Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, and the Path to the NBA's Greatest of All Time

Steph Curry may one day be known as the greatest NBA player of all time.

Clickbait, right? I should not really be able to put Stephen Curry, a 6’3” 27-year-old, in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Then you think about it and…

A future Hall of Famer is with me in that boat. Don’t get me wrong, this discussion is premature. One NBA title and one NBA MVP is worth a lot unless you’re stacked up against Michael Jordan. At this point, discussion of numbers is irrelevant because Jordan far surpasses Curry.

Where the debate begins is in the poetic originality that KG alluded to in his quote. Where Kobe Bryant failed to become the greatest of all time is in his lack of originality. He duplicated Michael Jordan and earned the respect of the Bulls legend. Kobe gave basketball and the NBA a lot in his career that he recently announced was ending this year. The Laker great took the NBA in a tour de force with an unparalleled determination to destroy anything and everything in his path. His precision in emulating Jordan’s footwork and offensive repertoire was uncanny.  He was the hurricane that three-peated beginning in 2000. His 81-point throttling of the Raptors in 2006 reminded everyone he wasn’t done yet. He validated that claim with a back-to-back title run that began in 2009. But the force of his hurricane could never quite reach the Michael Jordan mountaintop.

LeBron James had always been my pick as heir to the throne of greatest NBA player of all time. Unlike Kobe Bryant, he mixed the best of a variety of NBA players—Jordan among them—in his ascent to the top of the modern-day NBA throne. The fact that he won two consecutive championships and appeared in five straight is almost incomprehensible. I won’t bemoan LeBron’s case because I’ve done so many times already. But with his return to Cleveland, the window is shrinking.

Kobe and LeBron are among the literal larger-than-life cast of characters in the debate for greatest NBA player of all time that include Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Steph Curry does not fit into that mix. He was not a highly-touted and coveted No. 1 overall choice. He does not have that commanding Goliath demeanor. Whereas other great players directly influence player personnel decisions, Curry has elected to trust his front office. This same front office that brought him in shooed out a coach, Mark Jackson, that Curry had clearly bonded well with. (One that also incidentally parted ways this off-season with one of the "OG" Warriors, David Lee.) Curry’s disapproval created a path for Steve Kerr that was not easy. Nonetheless, the Warriors’ superstar was receptive to Kerr's effort, and general manager Bob Myers now has an NBA Executive of the Year award to his name. Supporting Steve Kerr laid the foundation for a championship and a viable dynasty. It was game-changing.

So what is it exactly that sets Steph Curry apart and why am I so set on a premature discussion of his place in the NBA pantheon? Two reasons that I will flesh out—and both that I have alluded to in some fashion: Steph Curry’s mastery of originality and my desire for us to truly appreciate the unfolding of history as it pertains to NBA lore. 

The One Man Revolution

The list of players that have changed the NBA is very short. Steph Curry will be on that list. The small ball “Death Lineup” that has garnered much attention of late is made possible by the versatility of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes. But there is a very strong argument to be made that none of the younger players would have developed into who they have become without Curry. Draymond’s threes didn’t open up magically. Harrison Barnes’ face-ups didn’t become successful overnight. Veteran Andre Iguodala’s confidence from beyond the arc arose when many of those looks became so open that he had to take them.

The common thread here is Steph Curry, a player who commands so much attention that he frees up open looks for teammates. But unlike LeBron James, who has been known to go into funks offensively when opponents play him to defer, Curry will punish you if you don’t send a second defender his way. Critics emptily claimed that his success last year came from this ability to defer. So what does he do this year? Curry owns a commanding lead of the NBA scoring title despite playing, on average, less than three quarters a game. Efficiency is the name of the game, and he is on pace to comfortably hit the heralded 50-40-90 shooting splits in the 2015-16 NBA season. The dude who won the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player has a shot to win 2016 Most Improved Player.

He takes difficult shots from what seem like other planets. Half-court and near half-court shots are things that this guy practices. You hear it on every Warriors telecast, “if anybody else took that shot, they would be [insert punishment here].” Steph Curry is successfully doing things that most players are directly instructed to not do. He has redefined what it means to be a bad shot maker because his handles allow him to create any shot. How do you defend someone who can pull up from almost half-court, but if you tenaciously defend him, he will cross you over? Last year, Chris Paul got plastered all over the internet in memes for trying.

