Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving: The Art of the Off-Hand

To use your off-hand in basketball, for whatever reason, is not an easy thing. After thousands of training hours and millions of drills and repetitions, players tend to instinctively trust their good hand — they adjust their game accordingly and struggle to avoid any spot that might expose their off-hand liability. The good hand becomes an extension of their self — players feel powerful when using it, and powerless when they don’t. How often does this happen? Take out the dribbling, which most players do to only a limited extent anyway, and there remain but a few sets of circumstances that a player can’t achieve at least average results using his good hand.

But what about those players for whom a mediocre result just won’t cut it? Consider some of the greatest:

Larry Bird famously had a left-handed game; on February 14th of 1982, against the Blazers, he scored 20 points off-handed, out of his total of 47.

Magic’s running the show with both hands: dribbling, distributing, finishing- was a thrill in itself.

Michael Jordan, among other things, has produced the most emblematic off-handed highlight in the history of the game; his switch in midair, against the Lakers — probably one of the most iconic moments in all sports — is a rare instance where basketball is something of an aesthetic experience.

Lebron James’ off-handed game never fully flourished, but he has hit left-handed game winners over and over again.

And Tracy McGrady’s off-handed dunking ferocity is unparalleled to this day.

But all of the above players have height and strength, either by position or by nature, which protects them against defensive traffic inside the paint — these players are some of the most dominant physical forces one can meet in the lane. When a player can go above everyone else or bumps his way down the lane to create the necessary space, it’s easier to finish the play — left or right-handed — since the shot is practically uncontested, for all intents and purposes.

Show me a player who lacks both above-average size and strength, and I’ll show you one who rarely goes close the paint — unless you’ve picked Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving.

Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry

One’s game mirrors that of the other: they are the two best scorers at the point-guard position around the league, probably historically so. Their shooting abilities and handles are things of beauty, worked out via divine or machine-precise grace — as if perfection was not enough — and they manifest themselves as poetry in motion that unfolds like the most esteemed dancing routine. Curry is a better playmaker in every sense of the word, a more willing defender, and much more dangerous when off the ball — but there are times that Irving passes the eye-test like no other. The use of the left hand, seemingly a secondary part of their games, highlights wider differences, as well as similarities, between the two. This skill also demonstrates an overlooked aspect of their greatness.

Curry’s off-hand game is very much a product of his absurd training routines, designed to enhance his neurocognitive efficiency almost to a self-hacking degree. The obvious results make him aware of minuscule details around his visual context — what is called court-vision Curry has it developed to an otherworldly extent. His left hand allows him not only to unlock every possibility created by the other extraordinary aspects of his game (shooting ability, speed, etc.), but also to sustain a level of unpredictability that renders those aspects highly functional in the first place. Give Curry an open lane from the left side and he’ll take it all day long, either by pulling up or by going to the rim, torturing defenses for the slight advantage almost to a sadistic extent. And he has to take it, if only to posit a threat that he’ll do so in the future, on his very next play, so as to release some pressure off his shot. The use of his left hand is what provides his game a sense of completion, one that largely accounts for his dominant presence on the court.

Curry’s every movement, on and off the ball, serves the purpose of putting him in the spots where he can execute in the least amount of time imaginable. He has eliminated every excess from his game: every move counts. That’s something rarely seen, especially in a virtuoso like him. All of his more, let’s say, negotiable elements (prone to over-dribbling, the step-back, blind penetration attempts) — whatever usually produces bad choices and unproductive trends but carries the possibility of an exceptional moment — is incorporated into his game as a necessary function of a faultlessly-run program. The goal is always to get a basket. Consider the dancing move he put on Chris Paul last year:

Curry, while so close to the baseline, somehow managed to convince Paul that he can go either way — left or right — yet then took the third road, completely unseen as a possibility up to this point, to the stepback. And it was unseen because virtually every player going round the lane while dribbling has no balance to shoot — not without taking some time to adjust his posture. Paul knows that, but Curry knows that he knows: his double behind the back dribble is as much a way of re-shaping his shooting balance as it is to suspend Paul from reading his intentions — and Curry succeeds in both. Paul is thrown completely out of defensive balance, and the shot is cleanly made — this is as close as true efficiency gets to mere beauty.

At all times and whatever the circumstances might be, Curry has three available options: go left, go right, or pull-up. This multidirectional quality of his game, foundational to his playing presence, provides him the ability to take advantage of every available centimeter on the court; his off-hand, however he uses it, is organically connected to it. Take out the omnipresent threat of penetration and Curry becomes a deadly but predictable shooter, one that even Kevin Love might be able to defend.

If Curry’s off-hand game has to be seen in the wider context of his playing style, Irving’s left hand is a single event on its own. The way he manages to get inside the paint, either by lowering his body to a paranormal level or by a crossover coming out of nowhere — and of course the way he finishes those plays — constantly stretches the concepts of what is possible for a player of his physical gifts. The first thing to be noted is the level of trust with which he surrounds his left hand. Every player, much aware of his limitations, tends to go wherever his good hand is taking him. Irving has long dropped this mindset.

Besides being equally comfortable with the ball in his left hand, he can finish a play with it in any way possible: taking full advantage of the glass or using a finger roll, a teardrop, a floater, even something of a hook — he simply has the full range of weapons available with his left. There is a natural, ambidextrous quality attached to his game, as if there is nothing he can’t do with his left hand — and do it effortlessly.

There seems to be a standard procedure to every penetration of his: a direct movement from the top of the key towards the paint that splits the defense into two detached parts; the positioning of his body in such an angle that controls both his personal defender and the help defense; his last step before jumping off the ground, where he approaches or diverges from the last defender’s body — at the same time sealing the ball and absorbing contact. He then takes off, and magic happens: the power, the agility, and the smoothness of his last touch are the climactic finale of a choreography that seems to be continuously invented.

Irving’s use of his off-hand, however, is indicative of the overall excessiveness of his game, the same characteristic Curry has eliminated all-together. His confidence can easily transform into overconfidence; his easiness with the ball turns into over-dribbling; and he’s capable of putting himself into situations that inevitably lead to turnovers far too often. His show, at times, is too aware of its own potential, as if it asserts over him an influence too powerful to be resisted. His court-vision serves exclusively his own scoring instincts, unaware, unable, or unwilling to exploit the huge openings he creates for an easy assist. The same elements that make him great stop him from being even greater — although, in fairness, aren’t those elements what brought a championship last year?

Both Curry and Irving go beyond the limitations of their size, exploring territories unmapped by opponents’ defense, prone to take out of an impossible situation its most unexpected, positive outcome — and their ability to use the left hand is an indispensable tool, powering this success. Curry is the personification of whatever is signified by training, a precious effect from a cause of mythical intensity. Meanwhile Irving demonstrates what pure talent looks like. In a league that’s dominated by players with abnormal physical gifts, these two make a strong alternative case.

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