

"I won't be playing catch-up," he says, shaking his head, "when things start to slow down."

Now, at 30, Curry has reached the age at which history shows NBA players of all positions -- but especially point guards -- often begin to decline, some sharply. In his past: three championships in the past four years and a historic two-year stretch in which he won consecutive NBA MVPs.

But what lies ahead?

And is it possible that his best basketball is behind him?

CURRY SURVEYS THE court before him, his Warriors up four with 1:48 left in the first quarter at Oracle Arena. He has not yet crossed half court, but already two Cavaliers defenders appear, ready to meet him when he does. Warriors swingman Shaun Livingston moves toward one defender, as if he's about to set a screen that will spring Curry free. But as soon as Livingston pulls close, the defender darts toward Curry, aiming to deny him space to shoot one of his patented distance-defying 3-pointers.

But it's a ploy.

Livingston, instead, bolts toward the hoop. At this point, all five Cavaliers are above the free throw line, stretching their defense toward the 3-point arc. So when Curry tosses a pass over the defense, Livingston finds nothing between him and the rim. As the ball swishes through the net, then-Cavs forward LeBron James drops his hands in frustration.

One wide-open layup might seem unremarkable. It was just one of 47 field goals for the Warriors tonight, who rolled to a 122-103 win, giving them a 2-0 lead in the 2018 NBA Finals. For Curry, the play itself would ultimately be overshadowed by his Finals-record nine 3-pointers.

Still, the moment is symbolic of the "gravity" that Curry's shooting grants him and the Warriors; he can virtually pull entire defenses toward him, out on the perimeter, opening up opportunities for his teammates. (In that first quarter, in fact, the Warriors made 13 of 15 shots from inside the arc.) And it's this aspect of Curry's game, and the shooting that allows it, that makes Warriors coaches and teammates confident of his staying power.

"He's gonna play a long time at a high level," says Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Adds assistant coach Bruce Fraser: "He'll always be vital for the ability to shoot and space the floor."

The list of the game's greatest 3-point shooters ever is littered with players who defied the actuarial tables. Kerr, who holds the NBA's highest career 3-point percentage (45.4 percent) himself played 16 seasons. Kyle Korver (43.1 percent) is about to enter his 16th. Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and Steve Nash each played for 18 seasons; Dirk Nowitzki is entering his 21st.

Better still for Curry, his coaches say, is that unlike some guards, his game has never relied solely on athleticism. As the years pass, he'll never lose what he didn't possess in the first place.

"I was never the most explosive athletic, high-speed guard," Curry says. "I had a lot of shiftiness and change-of-speed and all that stuff. That's something I can keep for a very long time as well. In terms of just having the ball in my hands and making plays and being a threat and what not, some six years from now, if I really have to evolve my game into something else, then I'd be able to figure it out. At this rate I'm going, I can keep this up for the foreseeable future, for sure."

Warriors coaches believe that Curry's perimeter-focused style has spared him the physical punishment absorbed by those who play in the paint. They also believe that because Curry is surrounded by firepower, the Warriors don't have to rely on him to carry them, which should age him gracefully.

Still, Curry has reached what is historically a turning point for NBA players.

ESPN's Kevin Pelton has studied player aging by position and found that point guards tend to peak later than other players, enjoying their best seasons of per-minute productivity at age 29; the average across all positions is age 26. (On the downside: Point guards also tend to drop off more quickly from that age than players at other positions, losing about 10 percent of their per-minute productivity on average between age 29 and 32.)

Then there's a subgroup: the point guard sharpshooters. And Pelton has found that those players tend to last longer than some of their lesser-shooting peers. Those with above-average 3-point and free-throw shooting lose just 4 percent of their per-minute productivity between age 29 and age 32.

But what about point guards who are similar to Curry? What kind of road map can they provide to how his game will age?

For that, Pelton's SCHOENE projection system looks at performance over the past three seasons, weighted by age, to generate a baseline projection. It uses that projection to find the most similar past players at the same age across 13 different categories. A perfect match would be 100; anything above 95 indicates a close similarity; a score above 90 shows some similarity.

The only player with a score greater than 85 for Curry at his current age?

Former point guard Mark Price. Which is to say that no one really comes close at all.

BRUCE FRASER ARRIVES at Curry's mansion in the East Bay town of Alamo on the Sunday night before media day -- a 10,290-square foot home, with five bedrooms, eight-and-a half bathrooms, five fireplaces, a billiard room, chef's kitchen, library and a Finnish-style sauna. It's buzzing with activity.