Kobe Bryant was often regarded as the league’s pre-eminent bad shot maker. He made a living on making incredible turnaround fade-aways. Nonetheless, they were clearly regarded as bad shots and Kobe’s efficiency suffered. Curry’s efficiency has not suffered because he has transcended the point of bad shots. The title of a recent highlight post reads as follows: “Ignore the fact that it’s Stephen Curry and come to grips with just how abjectly ridiculous and stupid this shot is.” That’s just it, though, the whole point is that you can’t ignore that it’s Steph. FiveThirtyEight showed mathematically: Curry shoots threes as well with a defender two to four feet away from him as the average NBA shooter does with a defender 12 feet away. He is defying every law imaginable.

He owns three of the top-five NBA single season three-point records (first, second, and fifth). And he is on pace to obliterate those records this year. When you’re setting and breaking your own records…that’s the marker of something special. In the words of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, “He’s been amazing…he pushes, I think not only me, but the whole league to work on their game. The way he’s been working out, the way he’s focused and how consistent he’s been playing, I think he’s pushing the entire league.”

The three-point shot is not a novelty. Ray Allen made a career and an iconic play out of mastering it, but nobody has ever been the primary playmaker and scorer who also happens to be an elite three-point threat. Nobody. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey geared his team’s offense around acquiring and maximizing the appropriate usage of a ball-dominant scoring guard. Threes and layups, Houston preaches. But just one year after a Western Conference Finals appearance and a month after the firing of the coach, Houston’s philosophy and personnel have a slowly deteriorating future.

“I always believed 3 is better than 2,” Steph Curry sarcastically quipped on November 7. He has found the appropriate balance between humility, effort, and humor. And while the elementary arithmetic is obvious, execution of scoring threes is an elusive Snitch. That option is always there, but only few have mastered the art of shooting (or catching) it. And the secret is long out…everybody knows Steph can shoot threes. But again, as we expect from someone who has truly mastered their craft, you know it’s coming and you still can’t stop it. I can count offhand three separate occasions in the past few weeks when I have heard the question posed: “how do you stop Steph Curry/the Warriors offense?” Each time the answer from the paid analyst was the same: I do not know.

He is, like Michael Jordan, a trendsetter. We’ve seen ball-handling magicians. We’ve seen dominant scorers. We’ve seen aesthetically appealing three-point specialists. But we have never seen an amalgam of these traits in a single player. And we have certainly never seen it to this extreme. 

Curry's persona has two uniquely paradoxical qualities. On the one hand, he is very normal. He is 6’3”, a height that the average NBA fan can wrap their head around. Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Wilt… all, as I mentioned earlier, are rather larger than life. But at barely 190 pounds, Steph is tangible. He’s relatable. Warriors’ fans cheer ironically when he throws down an in-game dunk because the guy averages less than 10 dunks a year. He’s a great shooter and that’s something a 10-year-old can emulate in his backyard. Double-clutch and tomahawk dunks...not so much.

On the other hand, Curry is very abnormal. When you hear analysts proclaim “he pulled up from THIRTY!” it’s not something the average person can do with regularity, if at all. It’s something no other NBA player can regularly do. The obliteration of previous records is insane. Traditionally, 45 percent is a solid mark for overall FG percentage. Curry is nearly at that from beyond the arc. In that sense, he provides is an illusion of duplicability. Dominant big men have been duplicated throughout the course of basketball history. So have traditional point guards. Kobe Bryant even proved that Michael Jordan could be copied to a large extent. Less than a month ago, two-time MVP Steve Nash chimed in: “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a player more skilled than him in the history of the game.”

Appreciating Greatness

Steph Curry is like Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian. We’ve seen astronauts and we know what Mars looks like. We know how plants grow. But we have never seen an astronaut on Mars grow plants. Out of feces, no less. Steph Curry is the Martian who is putting things together that you thought you would see only in a movie. (And Golden State was a cellar-dwellar not too long ago so that “out of feces” part is relevant to the analogy). 

Let’s stay with The Martian for a minute (or pick your favorite movie). When you’re watching greatness, you really want to be able to appreciate it before it passes. There’s something to be said for being able to pre-emptively know that you’re watching greatness unfold. And within the first 20 or so minutes, I knew that The Martian was going to be a great film. The extra attention and appreciation, in my opinion, is worth something. It allows us to more intricately dissect what we’ve seen on first impression and incentivizes us to watch it again. 

