Stephen Curry has no parallel.
There is nobody like him in today's pace-and-space era. If you teleported him into the 1980s or 90s, everyone in the NBA would think aliens had infiltrated Earth. His incomparable range, glitzy ball-handling, and spellbinding scoring prowess would not be of human form.
Even in the modern league, the one he's largely responsible for shifting, Curry is not replicable. Many players can mimic his style, or believe they have the same DNA and shooting touch to warrant a similar shot diet.
But there is only one. And there are no duplicates of the greatest winner and leader of the last 10 years.
Before 2014, nobody had struck the perfect balance between off-the-dribble wizardry and selfless off-ball principles – certainly not to the extent of being the focal point of the deadliest motion offense in history.
In 75 years of the league's existence, Curry is the only player – let alone superstar – to be equally dangerous with or without the ball in his hands. He has weaponized his movement to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Every Kevon Looney slip to the rim or Andrew Wiggins spot-up three generated off two defenders flying at No. 30 is highlighting the same thing: Curry is the offensive system, not just a part of it.
He also couldn't care less that his presence and impact on the floor aren't fully appreciated, or even understood by the average viewer.
Curry's greatest trait may be his shooting ability, but a close second is how he walks the line between a self-effacing star and cold-blooded killer on the court.
As much as he deflects the praise and always puts the team first, he enraptures the audience with his audacious shot selection, his signature turnaround before the ball drops through the net, and now his 'night-night' taunt .
Curry is this generation's humble assassin. His closest comparison is Tim Duncan – both igniting a dynasty, mastering their craft without prioritizing individual achievements, and earning reputations of professional leaders on and off the floor.
It's just in a much smaller body.
"What he does at his size is so different from the traditional 'greats' in this league," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after winning the 2022 title. "I've said it many times, Steph reminds me so much of Tim Duncan. Totally different players, but just from a humanity standpoint, from a talent standpoint, humility, confidence. It's this wonderful combination that just makes everybody want to win for him."
Curry has also achieved something nobody else can say they've done.
His greatest legacy is changing the geometry of basketball for the better, showing that you can bend defenses until they snap and unlock new scoring avenues for everyone on the floor.
In the last eight years, which includes a season in which Curry only played five games, the Warriors have outscored teams by 5,685 points with him on the floor. That's across 605 total games, playoffs included, for an average of plus-9.4 per contest:
- RS = Regular Season
- RAPTOR = FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR model , which uses play-by-play and player-tracking data to calculate each player's individual plus-minus measurements and wins above replacement.
Think of how insane you have to be just to approach a double-digit point differential for eight years.
After the Dubs put the finishing touches on another stellar playoff run, I needed to take some time to reflect. A week following their coronation, it's time to consider where this puts Curry in the NBA's pantheon.
Determining the order of an historical pyramid — in any sport — is arduous. There are far too many factors to consider and apples-to-oranges comparisons that seem unfair. With the evolution of basketball giving fans a taste of something new every decade, context has to play an integral role in any conversation. The tendencies and competition level are not homogenous from one era to the next.
The game is unquestionably more popular today than it was 20 years ago, and the offensive styles are more aesthetically-pleasing due to the three-point revolution. Additionally, the league-wide athleticism is at a level we've simply never seen. Most players are human highlight-reels — and it's not just because of their leaping ability or creative dunking.
At the same time, a more enjoyable product shouldn't erase or invalidate what older generations achieved during their playing days. To properly appreciate a sport's legendary figures, it requires sifting through résumés, putting their accomplishments into perspective, and measuring how impactful they were to the game's growth.
Perhaps the most annoying component of all-time lists is the collective reaction to the order. Once someone sees their favorite Hall-of-Fame talent being ranked too low, or a spot below another historical player (often from a different era), you are immediately ridiculed for either not knowing basketball or not doing your research.
Therein lies the issue with historical lists. You're required to make arguments against other legendary players, even when you don't want to. Arguing that someone is right outside the top 10, across the 75 years of basketball, should never be confused with 'disrespecting' one of the greats. It's entirely possible to appreciate the legends of the past while understanding their spots on the pyramid aren't set in stone. The list is fluid over time and it's meant to change, especially when otherworldly superstars enter this rarefied air.
