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Can Stephen Curry Become One of the Greatest Ever?

As the offseason plods along, and we spiral into abyss-like Nietzschean contemplations of existence and life without basketball, it allows us chances to explore new considerations. And one which has been tickling at my mind is whether Stephen Curry can join the ranks of the greatest ever.

Now, when I say the greatest ever, I don’t mean the greatest ever. I don’t mean the Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars.  I’m thinking of the four or five players who are near the bottom of the top 10. Can Curry reach the level that the Hakeem Olajuwon or Jerry West?

When such questions arise, many like to proffer the platitude, “It’s too soon,” as though waiting until something happens is the more appropriate time to make predictions. They also like to strawman your position and conflate “will” with “could.”

“Could” is an intentionally nuanced word, meaning that it’s possible it does, yet possible it doesn’t happen. “Will” is an imperative, ignoring the possibility that it might not. By “could” I mean realistic chance, not a Lloyd Christmas chance.

In other words, is it reasonable speculation that Curry joins the discussion for top-10 all-time when he retires?

To answer that question, let’s consider three typical criteria for the greatest ever:

  1. Statistical Accomplishments
  2. Championships
  3. Historical Impact

And Curry has a chance to do enough in each of those areas to move up in the conversation.

Statistical Accomplishments

Curry is very early in his career, so the career statistical accomplishments are looking woefully short at present. This is exacerbated by the injuries he faced early in his career. At 26 he’s only played in 416 games. By comparison, LeBron James had played in 627 at the same age.

Currently, Curry is sitting on 8,714 points, 2,866 assists and 717 steals. Last season, he had 1,900, 619 and 163 respectively. Let’s loosely project the rest of his career, if he avoids injury. We’ll use last year’s numbers as a baseline. Assume he’s able to maintain that “prime” for another five years, then projecting he has a 10-percent decline each of the next five.

This is how the rest of his career would map out if he played to a pretty reasonable 36:

curry projections

If Curry were to reach 25,000 points, 8,000 assists and 2,000 steals, he would be the first player in NBA history to do so (unless LeBron James beats him to it, which is certainly feasible). Currently, the only player to hit 25,000 points and 8,000 dimes is Oscar Robertson.

Since both James and Robertson are in that top 10 company, this certainly bodes well for Curry entering into the discussion. And even if you cut down those numbers to 20,000 and 7,000, only Gary Payton joins the company.

And we haven’t even started looking at what Curry does better than anyone in the history of the world. He has made more threes than anyone in history at this stage of their career. In fact, his lead is so large that if he didn’t make a deep ball for the next 128 games, he could still maintain that lead.

Look how he stacks up with Reggie Miller and Ray Allen based on what he’s done and what he would do if he keeps the previous projections.

curry 3

Even if Curry retires four years younger than Allen did, he’ll annihilate the career three-point record. Based on these projections, he’d hit 3,675—over 500 more than Allen.

And Allen and Miller combined had 8,502 assists. Or barely more than what Curry projects to have.

Curry has a chance to have numbers that have been unparalleled in the history of the game. Granted, they’re slightly different than the ones we look at for the others in the conversation, but more on that later.

Rings 

Last season, Stephen Curry was named the MVP, and his team won 65 games and the title. That combination of individual and team success is rarer than you might think. Here are the other players and teams who have done it:

65 wins

In the last column, the total number of rings that player won in his career is listed. The only player on this list to only win one ring was Moses Malone, who spent a large chunk of his career in the ABA.

The core of Curry’s championship squad is due back next season and the one after that. His co-star, Klay Thompson, is locked up for the next four years, as is his most critical defensive teammate, Draymond Green.

Does all of this guarantee that the Warriors are going to win more rings with Curry running the show? No. But, on average his predecessors have won an average of 3.5 in their careers in similar circumstances. And every one of them—including Malone—is in most fans top-15 or higher.

So, it’s a pretty reasonable guess that Curry can win a couple of more rings. And that strengthens the chances he’s included in the G.O.A.T. convo when he hangs up his sneakers.

Historical Impact

The third criterion is historical impact, and by that I mean, his particular skills were the ones that defined the era in which he played, and he exhibited them on the highest level.

For the first 30 years of the league’s history, whether it was George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league was dominated by the center. Prior to 1983, the only three non-centers to win the MVP were Bob Cousey in 1957, Oscar Robertson in 1964 and Julius Erving in 1981.

Since then, only three centers have won it. In 1983-84, Larry Bird won the award, and it changed things. It started becoming about versatility—guys who could beat you on the glass, the scoreboard and the pass. There are 20 players in NBA history to record at least 20 triple doubles in their career.

Of those, six players accounted for 17 of the next 30 MVP awards, combined for 305 triple-doubles and won 22 rings. They also account for five of the six or seven greatest players since then.

310

Also, notice that the first five players on that list are commonly listed as among the 10 greatest to ever play. In short, the players who define their eras have the most historical impact, and deservedly so.

Curry is not a “great” player in the context of the legends of the league’s early era, nor is he one in the framework of the giants of the present. But the times—they are a changin’—and Curry is a massive part of the reason.

We are entering the analytics age, where the players, coaches, front offices, opponents and even fans have a higher level of understanding of the game. It’s where playing smarter is a big part of playing better. It’s a time when the three-point shot is appreciated, not just as a gimmick or a way to “get back in games,” but as a force around which a team can build a championship offense.

