There’s a bromide about the NBA that the season doesn’t start for real until Christmas, and it’s mostly true, even now.
The Golden State Warriors are appointment viewing, from their opening-night banner raising and ring ceremony to every game they’ll play, which very well might stretch into late June once again. They’re more compelling right now than anything else in sports, anything else on television, period, even though their games are usually laughably one-sided. Heck, perhaps because they are laughably one-sided.
The previous two statements would seem contradictory, but they’re not for the simple fact that what the Warriors are doing barely qualifies as basketball anymore. They feel entirely removed from the NBA, in the category of something other entirely, and they are so because of Stephen Curry. He’s playing a different game than everyone else.
Curry has been compared from everything to video games to superheroes to nuclear bombs to Wayne Gretzky. That last comparison, by Tim Kawakami of Bay Area News Group, isn’t terribly original (I likened Curry to Gretzky and the Warriors to the 1980s Edmonton Oilers in this space five weeks ago), but it’s the most apt, because Curry is doing things we’ve never seen before. He’s beyond an ordinary superstar. It’s not enough to suggest that he’s breaking through to the mainstream, that his talent is so transcendent that it captures the imagination of even non-sports fans. What he’s doing goes beyond even that. What Curry represents is evolution. He’s changing how we see the game and making mockery of everything we thought we understood about its limits and mathematics. He’s making us reexamine what we thought was theoretically possible.
The statistical proof, if you require it: Curry is leading the league in scoring (35.8 PPG), three-point field goals (28), true shooting percentage (.763), Offensive Rating (149), Player Efficiency Rating (47.1), Win Shares (2.0), Win Shares Per-48 Minutes (.604) and Value Over Replacement Player (1.0), all culled from Basketball-Reference.com.
For a point of reference, Anthony Davis led the league in PER last season at 30.8, and the all-time single-season best mark is Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.8 in 1962-63.
James Harden paced the NBA with 16.4 Win Shares last year, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the all-time mark, with 25.4 in 1971-72. Curry is on pace for 33.
Curry led the league in WS/48 last season at .288. Abdul-Jabbar put up a .339 with the Bucks. Again, the Dubs’ sharpshooter is currently at .604.
The reigning MVP also led the league in VORP last season at 7.86. Michael Jordan had the all-time best at 11.98 in 1988-89. Curry’s on pace for 16.4.
Finally, the simplest projection of them all. Curry hold’s the all-time single-season record with 286 made threes, which he set last year. Currently, he’s on track to make 459.
The temptation, entirely logical, is to suggest that we’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. It’s only been five games. Anyone can be ridiculously hot for five games. But you’re not really paying attention then. Curry’s only 10th in the league at this early stage in three-point percentage, making a mere 51.9 percent of his threes, but he’s taken 31 more and made 15 more than anyone of those nine guys above him. It’s as though he’s discovered a cheat code to break basketball. “I can make over 40 percent of these no matter where I shoot from, so why don’t I just shoot them all the time?”
Curry has a reputation for being soft-spoken and humble, but teammate Klay Thompson spoke the truth in an interview with ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, explaining, “Look at the way he plays. Is that humble?… No humble man can take those shots.”
How can you guard a guy who launches, unabashedly, without shame or regret and with the full blessing of his teammates and coaching staff, from five, seven, 10 feet behind the three-point line? He takes the kind of shots we clown Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant for taking. But he makes them, as a matter of routine. He takes, to use the technical term, jackass shots.
What makes this both wondrous and problematic is that Curry will spawn a generation of imitators like no one before him since Jordan. All the kids growing up in the 80s and early 90s worshiped Jordan through the commercials and highlight shows, thinking his scoring prowess came solely by virtue of cramming it on people at the rim. We didn’t have League Pass back then. We didn’t get to watch him game in and game out. People didn’t understand that what made him so unstoppable, aside from his otherworldly athleticism and maniacal competitiveness was his peerless fundamentals and literally thousands of flawless mid-range jumpers and free-throws. “SportsCenter” mostly showed you the sizzle, but what made Jordan a legend was the steak. As a consequence we had something of a lost generation in the NBA in the late-90s and early 00s where everyone tried to be a high-flyer and nobody could shoot an 18-footer, much less a three-pointer. It was the Dark Ages for the league, until Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni helped open up the game and make it beautiful again.
Curry has much in common with Jordan. They were both raised in North Carolina. They both came up with chips on their shoulders, Jordan from not making the varsity team as a freshman in high school and Curry from not being heavily recruited at all and having to play at Davidson. Even after starring in college, Curry lasted until seventh in the draft, which is practically unheard of for a once-in-a-generation talent. There were also unique circumstances that helped both men become great, aside from their drive. Jordan got to play for Dean Smith, who taught him the fundamentals to complement his athleticism. Curry found himself on a team with talents like Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and others, and coached by Steve Kerr, who gave him the license to be who he was destined to be.
Even so, not everyone can be Curry. His neurological coordination is preternatural, and he works on it daily with lasers and ropes and tennis balls. His built-in advantage, besides his shooting stroke, is that he’s such a fantastic ball-handler. His limitations are actually his strengths. Because he’s only 6’3 and because he was never explosive the way we think of Westbrook or Allen Iverson, he had to hone his dribbling and shooting. Unlike almost every other marksman in league history, he can get his own shot, from anywhere and against anyone.
Kids will grow up trying to be Curry, thinking that all that entails is taking terrible shots. It’s going to make for a lot of shattered dreams, angry teammates and frustrated coaches for the next 20 years. We’re going to end up blaming Curry for his genius, and we will be stupid to do so.
Inevitably though, there will be another kid who comes along, who will absorb all of the positive lessons and none of the poisonous ones, and he’ll do something even beyond Curry’s imagination. I can’t wait to see it.