After all, there have now been 4,712 different players to step on the NBA hardwood since the league's inception. When discussing the 15 greatest to ever play, we're talking about the top 0.3% of the NBA fraternity. Movement within the top 15 should never be considered a slight. You're honoring each and splitting the thinnest of hairs.
Ordering those players at the top is always going to come down to who you favor. There's a subjective nature to ranking players across different eras — mostly because it's impossible for younger viewers to know how Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain's impact felt in the moment.
Recency bias does come into play, but that's the case with anything in sports. For me, personally, it helps that I lived through the Duncan, Kobe, LeBron, and Steph era. That's a solid chunk of the top 10 that I've experienced.
As for Curry's placement among the top legacies in NBA history, it's worth discussing how sensational he was to close this season.
Curry just tortured the Celtics for 31.2 points, six rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game while shooting 53.0% from two, 43.7% from deep, and 85.7% at the foul line. Of course, that included Game 5, a night at home that featured Curry shooting 0-of-9 from three and being just the third-highest scorer on his team.
His offensive explosion rivaled prime Michael Jordan, particularly in the 1991 Finals. At age 27, Jordan poured 31.2 points on the older version of the Showtime Lakers, to the tune of 61.2% true shooting. It would ultimately be his second-most efficient Finals throughout his career. For 34-year-old Curry, this 2022 performance was his most impressive series, from start to finish, considering the plethora of defensive coverages he
In the context of individual games, Curry is running away with the number of high-scoring, high-efficiency performances on the Finals stage. He now has 14 games with 30-plus points on at least 60% true shooting in June, giving him more than Jerry West despite playing 21 fewer games:
- Curry — 14 out of 34 Finals games
- West — 13 out of 55 Finals games
- LeBron — 11 out of 55 Finals games
- Durant — 9 out of 15 Finals games
- Jordan — 9 out of 35 Finals games
- Shaq — 7 out of 30 Finals games
- Kareem — 7 out of 56 Finals games
Behind his incredible Game 4 performance to rescue the Warriors in the second half and his Game 6 masterpiece to clinch the series, Curry ripped the hearts out of Boston fans in attendance.
In three road games, he averaged 36 points on 71.8% true shooting, giving him the second-highest scoring average on the road by a Finals MVP winner. Out of all 54 Finals MVPs, only Michael Jordan's production (38.3 points on 51.6% true shooting) in the 1998 Finals stands above him. In Jordan's sixth appearance on the biggest stage, he slammed the door on Utah's title hopes in the Stockton-Malone era and took the breath out of every fan in Salt Lake City.
Curry didn't eliminate the Celtics with a game-winner as the clock expired, holding his follow-through while standing over a helpless body.
It's not that he doesn't love the theatrics. It's just that his showmanship comes in a different form. He chose to demoralize the opponent and crowd throughout the game, sending shockwaves through the arena with a 30-foot bomb.
There may have been 18 minutes left to play, but Curry signaled he was ready for more jewelry. The crowd's disgust and disbelief were awfully close to this level:
Heading into his matchup with the Celtics, there was a myth that Curry didn't show up on the Finals stage. Some even took it a step further and claimed he only won the 2015 title due to injury luck and was carried by Kevin Durant in 2017 and 2018.
Of course, Curry simply laughed it off, letting actions speak louder than words. Now, if one were to say Curry has struggled in the Finals, I'm genuinely curious of their expectations. He seems to stack up pretty nicely with three members of the NBA's top-tier:
The point of this table is not to suggest Curry is better than any of Jordan, LeBron, or Magic. It's strictly to puts things in perspective.
As Curry sat on the court in TD Garden, unable to hold back the tears while reflecting on the Warriors' redemption story, he understood the impact this championship would have on his legacy. He grew up around the NBA and knows its history.
Plus, even if he knew this should've been his second Finals MVP, officially carrying the hardware to the podium and holding the trophy above your head leaves zero doubt.
"Are we really … I guess his career has been so impeccable that's the only thing we could actually find (to criticize)," Kerr said about the award. "So it's great to check that box for him. It's been really hard for me to think that's actually been held against him."
Curry is now 4-2 in the Finals. He eclipsed Larry Bird in championships, matched LeBron and Shaq's total, and pulled himself closer to Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant's five.