With Steph, it’s even more important to appreciate what he means for the game because he is not a dominating personality. He’s humble and goes about his business as if everything is normal. “It feels natural” he told Rachel Nichols when asked about how ridiculous some of the shots he makes are. “It feels normal [but] I do kind of laugh sometimes.” Curry doesn’t have that patented Shrug or Chest Bump to emphasize how spectacular he is but he is must-watch movie on a nightly basis. He might run back on defense when the ball is still in the air after he shoots, but that's about it. The Curry Show is your favorite TV series with just enough variation and magic to keep you in awe year after year.

Yours truly may be the first to say that Steph Curry has a realistic shot to become the greatest NBA player of all time, but people have caught on. Sideline reporter Ros Gold-Onwude has captured moments of fans gathering around Steph’s pre-game workouts. He’s gracing the cover of every magazine imaginable from Sports Illustrated to GQ to Golf Digest.

Even my own appreciation and fandom was once blurred with my fandom of my hometown Golden State Warriors. Watching a local team win a historic championship was something I knew I wanted to document. I thought of myself as collecting Warriors memorabilia...but then I realized it was Curry’s jersey and pairs of shoes that I owned. It was his face plastered on the covers of those magazines. His exclamations of joy are on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Discussion of memorabilia and marketing is not irrelevant to the discussion of Steph Curry’s greatness. Michael Jordan created a brand and propelled Nike to becoming a corporation that prints money. No other athlete has had such a broad marketing impact. Under Armour had always been the stepchild in basketball that received only fringe attention. This was until Steph Curry joined and transformed the brand. The astronomical growth of Under Armour since signing the 2015 NBA MVP is undeniable. Currently, it’s growth is roughly double that of Nike. Just go on eBay where you’ll find the value of many Curry 1 colorways have doubled since UA sold out of them. Curry 2s, released in late October, are flying off shelves at an equally unconscionable rate. Granted, it is hard to imagine Curry becoming a brand like Jordan considering both Nike and UA are so well-established. But perhaps it is even more impressive that Curry has provided a surge in sales for a company that’s been around for a couple decades.

Like his coach, Curry will always be one to deflect attention and accolades. He knows that basketball is a team game and without the incredible talent surrounding him, he would not have a championship. But he is rarely one to acknowledge his role in amassing that talent. The Kevin Durant to the Warriors rumors for the upcoming mega-offseason have gained legitimate traction. How? The Warriors franchise player is not egocentric. He has proven he can win without another superstar, but he could also coexist with another once-in-a-generation talent.

Redefining Clutch

Another realm that we may see Curry continue to revolutionize is the concept of “clutch.” We monitor the “clutch gene” as if the last minute of the fourth quarter defines a basketball game. The trail of the Jordan to Kobe “killer instinct” has been praised regularly even by today’s NBA stars. But Curry has solidified what LeBron began. What if you can make that last minute irrelevant? As I tweeted in a recent blowout win, the Warriors have brought garbage time to new heights. Curry and the Warriors dominate games so thoroughly that garbage time is present in even the Western Conference Finals. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that Curry can’t handle the pressure of close late-game situations. Just ask the Pelicans after the first round of the 2015 playoffs or the Jazz in the waning hours of this past November. You’re kidding yourself if you want to face Steph Curry at the end of a close game. 

Jordan and Kobe said “we’ll take the shot because our hands are the right hands.” LeBron said “I’ll put the ball in the right hands.” Steph Curry says “the ball will find it’s way into the right hands.”

Moreover, consensus is slowly building around the fact that Steph Curry is the best player in the NBA. LeBron James has held the title for anywhere from five to ten years, and everybody thought that that title would eventually be passed down to either Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis. In true Curry fashion, he sneaked his way into the seat as top dog. He was a bench player coming out of Davidson and far, far from projections of this magnitude of greatness. His demeanor may be laid back, but he is relentless on the floor. 

Curry’s appropriate focus on the present contradicts my desire to keep what he is doing in historical perspective. He is performing professionally the way we should live our lives: in the moment. As cliche as it sounds, it is not an accident. Steve Kerr emphasizes four core principles: joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. Retaining focus on the present moment and the most imminently important task is what breeds this Warriors brand of success. Steph Curry has managed to do just that in his own whirlwind of success. If there was an award to be won in 2015, that award was won by Stephen Curry.

