As the 2019 NBA finals approach, I’d like to examine the career of Stephen Curry. With another championship, he will have an impressive resume of which few in league history can disregard. Where he ranks going forward will become a hotly contested debate. Let’s see where he stacks up and how he measures against some of the best of all time.
“Steph Curry is going to go down as a top 15, top 20 all time player, actually top 20 is too low, he’s going to be higher than that.” — Zach Lowe, ESPN Senior Writer
When Stephen Curry was drafted in 2009, little did we know then that he might someday have more NBA titles than Lebron James. In a few weeks time, he just might. Let that sink in.
The greatest player of this past generation, one heralded as the “King”, a man so dominant he took two different teams to eight straight NBA finals could very well end up being usurped by a 6'3" guard with creaky ankles. I doubt any of you saw this coming. I sure didn’t.
Nevertheless, this soon could be a reality and with it comes some questions.
Where does Curry rank all time when compared to the greatest players to have played in the NBA? Has he jumped into the top 20? Top 15? Top 10? It’s time we start asking these questions because he deserves as much, and well frankly, his resume is forcing us to.
Now let’s be clear here, before I begin analyzing Curry’s place amongst the greatest, I am in no way saying that he is better than Lebron James. He isn’t and he never has been. However, he is closer than you might imagine and his resume when all is said and done could very well be more impressive than Lebron’s.
Therefore, to delve into this query, I’d like to paint a picture here. Let’s say the Warriors win the finals this year. Steph will then be a two time league MVP, most likely a Finals MVP winner, a 4 time champion, a scoring champ, a member of the 50/40/90 club, third all time in 3 pointers made, (where he’ll likely be number 1 in a year or two), holder of the record for most 3 pointers made in a season (402), a six time all star, etc…
His list of achievements is long and it’s becoming evident that his ability and skill set has not only revolutionized the way the game is now played but that he’s mastered the hardest part of the game, that of accurate shooting. By this measure, his place amongst the greats is sure to rise with each passing season. The Warriors are about to play the Toronto Raptors in the finals. They’re doing this after demoralizing the Portland Trail Blazers in a four game sweep in which Curry averaged 36 points a game. The Warriors did this without Kevin Durant. As a team, they are now 31–1 when Durant sits.
As per Andy Bailey of Forbes:
Since 2016–17, in the regular season and playoffs combined, Golden State is plus-1.3 points per 48 minutes with Durant on the floor and Curry off. It’s plus-12.1 points per 48 minutes with Curry on the floor and Durant off. Both sample size are well over 2,000 minutes.
Look at that difference. Astonishing! Not to rile against the transcendent talents of Kevin Durant, this stat merely points out the monumental importance of Stephen Curry.
With this in mind, let’s examine the idea of the top 10 all time. In my opinion, up until this season, it’s been a pretty closed group of the same 10 players, with a minor discrepancy of a player put here or there — this depends on how you feel about Wilt Chamberlain being in over Hakeem Olajuwon, which if you analyze, is a pretty close comparison.
Nevertheless, if you were to poll most NBA stat geeks, the overall consensus would be pretty much what I’ll present here.
In the order I believe they fall:
Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain.
Cracking this list will be tough but not impossible. The most vulnerable of the ten to slip out, in my opinion, is Wilt. He wilted (no pun intended) under the pressure a lot and only won 2 titles. However, his numbers are astronomical and he did play in an era against the second best player of all time, in Bill Russell, so he gets a pass for some of his losses. His 67' title is a true feat.
If you look at the credentials of what all these players have in common it’s that they each have one or many of the following:
MVPs, multiple titles and they dominated their respective eras. If ranked by their time in the league, the list would look like this.
Wilt Chamberlain — 2 titles, 4 MVPs, 1 finals MVP, tied for the league’s all time scoring average, 100 point game, second best player of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar — 6 titles, 6 MVPs, 2 finals MVPs, leagues’ all time leading scorer, best player of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Magic Johnson — 5 titles, 3 MVPs, 3 finals MVPs, best point guard of all time, went to 9 finals in 12 years. Signature playoff moment.
