By Eric Apricot
Stephen Curry just signed an enormous five-year, $201 million and remains the cornerstone of the championship Golden State Warriors.
But Curry also just turned 29 years old, which conventional wisdom expects to be a basketball player’s peak, so we may have seen the absolute heights of his production. Curry recently said he wants to play another eight years, so at this halfway point of his career, we ask: How will Stephen Curry play over the rest of his career?
This question was debated vigorously around NBA Twitter recently as SB Nation predicted the best players in 2021 and placed Curry at #13 at age 32. No one can predict the future, but we can compare the career arcs of similar players, first using 538’s CARMELO and then looking closer at the comparison cases of Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, and Dell Curry.
Let’s first look at the prediction of CARMELO, 538’s aging model (updated details). They find players with similar statistical profiles and then look at the spread of different career outcomes. In case you’re curious, 538’s top 10 comparisons for Stephen Curry were Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Larry Bird, Paul Westphal and Gary Payton. That’s an impressive comparison group.
CARMELO projects out over the next seven seasons, almost exactly as long as Curry plans to play. Here are the season-by-season projections for Curry, with projected Wins Above Replacement and a short description using CARMELO’s labels.
|Year||Wins Above Replacement||Description|
|2017 (last year, age 28-29)||13.7||MVP Candidate|
|2023 (age 34-35)||5.7||Average starter|
Keep in mind that the error bars are large, but they project that Curry will likely play at an All-star level for the next four years through his 32-year-old season, and then will be a good player for the two after that.
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Comparison Cases: Steve Nash, Reggie Miller and Dell Curry
These two players are the ones Curry claims he patterned his game after, so it’s natural to look at how they did. Steve Nash has a frenetic on-ball dribble game, driving and creating shots for teammates, and shooting accurately off-the-dribble. Reggie Miller had a relentless off-ball game, running off screens and catch-and-shooting accurately in traffic.
If Curry ages anything like Steve Nash, it will be a spectacular show. For Nash’s age 29 season, he hadn’t even been traded to the Phoenix Suns yet. He turned 30 with the Dallas Mavericks during 2003-04 and was an All-Star point guard and All-NBA Third Team for the second straight year. Yet, he wasn’t MVP Nash yet, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban lowballed a four-year offer to the (apparently) old Nash, and declined to match a six-year offer from the Phoenix Suns. Nash’s skill combined with Coach Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds Or Less schemes created a league terror, and Nash captured back-to-back MVPs in his age 30 and 31 years.
Even though he was edged out for MVP in his age 32 year (by Dirk Nowitzki), it was in some ways Nash’s best statistical year, posting his best True Shooting Percentage (TS%), highest Win Shares, best Offensive Box Plus Minus and career-high assists per game. Starting with 2007-08, his age 33 season, his TS% and BPM began a steady decline. He was named an All-Star in 2009-10 (age 35) and 2011-12 (age 37). But by his age 37 season, he was missing considerable time due to injuries (back and leg) and wasn’t the same for his last two seasons.
Nash lived up to the old idea that shooting ages well: from age 30 to 38, his TS% stayed above an impressive .601, easily among the league leaders.
Reggie Miller did not age quite as well as Nash, but he aged effectively and gracefully. In his age 29 year, 1994-95, Miller was in the middle of a very consistent career prime. Many of his career highlights lay ahead. His eight points in nine seconds came in 1995, and his Game 4 game-winner in Jordan’s face came in 1998 at the age of 32. He made the All-Star team in four of the next six years (no small task sharing the conference with Michael Jordan and fan favorite Penny Hardaway). This was year six of an excellent 12-year stretch where he averaged more than 18 points per game on excellent TS%. In fact, between ages 23 and 38, Miller finished in the top 11 in the league for TS%. Keep in mind that Miller was an unusually healthy athlete, missing very few games in his career.
And just for completeness, the NBA player that is closest genetically to Stephen Curry is, of course, Dell Curry (actually, Seth Curry also, but we even less data on his aging than on Steph). Dell was a catch-and-shoot role player off the bench and was a regular finalist for Sixth Man of the Year, breaking through—wait for it—in his age 29 year, 1993-94. Despite irregular minutes, he shot well until his last year at age 37, including a stupendous league-leading .476 3P% at the age of 34. Given Dell’s lower minutes (averaging 21.7 minutes per game), it’s hard to make inferences about Stephen Curry.
Except, perhaps, for the following. The conventional wisdom is that shooting ages well, and the three players are great examples, as you can see in the data below.
Dell Curry and Steve Nash remained dead-eye shooters until their last seasons. Reggie Miller had remained excellent with a slight overall downward trend and more inconsistency after 35. Their declines in their last season are likely no coincidence. Once they couldn’t fill up the basket efficiently, they knew it was time to hang it up.
SB Nation placed 32-year-old Curry at #14. CARMELO places him at Borderline All-star, which is something like #20. Steve Nash had one of his best years at age 32, just missing MVP, so if Curry did improve upon his previous statistical bests—hard to even fathom—he would be the top offensive player in league history. Seems unlikely. If Curry ages like Reggie Miller, then he will have a slow mild decline in his effectiveness while still being All-Star quality over the next six years.
Of course, there are confounding factors which make the error bars enormous. In theory, Durant’s arrival takes pressure and stress off Curry and allows more rest. Kerr’s offense in theory will allow Curry to play off-ball more and create on-ball less. But playing off-ball also exposes him to more physical play and injury risk. Curry is also on track to play more playoff games than any of the comparison group. But then, he also missed about a year recovering from early ankle injuries.
One final note. What’s striking is that the SB Nation projection picked Kevin Durant to be #5 in the league at age 32. Durant arguably uses more athleticism than Curry and, as a taller, larger player, could be more susceptible to injury. In fact, CARMELO projects Kevin Durant as follows: 9.7 (this year, 28), 8.6, 8.0, 6.1, 5.4, 4.7, 3.8, 3.6 (age 35), All worse than Curry, and with a big drop-off after two years into sub-All-Star territory. Some of the difference from Curry comes from their projection that Durant will play about 200-500 minutes per year less than Curry, presumably due to Durant’s comparisons getting injured.
Curry was the face of the franchise before Durant’s arrival, could he be the same as Durant starts to decline in the future?