It was Jan. 4 and the Warriors led the Kings by 10 with 3:55 left in the first quarter. Stephen Curry went left off a screen set by Kevon Looney and drew Kings big man Marvin Bagley III on the switch. Sensing an advantage, Curry leaned forward with his right shoulder, drove two steps and crossed over to get Bagley leaning backwards. Curry had him exactly where he wanted him. He planted his right foot, lunged behind the arc and canned a 3-pointer.
Watching from his couch in Charlotte, Curry’s personal trainer Brandon Payne immediately recognized the footwork and dribble combination.
“I went back and I found it in some of our workout footage,” Payne said in a phone interview this week. “It was almost identical to the workout footage from this past offseason.”
Payne, who has worked with Curry since Curry was a gangly rookie out of Davidson, believes the two-time MVP has never been better. This is because Curry, who turns 33 next month, is entering his physical prime at an age when most players are leaving theirs.
“Stephen at 33 is where a lot of guys are at 27,” Payne said. “Steph is still getting stronger, is still getting faster. He’s still physically developing. So he’s going to continue to get better.”
Curry’s combination of strength and conditioning has helped take his skills to new levels. Already this season, he’s posted the two highest-scoring games of his career (62 points against Portland on Jan. 3 and 57 points against Dallas on Feb. 6) and is putting up numbers similar to 2015-16, when he was unanimously voted MVP.
“He’s never played better,” head coach Steve Kerr said after Curry’s eruption Saturday in Dallas. “We’re talking about a two-time MVP, three-time champion. I’ve never seen him like this. He just looks so strong to me. He’s obviously always been an incredible shooter, but he looks stronger to me just getting by people, fending them off on drives to the rim, finish, and of course the shot-making. It’s almost unfathomable what he’s doing out there.”
Curry, who considers himself a physical late bloomer, had the benefit of an offseason extended by a hand injury that sidelined him for all but five games last season and a global pandemic that cut short Golden State’s 2019-20 season. With nine months between games, Curry was able to spend even more time training with Payne to prepare for a bounce-back season.
Over the summer, Curry would get to Payne’s facility in Woodside at 7 a.m. for strength, balance and skills training. Five days a week, Curry lifted weights, played pickup and worked on his core strength. Payne focused on activating Curry’s core “vertically.”
“Anything we can do that forces him to stabilize below his waist, while having to be dynamic above his waist,” he said.
This included balancing drills, such as resistance training while standing on one foot. To more completely strengthen his core, they used a “ViPR” weight to challenge Curry’s body in different positions, including when his arms and hands were away from his body or over his head. The idea was to mimic how he would move on the court.
Coming off the hand injury, Curry was put through high-speed shooting and situational drills to get him back in playing shape. When his peers completed the NBA season in the Orlando bubble, Curry continued to train. He adjusted his schedule with the phases of the pandemic. When he had to, he worked out at his Atherton mansion. When allowed, he did individual work at the Warriors’ facility at Chase Center.
There, Curry was able to take advantage of the Warriors’ high-tech equipment that allowed Payne and Golden State’s trainers — who remained in constant contact throughout the offseason — to measure Curry’s strength and speed. Payne says Curry set personal bests.
It’s showing on the court. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Curry this season is traveling 2.57 miles per game at an average speed of 4.35 miles per hour. Those are higher marks than his age 27 season, when he traveled 2.46 miles per game at an average speed of 4.32 miles per hour on his way to his second MVP award.
Though Curry gained nearly five pounds of muscle between last season and this season, the Warriors are less interested in him being able to lift heavier weight and more interested in his explosiveness. At Chase Center, the Warriors measure how quickly Curry can press a barbell vertically from its start point to its end point. The Warriors do this on a near-daily basis to monitor Curry’s conditioning as the season goes on.
This data is used by the coaching staff to develop rotation patterns and playing time. Kerr’s decision not to play Curry for more than six minutes during the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss to the Spurs was a decision partly informed by this data.
“They know that the load that he’s at right now, that he’s not only staying strong from game to game, but actually getting stronger,” Payne said. “So the way they’re doing it is 100% correct.”
Curry prepared all offseason to carry a heavier offensive burden but, when Klay Thompson tore his right Achilles tendon during a pickup game in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, Curry knew the expectations of him would be even higher. He was finishing up a round of golf when he found out about his teammate’s devastating injury. Within minutes, Curry was on the phone with Payne, planning the final weeks of his training before the Dec. 22 start of the season.
Payne told Curry, “You’re probably going to need to be a little bit more aggressive in certain situations. You might have to take a few more shots. Just think about how you want to do that.”
Ever since the 2019 Finals, when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse unleashed the box-and-one defense, Curry has seen a parade of double and triple teams. Because opponents no longer have to worry about guarding Curry and Thompson and Kevin Durant, they are able to key in on Curry in a way Curry has never experienced since ascending to the top of the sport.
He’s better at using leverage — like he did against Bagley — to manipulate multiple defenders at a time and get to his spot. When he drives, he does it with more force, staying on his lines and drawing contact to create space near the rim.
“With how I am guarded most nights, and when they put bigger defenders on me, it helps being able to take those bumps and hits,” said Curry, who is averaging 29.6 points on 42.9% shooting from 3-point range and 5.9 assists per game.
The Warriors won’t compete for a championship this year, but Curry still being on the upswing physically is the reason he believes the title window is open beyond this season. Few players in the NBA are capable of carrying teams to the Finals, but Curry is showing he can still be one of those players.
“As he gets stronger, as he gets faster, his skills are going to be magnified even more, and that’s what you’re seeing right now,” Payne said. “So he’s going to continue to get better. He has a long way to go.”
Contributed by local news sources