Individual and team health

Good health is of paramount importance in this pursuit of greatness. While it has gone by the wayside, early in his career there was non-stop talk about Curry’s ankles. It was the main reason the Warriors gambled on what at the time was considered a risky 4-year/$44 million contract. In hindsight, that contract looks like robbery. Ironically, pundits wielded the health card for the exact opposite reason after the 2015 season. Good health became synonymous with good luck. He was the lucky MVP who didn’t even average playing three quarters of basketball per game. Team depth played a tremendous role, but it was in part because of Curry’s efficiency that he played a shade under 33 minutes per game in 2015. Injuries often occur when fatigue sets in. So, the Warriors training staff figured, if fatigue and minutes can be limited, then players are more likely to remain healthy. The logic is simple but the execution has proved to be widely elusive.

Curry's uncanny ability to work within the team concept is another reason he has enjoyed such success. The one-on-five-esque tendencies of previous greats made for fabulous “me against the world” stories, but were they really feasible outside the realm of one-on-one sports? Steph has built off the foundation of LeBron-Popovich school of team ball. He flourishes within this new concept of small and ultra-small ball. He has finalized the transition in the NBA away from that one-on-one approach to winning. I have always been a firm believer that success is not predicated on amassing the next “Big Three” because with superstars often come super-egos. If you can surround greatness with the right pieces, you ultimately have the most sustainable model for elite performance.

Steph and the 2016 Warriors’ model has sustained elite performance so convincingly that they now make history when it shouldn’t even be made. November is NFL season, not NBA season, and yet the sports news cycle is dominated by the undefeated Warriors. The talk that the 2015 NBA championship was only the beginning has been, thus far, backed up and then some. Pat Riley, an NBA legend himself, acknowledged that Curry is part of “the two most dynamic players in the backcourt that I have ever seen,” and that the Warriors “are in the beginning of something that can be dynastic...that’s the scary part, versus somebody that catches lightning in a bottle at one time.” Here, Riley alludes to exactly why I believe that the Warriors model for success is more sustainable. Collecting NBA superstars is like rolling dice. You might hit the jackpot once, but there’s a high chance that it goes wrong. The Steph Curry Warriors have removed the dice from the situation entirely but, like their leader's demeanor, you won’t hear them bragging “not one, not two, not three…”

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The Golden State point guard’s style of play is also built to last. He isn’t a force of nature a la Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, Wade, or Westbrook. He isn’t quite a Ray Allen or Dirk Nowitzki-type, either, because he doesn’t rely on receiving the ball in the right spots to make things happen. The most apt comparison is to that of Steve Nash who played well into his late thirties. A full decade left for Steph Curry’s NBA career is not unreasonable. This is why it is still well within the realm of possibility that Steph enters this discussion as the all-time greatest. I’ve written the Kobe vs. LeBron comparison. I’ve done the Kobe vs. Jordan. LeBron vs. Jordan. Kobe vs. Duncan. But those “traditional” number comparisons fail to speak to the resounding impact that Jordan and now Curry have on their sport. It takes a more well-rounded appreciation and analysis from these aspects to truly measure impact, as should be done when discussing greatness.

Making plays, making your teammates better, winning, and changing the game are four areas where truly great players excel. Steph Curry has emphatically begun to make his mark on each of these. It’s dropping 50+ or throwing crazy dimes. It’s making near half-court shots and hitting clutch shots. It’s winning award after award after award and forcing teams to re-think game-planning and strategy. It’s pushing other players in the league and directing the trajectory for future players at the NBA’s most important position. It’s showing how volume and efficiency are not mutually exclusive. Like Jordan, Curry is the artist and the court is his canvas. The Warriors’ point guard is stretching the boundaries of what should be possible and is not-so-quietly making history in the process.

Steph will need that full decade to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Is it something that motivates him? Who knows. We do know that the fury with which he has been scoring in the early 2016 season has shown he is ready to prove haters wrong. Maybe he is the NBA version of Tom Brady. We have seen before that greatness may come from where you least expect it. The blueprint set by Michael Jordan was written and attempts have been made to duplicate it with varying degrees of success. 

The former Davidson standout is still writing his own blueprint. Even though his daughter may think he is too loud, he has never been one to praise his singular greatness. But his footprint has already been made on the NBA landscape. The epicenter of this NBA-rattling Warriors’ earthquake was set in motion by the other Akron native.