The secret strength that fuels Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors

The secret strength that fuels Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors post thumbnail image

IN A HO-HUM January tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the rarest of Stephen Curry celebrations appears late in the third quarter, during which the Golden State Warriors hold — surprise, surprise — a healthy 22-point lead. After a Cavaliers miss, a Warriors’ fast break ensues, and guard Gary Payton II spots teammate Otto Porter Jr. all alone on the right wing for a 3-pointer. Curry, drifting near the basket, trains his eyes on the shot’s arc, then anchors to the left block and boxes out Cavaliers guard Darius Garland.

They’re not alone. Nearby are the more vertically gifted suspects, like the 6-foot-10 Kevin Love and rookie 7-footer Evan Mobley.

But there is the 6-foot-3 Curry, in prime position, watching the shot rattle in and out. He times a perfect leap, snatching the board with both hands while releasing a guttural howl. Then, Curry bounces right back up, scoring on a lighting-quick put-back to give Golden State a 79-55 lead with 2:33 remaining.

Curry takes a few steps toward the baseline, staring into the Chase Center crowd. Fans along the baseline erupting in adoration, Curry stands proud, then outstretches both arms to a T, bends them inward at the elbow, fists clenched, biceps swole.

There it is. The flex.

There is a YouTube compilation devoted solely to it.

“It’s fun to see when he gets offensive rebounds and he does all his flexing and stuff like that,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said. “It’s always just funny to see him do things like that.”

“Physically, it’s not about trying to outshine anybody,” Curry told ESPN. “It’s just about trying to stand my ground.”

The two-time MVP, 34, is listed at 185 pounds but says he now weighs exactly 200. He is, almost without question, the greatest shooter in the history of basketball. He has changed the way the game is played across the world. But he’s not exactly known for his physicality.

According to Warriors forward Draymond Green, who employs the very same flex and is known for his physicality, looks are deceiving when it comes to his longtime teammate.

“He is strong. And when I say strong, I mean strong,” Green told ESPN. “Like, if you go in our weight room, and we’re doing dumbbell bench press, Steph is in the hundred [pound] club. Not many people get to the hundred club. His legs [are] super strong. That change happened last year.”

Whispers of Curry’s prowess have circulated for years among NBA strength and conditioning coaches. And among the Warriors’ coaching staff.

“It’s incredible just how much he’s changed just in the seven years that I’ve been here,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “I would say over the last three years, it’s been really apparent just how much his body has changed.”

Added Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser: “He’s been lifting more than he’s ever.”

Warriors coaches and players say Curry’s emphasis on strength training has been central to his increased — and at times overshadowed — impact on defense. But while it has helped the Warriors maintain the league’s second-ranked unit, it also raised a question long debated among the NBA’s best — including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Curry’s signature skill and weightlifting have long been considered uncomfortable bedfellows — an impossibly delicate balance to find between building strength and muscle, while maintaining the type of mobility, flexibility and feel that have fueled the best shooters in NBA history.

Yet multiple NBA athletic training sources say that Curry, the game’s most prolific 3-point marksman, is the best example yet to show how strength training not only doesn’t hinder the most valuable skill in the game, it amplifies it.

“I never gave that any credence because there is a plan for how you can balance both,” Curry told ESPN. “You’ve got to maintain your flexibility and all that type of stuff while you get stronger. That’s something I guess I figured out.”

ASK KYLE KORVER and he’ll share the article of faith that took hold in his youth.

“If you lift too much, you’ll throw your shot off,” he says.

The 17-year NBA veteran believed that widely shared gospel into the early years of his professional career. He still lifted — to help make him faster, or jump higher, or to add muscle — but Korver felt shooting well was more about rhythm, about duplicating the same wrist-snapping motion, the product of fine-tuned, sequenced mechanics that start with force flowing from the feet upward through the body.

“That really was a driver for basketball players not lifting,” says Dr. Marcus Elliott, the founder of P3 Applied Science Lab, which has assessed two-thirds of active NBA players. At times, Elliott says, it has been difficult to change the mindset of guards whose specialty is shooting.

After his fifth season, though, Korver joined the Utah Jazz, the first team to partner with P3. The Jazz visited the P3’s Santa Barbara, California, headquarters, where motion-tracking cameras, force plates and specialists helped show Korver which muscles impacted his shooting, and how keeping them strong could sharpen his mechanics. After his visit, Korver started visualizing his shooting motion and how strength flowed through him. As time passed, Korver began to dispel what he’d long believed.