About a dozen people, mostly family and friends from back home in Charlotte, are lounging in the backyard, which houses an infinity pool, gardens and a fountain. Curry's wife, Ayesha, is in the kitchen, preparing an informal dinner while holding their months-old son Canon, her third child with Curry. Fraser has been to their home before, and he imagines he'll only stay for 30 minutes, tops.

"You're going to eat, right?" Curry asks him.

The two sit at the kitchen counter and talk as people filter into the kitchen. After eating, they retire to a room attached to a garage where Curry, an avid golfer, keeps a golf simulator. They sit on a couch and crack open a beer.

"What are your thoughts on the season?" Curry begins. Over two hours, during which Curry periodically rises from the couch to take a few golf swings, Fraser suspects that what the player wants most of all is to know what can be done to keep the season productive. "Between September and December, it kind of sucked to be honest, in terms of, like, the vibe," Curry would say the next day.

As Curry talks, Fraser is struck by something different about the point guard. Curry is 30, but "there's such a youthfulness to him," Fraser says. "Benjamin Button started old and got young right? [Curry's] a little bit like that, but he never started old."

Yet now, as Curry discusses the season, Fraser sees in him a certain awareness that what the Warriors have is special -- especially with the forthcoming summer and all the uncertainty it might bring.

Or as Curry says the next day, back in the practice facility: "Nothing lasts forever in this league."

STEPH CURRY APPROACHES the corner of the practice court while Fraser stands near the hoop, ball in hand, rebounding. Fraser fires, Curry catches and launches, beginning what appears to be the same post-practice routine that he has long followed, always ending with 100 3-point attempts, 20 each from five different spots.

But today, a late September afternoon toward the end of training camp, is different.

As he has increasingly done in recent months, Curry is employing a post-practice drill where the goal is, in effect, to make about half as many 3-pointers as he typically attempts. He first tried the drill -- called "50" -- during Kerr's first season with the Warriors. It goes like this: he'll shoot at least three 3-pointers from five different spots around the arc. If he misses his third attempt or beyond from any spot, he moves on to the next spot; if he makes his third attempt or beyond, he stays at that spot. The drill requires focus, but it's also a lighter load than his typical routine. Most noteworthy of all, though, is who inspired "50" in the first place, the very player whom the Warriors are hoping Curry's second act can mimic: Steve Nash.

In August the Warriors hired Dr. Rick Celebrini as their director of sports medicine and performance. Celebrini had famously worked with Nash, specifically early in Nash's career when he suffered from back issues during his time in Dallas. The two had continued to work together in Phoenix, when Nash -- at the age of 31 and then 32 -- won consecutive NBA MVP honors. At 35, Nash led the Suns to the Western Conference finals; at 37 he was still an All-Star.

In his retirement statement, Nash declared that Celebrini had made "as big an impact on my career as anyone." The Warriors are hoping he can do the same with Curry.

"Rick is fantastic with movement, with balance, with coordination, with non-pounding stuff, but with how to extend the guy's career," Kerr says. "He and Steve were an unbelievable team, and I think it will be great for Steph to work with him."

"At this rate, I can keep this up for the foreseeable future, for sure."
Stephen Curry

As he looks forward, Curry also leans on a lesson from earlier in his career, when, like Nash, injuries threatened to derail his basketball life.

In 2011-12, Curry's third season, ankle woes sidelined him for all but 26 games, but after surgery to reconstruct those ankles, Curry essentially rebuilt his body. Along the way, he learned about the kinetic chain and how movement shifts force throughout the body. He learned that core and hip strength would lighten the load on other extremities, so he trained until he could eventually deadlift 400 pounds, more than twice his weight. He became receptive to specialists and learned to ask questions.

"He knows how his body operates from the ground up now," says Brandon Payne of Accelerate Basketball, Curry's trainer since the 2011 lockout. "So he could tell you things that most other players couldn't."

The smallest details matter in his fight to hold on to what will slip away, and Curry and Payne have refined their sessions toward that end. They worked together from July 15 through Sept. 23, with three-hour workouts six days a week. But they did away with two-a-day sessions, an effort to spare Curry unnecessary wear-and-tear. And, unlike in past years, more of the sessions focused on smaller details, like incorporating more virtual reality training to aid Curry's peripheral awareness and decision-making -- even fine-tuning his breathing.

"He'll probably laugh if you say, 'Breathing is a skill,'" Payne says. "Because I yelled that at him the whole summer."

During the daily sessions, Curry would lay flat with a sandbag -- about six to eight pounds -- on his diaphragm for six to eight minutes, working to make it rise and fall with his breath. The goal: They wanted Curry to focus on breathing through his diaphragm and not his chest, thereby freeing up other core muscles to help keep him mechanically sound.

