Steph Curry is in the VIP Room of NBA History
Coming off his third championship in four years, Curry's accomplishments are incredible and rare. Here's a look at where he stands among his peers, past and present.
Photo by Kyle Terada - USA TODAY Sports
Despite the words uttered by a champagne-soaked Steve Kerr moments after the Golden State Warriors won their third championship since 2015—“I remember sitting in this room three years ago, it seemed like a dream; this feels more like reality”—the immediate and sudden resolution of any season never really “feels like reality” regardless of how predictable its conclusion invariably was.
Another chapter in the NBA’s 72-year-long story ended on Friday night, and appreciating it in real time is, for me, almost impossible. Those who obsess, analyze, and love the league—who fall asleep to the sound of League Pass theme music every night for (at least) eight straight months—can’t really process whatever happened without the benefit of passed time to offer appropriate context, so instead most focus on NBA-related matters that slant (no collar) to the future. Odds for who will win the 2019 championship enter the conversation, free agency rumors hum in the foreground, overshadowing celebratory cries from the sport’s mountaintop.
Series finales tend to smack you in the face and, frankly, the results tend to deliver a staggering blow that contradicts why we ostensibly care so much in the first place. The Warriors have done something very few organizations ever have, and what it all means for the most important player they ever employed is a topic I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching Steph Curry prance from Quicken Loans Arena’s emotional post-game awards presentation to its jubilant visiting locker room, choking the Larry O’Brien trophy with his magical right hand.
Where does Curry currently sit in the narrative that runs through NBA history? If everything stopped tomorrow, how much of the league’s entire plot summary would be filled by his career? The bottom-line accomplishments—three rings and two MVP’s before his 31st birthday—already secure him a roped-off table in the VIP room, and his progression from “Greatest Shooter Ever” to “The Spinal Cord of a Historic Dynasty” clearly matters.
Curry’s trajectory is even more unprecedented than his jumper, and this snapshot of what’s already in cement—without looking ahead to the rest of what will eventually be remembered as one of the NBA’s most important, miraculous, and entertaining culminations—deserves some historical perspective.
Curry has made five All-Star teams and five All-NBA teams (two first, two second, and one third). He’s led the league in scoring once (2016), True Shooting percentage twice (2016, 2018—both accompanied by a top-ten usage rate), steals twice (2015, 2016), three pointers attempted and made five times (2013-2017), Offensive Real Plus-Minus twice (2016, 2017—since the stat was invented he’s never finished below third), and so on and so forth. Alone, these markers make a strong case for the Hall of Fame. Combine them with Golden State’s collective achievements and he's already a lock.
With all due respect to Kevin Durant (who is a more dominant singular talent), Curry is still the most valuable player inside a dynasty. If we count everybody in that club, even widening the net to include those who won three rings in five or fewer years as the most irreplaceable player on their team, Curry joins Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, and George Mikan on a list reserved for genuine basketball royalty. This doesn't make the totality of his career better than everybody else's—LeBron James won three in five but on two separate teams, Larry Bird won three in six, Dwyane Wade won three in eight, Kobe Bryant won five in 11, etc.—but if you stack Curry's past six seasons (from age 24 to 29—he turned 30 in March) against the best of the best, they really stand out.
“The combination of incredible talent and humility, that is such a powerful force in our locker room. In many ways it sets the tone for the whole organization.”
A grand total of 29 players scored at least 11,000 points during that 24-29 stretch. Curry ranks second in True Shooting percentage, and first in three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, and effective field goal percentage. He's also tenth in two-point percentage, ahead of Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Jerry West, Kobe, Bird, Wade, and several other Hall of Famers.
It's impossible to compare Curry to other greats with counting numbers. Curry's minutes were lower thanks to fragile ankles, countless fourth-quarter blowouts, and organizational foresight. But on a per 100 possessions basis, among guards he joins Jordan, Kobe, Wade, and Gervin as the only ones to average at least 35 points with a field goal percentage above 45. Needless to say, this has already been one of the most prosperous periods anybody's ever had, and the way Curry did it while being more efficient than just about anybody before him is remarkable.
(In a feat that’s aging incredibly well, Curry was almost unanimously viewed as the best player in the world back in 2015, when LeBron was as old as Curry is now.)
From a team perspective, the Warriors are a comet watch. What makes championship runs like the one they're on so rare and reverential is the difficulty that comes with pulling different egos, skill-sets, backgrounds, and personalities in one direction without a wheel falling off the wagon. Health, money, free agency, and the determination of 29 (or 22...or seven) other teams all stand in the way. The Warriors responded to those challenges by winning more games in a four-year stretch than any team ever has. Without Curry none of it's possible. He’s their identity, inspiration, and influence. He functions at the core of a system that’s based on selfless tendencies that whir opponents into a dizzy self-combustion.