And Curry is the man who is defining that age because what he does off the bounce is just insane. I’ve had people on social media tell me that Curry is a great three-point shooter but not a great overall shooter because he’s never joined the 50/40/90 club. This is akin to arguing that gravity doesn’t work because things stop falling when they hit the ground.

It’s using the evidence of a thing to argue against the thing itself, and it makes zero sense.

The 50/40/90 club refers to players who have a field-goal percentage of 50, a three-point percentage of 40, and a free-throw percentage of 90. The problem with this is that the more three-pointers you take, the more it lowers that first number, even if you’re making over 40 percent of them.

So, even if a player makes 90 percent of his free throws, 50 percent of his two-point attempts and 40 percent of his threes, he can still miss the 50/40/90 club, which is exactly what happened to Curry last year. In fact, compare Curry last year with Dirk Nowitzki the year he joined the company, 2007:

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Curry was better than Nowitzki from all three ranges, but Nowitzki makes the club and Curry doesn’t because Curry took a higher percentage of his shots from three. Curry had a three-point rate of 48 percent. Nowitzki’s was 12 percent. See the problem? The ground is getting in the way of gravity. Three-point rate impacts field-goal percentage.

So, let’s change the criteria for the 50/40/90 club to where the 50 means they qualify for the two-point percentage leaderboard and make more than half their attempts. Here are the qualifiers for the club:

It’s only been done 17 times, but there is still a lot of conflation to this list.

Comparing what Jose Calderon did in 2009 with what Durant did in 2013 is just silly because it’s a fairly established premise that as usage goes up, shooting percentages go down because more defense is on the player.

So, let’s add usage percentage to our criteria and make it a 50/40/90/25 club, where the player also uses at least 25 percent of his team’s possessions. Our list gets trimmed way down:

usg

And we’re still not done. We’ve gone from comparing apples and oranges to comparing tangerines and oranges, but we still need to sort out the tangerines. There are still two other things to sort out. First, we know that players who shoot off the dribble are less likely to see their shots go down

Last year, Curry was 51.5 percent from two and 42.5 percent from three when dribbling. He was in the 50/40/90 club just off the bounce!  And he scored 1,005 of his 1,900 (52.9 percent) of his points that way. Durant had 43.8 percent of his points fall in that category. Nowitzki had just 49.9 percent of his field goals assisted in 2007. With Bird, assisted points weren’t tracked when he played, but it’s fair to speculate that more than half came from catch-and-shoots.

So, if we factor in the dribble, and broaden the club to a 50/40/90/25/50 club (whew!) the only member in history is Stephen Curry.

And we’re still not done. Finally, we have to look at the actual three-point rate (percentage of shots which are from behind the arc) as opposed to just three-point percentage (percentage of shots that went in.) If we establish a second club called the 40/40/25 club it’s even narrower than the 50/40/90 club:

40-40-25

Notice Curry’s name appearing three times on the list. And no one else has made both clubs.

Curry. Stretches. Courts. In fact, he stretches them to the point of ripping them. His range is yes. If he’s on the court, you must be on him. If he has the ball, opponents pray. He doesn’t need to get to the rim; he just needs a fraction of an inch to get off a shot.

And there’s one more thing that drives this point home. Some might ascribe the Warriors offense as the reason he excels, but consider his on/off numbers with his Brother in Splashing, Klay Thompson. According to NBA.com, when Thompson is on the court with Curry, he makes 4.7 threes per 100 possessions and shoots 44.5 percent from deep. Without Curry, those numbers dip to 4.2 and 40.9 percent respectively.

So clearly, Curry’s shooting helps Thompson. But what about the other way around? When Curry plays with Thompson, he makes 4.9 threes per 100 possessions at a 44.2 percent clip. When he’s without his little brother, he makes 6.0 treys at 44.6 percent.

When Thompson sits, Curry gets even better. Which, let’s face it, that’s just flatly unfair.

Look, it’s not only safe to say, it’s basically impossible to argue otherwise: Curry is the greatest court stretcher in the history of the game. As Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus points out:

Combining the volume and accuracy, it’s clear why this is such a singular and devastating skill. A self-created three is a shot defenses will live with from most NBA players. From Curry, just that shot would have been the best offense in the league. All of a sudden, extra help is needed in a situation where it is unnecessary against 29 other teams. Getting back to the beginning, this extra defensive attention to Curry is a major reason why Golden State had one of the most cooperative offenses in the league, with 58.4% of their field goal attempts coming via potential assist. The Warriors had a 62.8% eFG% on their assisted shot attempts, best in the league. Yet even that figure is preferable to letting Curry “get his own” from three, as his 43% accuracy translates in 64.5% eFG. In effect, Curry’s shooting offers a defense a red pill and a blue pill, except both are poisonous.

Curry isn’t the beneficiary of the Warriors’ dynamic offense; he’s the catalyst.

So put all this together. Curry has the potential to put up unparalleled or close to unparalleled numbers, win multiple rings and multiple MVPs and be the most dominant player in the league at the skills that define his era.

Is that enough to move him in the top-10 all-time conversation? That might depend on the priorities of whoever is doing the arguing, but these are things that are consistent with the players normally mentioned.

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