“Everyone said your shot comes from your legs,” he says. “There’s a lot of truth to that. That’s where a lot of your power is. So for me, when I was shooting, oftentimes, if I was in a shooting slump, it wasn’t that I somehow forgot how to shoot or that I shot the ball differently; a lot of times it was that a certain part of my body wasn’t strong or was fatigued.”

Counting the playoffs, Korver made 2,704 3-pointers, the fifth-most all time. He credits weightlifting — “It was everything” — for his longevity.

Korver was a convert, but certain questions still persist. Chelsea Lane, who has worked in athletic training roles for multiple NBA teams, recalls the debate permeating locker rooms: that weightlifting would make players too stiff, too heavy, that it would impair their shot or their leaping ability. It boggled her mind, and she had to bargain with players. “What are you talking about? Don’t you want to win? Don’t you want to be the best version of yourself?” Says Lane: “Sometimes it’s a fear and not a reality, and we can show you stats that your [shooting] is not off.”

Kerr, for his part, laughs at the conflict: “I think it’s true for one day, like if you lift for the first time.”

Tim Grover, who trained Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among others, says strength training has often been a touchy subject among shooting guards, even some of the greats. “They’ve always been afraid that it is going to throw off their touch,” Grover says. “And it does. There’s just no way around it.”

But Grover issues the same qualifier that he would tell Bryant and Jordan in the offseason when they would try new strength-training routines: For a short period of time while their body was adjusting, their touch might betray them. But it would return — maybe in a week, or perhaps two.

Jordan and Bryant took that caution as a challenge, and would try to shoot through any adjustments. Still, Grover preached the benefits: that strength training helps ligaments and tendons remain healthy, and aids in recovery from injury. There was a balance, he told them, such as building strength without adding too much weight. And sometimes, players had to find their sweet spot; for Jordan, it came between 213 pounds and 218 pounds, Grover says.

Brandon Payne, Curry’s longtime personal trainer, says every pound matters more in today’s game: “The offenses are so spread out, the screening concepts are so complex, the angles are so difficult to defend. If adding a little bit of weight even slows you down a quarter of a step, it makes a huge difference defensively.”

Curry, to be sure, isn’t aiming for weight room records.

“It doesn’t have to be the craziest [workout],” Curry said. “It’s just constant attention to details of what gains I get from the strength and conditioning program and making sure I can stay at this level for as long as I can.”

Longevity is the aim, but impressions about Curry’s unusual strength began forming long ago.

IT BEGAN IN baseball.

Two decades later, Bob McKillop can still picture a 10-year-old Curry on the diamond, playing for a youth team in Charlotte, North Carolina. Though slight, McKillop, who would later coach Curry at Davidson College, quickly noticed Curry’s hand-eye coordination but also his natural strength: the way the ball screamed out of Curry’s hand when he threw from center field, the force with which he swung the bat.

“He’s got incredible wrist strength,” McKillop says. “And he’s got incredible hip strength.”

McKillop, still the head men’s basketball coach at Davidson, noticed some of these same traits coaching Curry on the court as well, especially the way Curry’s wrist could snap quickly whenever he’d launch 3-pointers from distances farther and farther from the rim. Curry, he knew, had always been far stronger than he appeared.

Fast-forward to a sweltering summer morning during the 2011 NBA lockout, when roughly a dozen current and former NBA players gathered at Payne’s Accelerate Basketball Training Center in Fort Mills, South Carolina. Among them was a 22-year-old Curry, who had just finished his second season in the league. In their first-ever workout together the day before, the emphasis was on skills training. And after another training session that had lasted close to an hour, Payne decided that a good finishing exercise would be loaded pushups, with a 45-pound weighted plate on each player’s back. Curry did a few, then asked for a second 45-pound plate to be added to his back. He did a few more, then asked for a third. Eventually, Payne decided Curry had pushed himself enough.

“He’s not the picture of strength,” says Payne, who has trained Curry since 2011. “But he’s incredibly strong.”

Two years later at the Warriors’ practice facility, Keke Lyles, who had just come on as the team’s director of performance, looked at Curry, pondering how strong the 24-year-old guard might be. As a test of sorts to “feel him out,” Lyles says now, he asked Curry to perform a goblet squat while holding a 100-pound kettlebell. Curry obliged with ease, doing several reps with breathless coordination and control.

“Whoa, he’s making this look easy,” Lyles remembers thinking.

Whether deadlifts, single-arm dumbbell presses, a variety of leaping exercises or simply having Curry stand in a challenging position — such as holding a quarter squat pose on one leg — to test muscle endurance, Lyles soon found that Curry possessed a seemingly bottomless reservoir of strength.

“I can never remember anything being too much for him,” Lyles says. “He was always like, ‘Let’s do more. What’s next?'”