“I've said this before, but it's worth saying again,” Kerr said after Game 4 when asked about Curry’s personality. “The combination of incredible talent and humility, that is such a powerful force in our locker room. In many ways it sets the tone for the whole organization.”
There’s something about Curry that even the most detailed spreadsheet or advanced metric will never convey. His shots have the air of inevitability, and even after the ball rips through the net, his awesome lingers on the court like a hangover, disrupting an opposing offense that’s processing his gut punch with only 24 seconds to figure out how they can slap back. Meanwhile, they’re bare fisted and he’s brandishing brass knuckles.
In that way, Curry deflates opponents in a way nobody before him ever has, with shot-accuracy, quickness, ball-handling, vision, and ability to finish through contact in the paint. He’s a perfect storm. During the regular season, his True Shooting percentage was 66.9 with a 27.0 usage rate when Durant shared the floor. Without the world’s second-best player by his side, those two numbers went up to 68.8 and 37.9 (!). He was, once again, an MVP candidate hiding in the spotlight. Absurd on/off excellence is a general trend throughout his career.
The outline of his skill-set balances on a tightrope, but instead of creeping from the edge of one tall building to another—like his bubbling ocean of impersonators will do—Curry casually glides by on a moving walkway. David Itzkoff, writing in his new autobiography about Robin Williams, could have also been talking about Curry: “no one combined the precise set of talents he had in the same alchemical proportions.” He’s normalized the transformative.
Complaining about his Finals MVP void as if A) he wasn’t great in the Finals, B) anyone cares, C) analytics and common sense teach us not to put all our eggs in one basket when analyzing a single playoff series, and, most offensively, D) he’ll never win it in the future, is beyond foolish. His Finals scoring average in four series is 25.4 points per game, and he's never shot below 38 percent from beyond the arc in any of them. His total +/- in 22 Finals games is plus-122. He is electricity on the biggest stage.
Back in November, I wondered if Curry’s pull-up threes were still the most devastating and unanswerable weapon NBA basketball has ever seen. Working from a month of action, his numbers in a few notable areas were lower than they’d been—including his field goal percentage around the basket, which wound up spending this postseason orbiting the moon.
Some of that change was systemic but most of it was random. He averaged the exact same number of pull-up threes per game this year as he did in 2015, and his pull-up shooting accuracy was actually higher than last year—only Kyrie Irving and Tyreke Evans finished with a better percentage (on at least 100 attempts) than Curry. Nobody had a higher effective field goal percentage on pull ups, either.
As I wrote in that article, even if those numbers drooped it wouldn't matter. The way Curry tirelessly snakes through screens off the ball, forcing switches, opening wide gates for his teammates, and discombobulating even the most obedient defensive systems, is why he's underpaid on a $201 million contract. Throughout the Finals, writers searching for an original angle sprayed questions about lesser contributors—like JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell—at Steve Kerr, Ty Lue, and every other star that populated the podium. The quick and easy answer to them all was “because they are Steph Curry's teammate.”
Cleveland’s bad defense looked even worse because of the constant pressure and non-existent margin for error Curry provides. They swarmed him, doubling off and on the ball, surrendering the paint to cover the three-point line and the three-point line to (ineffectively) protect the rim. He was their sole focus, and for the fourth year in a row it let everyone else roam free or punch down against a mismatch.
We’re at the stage of Curry's career where him actually making shots can feel like gravy on top of that massive ancillary impact. When he was on the floor without Durant, Golden State’s offense still averaged 116.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. (That team and individual success didn’t hold up for 80 playoff minutes—11 of which were also without Klay Thompson—but the sample size is far too small to walk away with any firm conclusions.)
Here’s what I wrote about Curry seven months ago:
There will never be another like Curry. Even with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala all meshed together inside a gratifying symphony conducted by a head coach who knows success, the Most Valuable Player argument for Curry makes itself. He corkscrewed the center position into an existential crisis and helped turn switch-happy tactics into the golden standard of pick-and-roll defense. He redefined what the word "gravity" means within the context of sport, and as the first option on a team that isn’t stocked with household names he could probably still dine out on long twos and lead the league in scoring. Containing him for 24 seconds at a time is like trying to catch a butterfly while it throws ninja stars at your face.
All that still stands. But sometimes when I watch Curry play, the thought of him functioning inside a system that doesn’t space the floor as well, with teammates who tend to hesitate a beat too long when met with the choice to pass or shoot, drifts by as a notion worth considering. Imagine him in Russell Westbrook's shoes on the Oklahoma City Thunder? What if he had to push himself in different ways, and swap out the surgical nature of his attack for a broader blitzkrieg? Does that Curry average 35 per game or does he buckle underneath a different type of stress? Is who we have now the most awesome iteration imaginable?
That hypothetical isn’t one anybody should lose sleep over. As is, the last month has elevated Curry into a basketball pantheon few have ever reached, and several decades may pass before someone comes along to top his winning resume. One that isn't close to a conclusion.