In a résumé overview, it's evident Curry belongs at the table. In considerably less time on the floor than the aforementioned legends, he's already holding a firm place in the NBA's top 10. This is just a snapshot of each player's achievements. There will be quibbles about the arbitrary cut-off, but if you polled 100 NBA writers, there's a strong chance at least 90 of them would have these 13 names at the top — in any order.
For the sake of clarity, this is how I'd rank them:
With Curry's career not taking off until 2013, he hasn't accumulated double-digit All-Star appearances or All-NBA recognitions. He wasn't named to either until the 2013-14 season. Even as he was facing the dreaded ankle injuries prior to Kerr's arrival, it's hard to imagine he would've made the All-Star or All-NBA team had he been 100% healthy. The league was still older at that point and the Warriors were still a middling team in the West.
Then, there was the 2019-20 season, immediately following Durant's departure and Thompson's ACL tear. Curry only played in five games that year before breaking his hand. Given the Warriors' messy roster situation and defensive holes in 2020, we'll never know if Steph would've had a case for All-NBA. There's probably no chance he's passed up for the All-Star team, regardless of Golden State's record. In a lot of ways, it was a wasted individual year.
But, we should remember Curry is still enjoying his prime. He's certainly on the back end of it because of his age, but he's nowhere close to the finish line. Aside from LeBron and KD, every player in the table above is retired. Their stories are written, sealed, and mailed. Curry is still gripping the pen, new ink drying on the page as he hangs another banner.
That's where the idea of longevity versus peak comes into play.
Which holds more weight?
Is it more valuable to be on the short list of greatest eight-year stretches in basketball history … or to have 15-plus seasons racking up individual honors and stats, and simply being in the hunt for two decades?
Curry's success since 2014 is forcing everyone to reevaluate.
He is now one of seven players in NBA history to win at least two regular season MVP awards and four championships. The exclusive club is now Curry, Jordan, James, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Duncan, and Russell. Again, he's now in the room.
You could argue James reached the top five after his 2015 Finals run, even if it didn't end with a title. At least, that's the year I would pinpoint. He had just completed his 12th season and made his sixth Finals. The individual statistics were already approaching Jordan and he just turned 30 years old.
Seven years later, James is either first or second all-time. There really isn't a credible argument for him to be lower.
The point is, a player launching himself into this territory this early is not unique to Curry. If a superstar's peak performance is transcendent, breathtaking, and impactful enough, the longevity factor is not required. If that player is responsible for a culture shift within the sport – not just the league, but the sport – on a global scale, it's perfectly fine if the résumé is still being constructed.
Then again, eight years of wrecking the league is not nothing. Owning the Western Conference every season his team has been healthy is not nothing.
Remaining just as dominant in year eight of the dynasty as you were in year one is, certainly, not nothing.
Anyone claiming Steph "hasn't done it long enough" is dismissing nearly a decade of supremacy. If the conversation is whether or not he's worthy of a top 10 spot, he fits the bill. This is a similar trajectory to what we've seen in the past.
However, believing that he needs more regular season service (or recognitions) to leap ahead of certain names within the top 10 is more than fair.
After Jordan, LeBron, and Kareem, there isn't a significant gap from fourth to eighth. Just in my book, those names are Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain. That group can be ordered many different ways. Duncan and Bryant, in particular, have a huge advantage in career length.
As Curry embarks on another title defense and maximizes the final six to seven years of his career, the regular season numbers and awards will come. He's already 38th in combined points (regular season plus playoffs), currently 7,067 behind Hakeem Olajuwon for 10th.
By the time he reaches the final leg of his career, he will hold such a ridiculous lead for the 3-point record. He may be the owner of the most unattainable mark in basketball, as it could rival Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Wayne Gretzky's NHL record of 2,857 points scored.
Being the face of the sport for a given period of time matters just as much as longevity. And he still has plenty of chances to add more hardware. If there's one thing we've learned, it's to never bet against the Bay Area trio in the playoffs.
The Warriors' Game 6 victory in Boston gave Curry 93 total playoff wins in his career. Due to Curry's MCL sprains in 2016 and 2018, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson actually have nine more wins under their belt.
Since making his playoff debut in 2013, Golden State is 93-41 when Curry is on the floor. That's in the most competitive moments the sport has to offer … against extremely gifted top-end talent. Looking strictly at the NBA's top 50 leaderboard in playoff wins, the Warriors' trio is leading the pack in postseason winning percentage:
Every player with a legitimate case to be on the top 15 all-time list is included in the table above. Although Hakeem Olajuwon technically fell short of 50th in most playoff wins, I threw him in for the sake of comparison.