By 2015, just before Lyles took a post with the Atlanta Hawks, he’d purchased a 202-pound kettlebell. And Curry employed it for goblet squats — again, with ease.

“That was the heaviest I could find at the time,” Lyles says. “If I could’ve gone heavier, I would’ve.”

Over nearly a decade in the NBA, Lyles worked with five teams, trained with about 150 players and still, to this point, calls Curry “one of the strongest players that I’ve worked with in terms of bodyweight.”

Lane, the Warriors’ director of performance and sports medicine from 2015-2018, says she saw it in the unlikeliest of places — on a sand volleyball court in a public park in Oakland. There, she asked a barefoot Curry — who was wearing a hoodie pulled down low, if only to offer some secrecy — to remain upright but move his body forward while his toes gripped the sand.

The track-and-field-based drill is designed to help create more force through the feet when jumping, especially to immediately bounce back up like a pogo stick. As she explained the move, Curry looked unsure it was possible. But after only a few repetitions, he was executing it to perfection, Lane says now. It was emblematic of virtually every biometrics drill, plyometrics drill or any other drill designed toward movement efficiency that she threw at him. “I’ve worked in sports medicine and performance for 25 years,” Lane says. “He is one of the most special athletes I’ve ever come across.”

In 2019, as Warriors GM Bob Myers stood in the team’s weight room in Oakland, Curry executed a series of squats on the weight rack, barbells loaded with weighted plates. Myers, impressed, commented on the feat to one of the team’s athletic training staffers. The staffer replied that Curry was the strongest pound-for-pound player on the team.

“I guess it’s not obvious, I suppose,” Myers says. “And it makes sense. Shooting from the distance that he does requires a ton of leg strength.”

Told of the pound-for-pound remark, Curry told ESPN, “It’s kind of funny because I was a twig for so long coming up. Soaking wet, I was 185 or whatever. But a lot of work went into it.”

WATCH CURRY, THE Warriors’ coaches will say. Watch how much contact he endures when he drives through the lane, when he faces defenses that collapse on him, when he’s bumped coming off screens, when he’s bumped while setting screens. Watch the constant level of contact from teams that try to wear him down.

It is all the more reason, they say, why Curry’s strength training is essential.

“For all these years, you’ve had teams pick on him,” Green told ESPN. “Steph is a competitor. And so you’re not just going to keep singling him out and he’s just going to take that. He moves better laterally — much better than he used to move laterally.”

“He’s way better defensively than people give him credit for,” Kerr says, “and everyone goes at him to try to wear him down because he’s so good offensively. So people, particularly in the playoffs, will try to attack him over and over again to wear him down so that he’ll miss shots. [But] he’s in such amazing shape and so strong that he’s able to withstand all that.”

Payne, who says Curry’s strength training still pales in comparison to how much he dedicates to shooting, makes the claim that the Warriors’ two-year playoff hiatus, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, provided Curry with the chance to not only fully recover from a stretch in which the Warriors went to five straight Finals, but strengthen his aging frame too.

“The added strength was a necessity,” Payne says, “because you have to be strong [driving] to the basket, you have to be strong to create space, certainly you have to be strong to be able to handle the ball with leverage.

“And handling the basketball with leverage is what allows you to create space off the dribble as a shooter. So it’s not necessarily just about the act of picking the basketball up and releasing the ball. It’s all the work that goes into each shot.”

The break also provided Curry and Payne a chance to create a training program that Payne believes will help sustain Curry through the end of his playing career.

It focuses, Payne says, on neuromuscular efficiency — in short, Curry being able to better read and react in an effort to spare unwanted wear and tear. “He hasn’t lost a step and he’s not going to lose one any time soon,” Payne says, “but, in the event that he does, we want the efficiency of his decision-making to help make up for that. Every dribble, every step, every shot in the offseason has to net us something positive.

And the impact is being felt across the organization, as Looney half-jokingly says Curry now seems to possess “old man strength.”

“People develop and mature physically at different rates,” Payne says. “A lot of people get to that strength at 27, 28. Steph is just now getting to that point. That’s going to give him a lot of extra years to play.”

TODAY, AS KORVER watches the distances that Curry routinely launches from, he feels a certain measure of satisfaction. Such shots were once thought to be impossible, but they’ve changed the dynamics of spacing, of the whole game itself.

“Guys are shooting the ball from different places and angles not because they’re not shooting the ball differently,” Korver says. “They’re just accessing more power, because they have more power.”

Looney, a teammate of Curry’s for seven seasons, knows where that power starts.

“He’s always in the weight room,” Looney said, “doing extra work.

“And that sets the tone for the rest of the team.”

Kendra Andrews contributed to this story.

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