Stephen Curry is a Black Swan

May 11, 2016 11:00 AM

What do the rise of the Internet, the sinking of the Titanic, 9/11, and Stephen Curry have in common? They are all Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the historic discovery of a black swan, an animal thought not to exist and antithetic to the angelic white swan, to help describe rare and unpredictable events. Events so extreme in their impact that we are forced to consider a false or misleading narrative to explain their occurrence.

In a pre-draft analysis of Stephen Curry, National Basketball Association (NBA) scout Jonathan Givony said, “In the right situation, alongside the right teammates, he could be a very effective NBA player, and his excellent intangibles and winning mentality lead you to believe that he’ll find a way to carve out a successful niche.” 

While lukewarm, this pre-draft assessment was glowing compared to others. In contrast, Lebron James signed a $90 million deal with NIKE before he graduated high school. James’ career has justified this investment but when Magic Johnson says Curry “has a chance to be the greatest player we’ve ever seen,” it makes Curry’s earthquake of a career seem out of place. How did this happen, and what, exactly, has happened?

In October 2014, the odds makers gave Stephen Curry 28/1 odds, or a 3.45% chance, to be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The Warriors themselves had 20/1 odds winning the NBA title. Consider that prediction markets give Paul Ryan (R-WI) a 4% chance of being the Republican Presidential Nominee, and he is not even running.

Last year Curry won the MVP, collecting 100 of 130 first-place votes and the Warriors won the NBA title, amassing 67 regular season wins, fourth best of all time. This season, Curry is a lock to win his second MVP, the team is on pace to break the NBA’s all-time season win total and they are favorites to win another title. Curry’s scoring average is up 6.2 points per game while his minutes and turnovers are about the same. Most impressively he is doing all this while being the most efficient shooter of all time (see “Standing out”). Curry’s season is truly one for the ages as his Player Efficiency Rating (PER), an overall measure of quality of play, rates not only the best, but is the best PER of all time. 

When you look at Curry’s PER graphed along with his True Shooting Percentage (TS%), a weighted measure of all shots, and compare it with similar scores since the 1979-80 season, Curry truly stands out (see “Best of the best,” below). Essentially, it includes approximately the 10 “best” players from the last 36 years. Curry has the best combination of PER and TS% during this span. The probability of him leading the league in both categories is virtually zero. A conservative probabilistic estimate shows this occurs about once every 150 years.

Curry is on pace to make 404 three-pointers this season, breaking the previous record, his own, of 286. This 41% increase, if applied to baseball’s single season home-run record, would increase that record from 73 to 103. Curry’s long-range shooting is unbelievable. From 28 to 48 feet Curry is making 54% of his shots, while the rest of the league averages 12%. His TS% from this range is 81%, meaning he is better from this range than someone making 81% of their two-point shots. 

Curry, and the Warriors, are having an extreme impact on the game. Most notably, their small ball lineup, or “death ball” squad, which features four guards and a 6-6 center, has transformed the NBA. There is even talk of rule changes; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has argued to move the three-point line back. Even with these stats people are still skeptical. 

The Warriors own GM considered Curry a “gamble” in October 2012, when he signed him to a four-year $44-million extension. Nike’s marketing team didn’t highlight Curry. Basketball legend Oscar Robertson thinks today’s coaches “don’t know anything about defenses” and insinuates Curry would be ineffective otherwise. Scottie Pippen says his Bulls teams of the 1990s would sweep the Warriors. Doc Rivers, The Los Angeles Clippers’ coach, famously said the Warriors won the championship due to luck. These people are rationalizing what they can’t understand: How a 6’2’’, 185 pound, soft-spoken, baby-faced player from a mid-major school could revolutionize a sport.

The leading explanation is that Curry’s game isn’t new, he’s more of a child prodigy and has perfected his craft. Indeed, Robert O’Connell wrote in The Atlantic that Curry and the Warriors “solved” the game of basketball using analytics and contrasts the Warriors to the Spurs; the Spurs playing the role of Rocky Balboa and the Warriors as Ivan Drago, using science and technology to gain an inhuman advantage while the Spurs succeed with grit and heart. 

The Spurs, contrary to their reputation as an old-school team, love analytics and have gone so far as to use a device, called OptimEye, to monitor their players’ nutrition and vitals during practice. This puzzle-solving argument implicitly claims other players could do it too if they just would look at the analytics. James Harden and the Rockets would disagree; the Rockets are the league’s biggest pusher of analytics and they are out of the playoffs this year. 

Stephen Curry is a Black Swan. Curry’s effectiveness and his style of play along with the domination of the league by his team were unpredictable. The impact has been seismic and it has forced people to engage in a false narrative that Curry is an on-court statistician who can shoot. Like all the other Black Swans, the waves from Curry’s arrival travel far. The days of trying to be like Mike are gone. They want to splash like Steph. 

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