Among the legendary names most will consider stone cold locks for the top 10 to ever play the game, only five have won at least 65% of their postseason games: Curry (.694), Johnson (.674), Jordan (.665), James (.654), and Abdul-Jabbar (.650). The parallels between Steph's Warriors and Magic's Showtime Lakers were on the horizon before this 2022 title run. Now, they are real. And there's a chance they will be spitting images of each other when the dust settles.
Another observation is how different the playoff format is now versus the 1950s and 60s. Take a look at Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West's playoff records in the table. Russell is only 14 wins above Curry despite having seven more championships. Curry is five wins above Chamberlain despite playing in 26 fewer games. West, who appeared in nine NBA Finals to Curry's six, was also passed in playoff victories.
Quite a few of the all-time leaders in playoff wins are role players, or guys that normally wouldn't be considered the best in the league. But not only does Steph win, he tears your heart out with the deadliest combination of scoring and efficiency.
At age 34, Curry has now played in 134 playoff games. Digging through history, there have only been 12 players to average at least 25 points per game in the postseason, min. 70 appearances.
Here are those 12, ranked by their efficiency (true shooting):
Because context is king and we're in the golden era of shotmaking, I included the Relative TS mark for each player's career. That is how far above or below the league-average efficiency each player was during their time. For example, league-average true shooting throughout Curry's career has been 54.9% (remember, he was drafted before the offensive explosion and played a monumental role to cause it).
If you think it's unfair to go by true shooting because the formula incorporates free throws, the fifth column in the table shows effective field goal percentage — strictly shots from the field, but placing a higher value on three-pointers because, well, they are more valuable. Curry is even more efficient than Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the playoffs, albeit on lower scoring volume.
Not listed in the table is Shaquille O'Neal, who finished his postseason career averaging below the 25-point mark.
O'Neal scored 24.3 points per game in the playoffs. On a per-75 possession scale, Curry and Shaq are actually tied at 26.0 points (O'Neal played in the slowest era the game has featured, so it's fair to adjust). Shaq's relative true shooting mark in the postseason (+3.6) is still behind Steph, but that's clearly due to his free throw demons. If you placed Shaq's eFG% (56.3) into the chart, it would be the only one higher than Curry's.
Before his fourth title, I had Curry neck-and-neck with Shaq on the all-time list. While I ultimately gave the nod to Curry for 10th, it was too close of an argument to feel passionate about either side.
Now, to me, he's solidified three spots above Big Diesel. What makes it fascinating is how they are kings of the 'dominance' spectrum, just on opposite ends.
Curry and O'Neal epitomize the difference between physical and skillful dominance.
One had the league in a stranglehold in the early 2000s, possessing the wildest combination of height, body mass, power, and agility the NBA has ever seen. Nobody Shaq's size could move as quickly and deliberately as he could.
The other has the sport in the palm of his hands, showing what can happen if you master your craft and stretch the boundaries of what's considered logical shot selection. Curry instills fear into his opponent from every angle on the floor. He can destroy you without touching the paint for an entire quarter.
Andre Iguodala, who started his career in the Shaq, Duncan, and Garnett era, has witnessed first-hand how Steph defies logic.
"You've never seen a guy his size dominate the league like this," Iguodala said. "And just put the weight of everything on his shoulders throughout a Finals series. We all saw what we was doing to those boys. Normally, you get a guy that's a center, like Hakeem or Shaq. Or a guy like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James. Those guys are 6'7" or taller. They can get to their spots and shoot over guys."
Like Shaq, defenses still have no clue how to handle Curry in the halfcourt. It doesn't matter if they are well-equipped to switch. He will find space and make you rethink your strategy. Shaq's prime felt the same — defenses were subjected to the lesser evil, knowing it was only a matter of time before he coasted to 40 points.
Curry should absolutely get the edge over Shaq despite O'Neal's three consecutive Finals MVPs. In addition to this Warriors' dynasty lasting longer than Shaq's run at the top, Curry is the more adaptive superstar that can beat you in a variety of ways. The leadership traits are also top-of-the-line while serving as the first or second sentence on his career résumé.