Payne reports that Curry's "power output" is still improving, which is his way of saying that it's not just about how much weight on the bar Curry is lifting. It's about the speed with which he can lift the bar, the fluidity of the movement and his ability to repeat it. "The barbell is moving at speeds that it hasn't moved at before," Payne says.

Some players plateau in this regard when they hit their early 30s. They begin focusing on maintenance. But Curry? Payne says he's still ascending.

"Stephen," Payne says, "is a young 30."

Says Curry, "I can still do this for a lot more years. That's the plan."

He has a particular number in mind, too.

BACK AT THE Warriors' facility, Curry's eyes are fixed ahead, across the practice courts, on a specific banner -- not from the past two seasons, but from 2014-15. In that NBA MVP season and the next, Curry shook the league with scintillating, video-game highlights that often bordered on the surreal. Those seasons were historic, and whatever he does going forward will have the misfortune of living up to them. This much Curry knows. And when he discusses all this, he does it not with anger, but a tinge of annoyance.

"Yeah, I didn't average 30 points a game last year," Curry says, "but I was proud as hell of myself in terms of how I was able to balance everything that needed to happen for us to win another championship. That's gonna be the same expectation going forward this year."

As he talks, Curry looks and points toward the banners, as if each one represented a different Stephen Curry.

"You could, obviously, say that that was a better version or whatever," Curry says, nodding toward the 2014-15 banner, "just because it was more electric or whatever the case is. "But just being able to be reliable every single night, be consistent and a catalyst for what we do to win championships -- that's all I need."

His conclusion reflects what Warriors coaches say is most different about Curry today. He is, as Warriors GM Bob Myers says, "at peace." If there was a point at the infancy of Curry's career when he wanted to prove that he belonged, that he wasn't too slight, that he didn't shoot too many 3-pointers or wasn't too injury-prone -- all of that, Myers now says, is gone: "He's dispelled all that. Now he's more in the position of, 'Let me enjoy this process, let me enjoy this journey, I've already built a resume.'"

Says Curry, "I feel like I'm in total control over things that I can control."

But goals remain, including one Curry first spoke about with his father back in the summer of 2009. The NBA draft in late June was fast approaching, and it was clear that Curry would be a high lottery pick. The days leading up to it were a blur, but tucked away in that period was a moment that Dell won't ever forget.

"How long you think you could play in this league?" Dell asked his son.

"You played 16 [seasons]," Steph told him. "That's my goal -- to play as long as you did."

Dell looked at Steph. He didn't know what to say. It was one thing for his son to follow in his footsteps into the very same field; it was another thing entirely for his son to announce that he aimed for his career to last as long his father's -- to, in effect, honor him. Dell was warmed by the gesture.

Today, back inside the Warriors' Oakland facility, Curry reiterates that the goal still holds: at least 16 NBA seasons.

"Six, seven more years of playing the way that I'm playing now -- I think that is the criteria for me in terms of playing at the level that I want to be at," he says while shots arc toward nearby rims and teammates pass by toward the training room.

Outsiders might scoff. Curry isn't merely saying that he wants to play for another six or seven more seasons, but rather, that he wants to play that many seasons at the same level as he is now. A man who routinely conquers distance on the court believes that he can do the same with time.

"Honestly," Curry adds, "I don't have any sights of slowing down anytime soon."

TWO DAYS EARLIER, sitting in the same spot following a practice, Klay Thompson had contemplated the future of his backcourt mate. As he did, Thompson turned quiet, his gaze shifting toward the floor.

"I think that he realizes that the ball doesn't bounce forever ..." Thompson says. "But he makes the most of it and he inspires me to do it every day, even when you feel like you could take it for granted."

Two days later, Curry pauses after Thompson's quote is read aloud.

"That's strong right there," Curry says, staring toward the team's banners. "That's true in terms of just ... yeah, a true appreciation for what I get to do for a living. I obviously have a smile on my face, trying to have as much joy and giddiness every time I come to practice or game or whatever it is. Obviously, it's hard. It's a job. There are stresses all around. As much B.S. that goes on in the league outside and inside the locker room, that's -- again, one thing I can control is my attitude and how much I enjoy what I get to do."

He extends his right arm and lifts his hand above his head.

"When I think about the career arc, I'm at the top right here," Curry says, his hand held high. "Let's see how long I keep this plateau going before the slow decline."

He starts to move his hand to the right in a straight line.

His hand keeps going. It doesn't fall.