If he's now in the top 10, how high does he land?
For full transparency, I have Curry seventh all-time after this latest playoff run. With a fourth championship and two performances that warranted Finals MVP — he was robbed in 2015 — he's now sandwiched between Bryant and Bird on my historical ladder.
Measuring Curry against Bird is relatively easy, considering Curry is coming off his 13th NBA season and Bird only played 13 before retiring in 1992. However, Bryant finished a 20-year career in 2016 and played nearly 24,000 more minutes than Curry's running total. From a longevity and career accolade standpoint, Bryant still has a clear advantage. The gap will narrow as Curry pursues more titles into his late-thirties.
For the sake of illustrating Curry's career arc, let's isolate Bryant's first 13 years in the league and stack his production against Curry and Bird's entire career:
Curry's regular season Box Plus-Minus (BPM) is right behind Bird's. In the playoffs (not-pictured), Curry has a 7.1 to 6.9 edge.
Throughout his career, Bird was 2.7 percentage points above league-average efficiency, while Curry is 7.5 percentage points above the modern average.
It's a close race between their 13-year careers, but Curry's Warriors have surpassed Bird's Celtics. Golden State's run is a bit more impressive considering it's happening in a league striving for parity and Curry is still on top of the mountain heading into year 14.
No matter how you slice it, or who you give the edge to, Curry has elevated from the Shaq-KD spot (lower end of the top 10-11) to the Bird and Kobe conversation.
Many will use the All-Defensive selections to keep Bird and Kobe above him. On the surface, it's hard to dispute. Whether it was due to size or ability, both were better defenders than Curry – Bryant made the All-Defensive team 12 times, Bird three.
Here's the thing, though. Curry still has defensive chops. Relatively speaking, of course he's going to be the 'weakest' defender included in the top 10 of historical greats. In the NBA, size has always mattered … until Curry proved it didn't.
Not being a switchy, generational defender doesn't make you a liability, though. Curry has improved defensively every year since 2013, but he's routinely viewed as a negative on that end of the floor. It couldn't be further from the truth.
At the very worst, you could label him as an average defensive point guard throughout his career. Will he always be missing those All-Defensive selections that Kobe, Bird, and Duncan have? You bet.
Should it prevent him from being alongside those legends when discussing on-court impact? Not if you acknowledge the importance of being the entire offensive engine for a franchise, and how much weight that should carry in these conversations.
Also, the only other point guard in the NBA's top 10 is Magic Johnson, who also had zero All-Defensive honors. Johnson was not considered an elite defender in his era. In fact, he would often be the weakest link in the Lakers' lineup, preserving his energy by guarding less-threatening players. Yet, due to his size and large frame, you never hear the same chatter and negativity that Steph has heard for a decade.
Since winning the title, Iguodala has claimed numerous time that Curry is now above Johnson on the all-time point guard list. It's not clear if he acknowledges that would inherently throw Curry into the top five, pound-for-pound. Then again, with how astute and calculated Iguodala is, I'm sure he knows precisely what he's doing.
I still think it's a bit premature to say Steph has surpassed Magic, who I have fourth. While anyone with clear vision (probably) realizes he's a better and more dynamic player, it doesn't feel right to put his career on that pedestal. Not until we see a couple more playoff runs. Johnson and the Showtime Lakers reached the Finals nine times in 12 seasons. They ripped through the Western Conference, with Magic immediately becoming a top-three player in the league during his rookie year. You just never see that.
What Curry does have on his side, though, is the fact he's spearheading a dynasty in the deepest, most athletic, and most offensively-potent era. There's really no question about it.
Although he's more dexterous and skillful than Magic, with a few more superpowers in his bag, it's still a losing battle trying to pit anyone against the ironclad career Johnson built (and the fact he and Bird rescued the NBA from a dark place).
Curry is simply waiting in line, and that shouldn't bother anyone. You could argue they are No. 1 and No. 2 on any list of universally-loved players.
With another chapter of his fascinating journey set to begin in 2023, Steph is on the doorstep of the NBA's Mount Rushmore. Even if his on-court brilliance and captivating moments have proven he's already in the room, there is still another phase of his greatness we're yet to see.
It's not a question of 'will he reach the top-five?' It's a matter of how quickly, and how loudly his entrance will be.
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