Larry Bird — 3 titles, 3 MVP’s, 2 finals MVPs, best trash talker of all time, best shooter of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Michael Jordan — 6 titles, 5 MVPs, 6 finals MVPs, 10 time scoring champ, defensive player of the year, worst teammate of all time, best player of all time. Signature playoff moment.
Shaquille O’neal — 4 titles, 1 MVP, 3 finals MVPs, most dominant center of all time. Signature playoff moment.
Tim Duncan — 5 titles, 2 MVPs, 3 finals MVPs, second best teammate all time, best power forward of all time. Signature playoff moment.
Kobe Bryant — 5 titles, 1 MVP, 2 finals MVPs, 2 time scoring champ, a near facsimile of Michael Jordan, 81 point game, second worst teammate all time, best player of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Lebron James — 3 titles, 4 MVPs, 3 finals MVPs, 8 straight finals appearances, most gifted player to ever play the game, best player of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Kevin Durant — 2–3 titles, 1 MVP, 2–3 finals MVPs, 4 time scoring champ, most unstoppable scorer of his generation. Signature playoff moment.
Stephen Curry — 3–4 titles, 2 MVPs, 0–1 final MVP, scoring champ, best shooter of all time.
Curry’s five year run here is something special. But to crack the top 10 he’ll need a finals MVP for sure and a few more memorable moments on the games’ biggest stage to really catapult his place amongst the greats. Durant already has two signature shots in the finals from the past two seasons and if he hadn’t gotten hurt here a few weeks ago, his ascension would almost be a given.
The next ten spots in the all time pantheon are these players. Here they are in the order I believe they fall:
Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Durant, Moses Malone, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
I’ve left one spot open for Curry.
As was the case with the top 10, each of these players has a singular moment or series on the NBA’s biggest stage. I threw out the likes of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Dr. J. as they often crumbled when the lights got too big for them. Winning is all that counts and it’s what separates these men.
But what constitutes one over another?
Eras are different, the game changes and perception plays a vital part in narrative. I never saw Oscar Robertson play, yet, I know he was awesome. So what factors into these decisions when each player has so many moments and credentials to choose from?
If you keep things simple, what I’ve tried to do here is look at how each performed when the games mattered most. Regular season play means a lot, as it helps give weight to a player’s overall performance and impact, but the playoffs, specifically the finals, is where the real winners shine. How each performed here is what changes their ranking. Did they crumble from the weight of the moment like Dirk did in 2006? Or did they rise to the occasion like MJ did in the 1997 finals game 1? Pressure is key here and how a player reacts to it tells more about what type of player they are then seeing a stat sheet.
James Harden has won an MVP and he might win another this year, but he’s not even in the same league as Durant or Steph when it comes to will and overall greatness. He’s fallen under the weight of expectations year after year. Karl Malone suffered this same fate twice in 1997 and 1998.
Can you come up big when it matters?
“Pressure Changes Everything. Some people you squeeze them, they focus, others fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on a deadline? Can you sleep at night?”
Therefore, let’s look at some of the signature moments of the players in the 14–20 spots and compare theirs to Curry’s. I don’t think Curry has enough yet to pass Malone, Durant or Olajuwon. Regular season accolades are important, like how Nowitzki is sixth all time in scoring or how Durant has led the league in scoring four times. Yes, these things matter, but when we’re debating who fits where at this stage, it’s more about playoff impact than anything. Again, were you a James Harden or a Kobe Bryant?
**I’m not going to focus too much on numbers as they can be misleading. James Harden averaged 36 points per game this year but he couldn’t get his team out of the second round against a Warriors team without Kevin Durant. Numbers matter and then they don’t. Do your teams win and were you instrumental in their rise is what really counts. Steve Nash has more MVPs than both Shaq and Kobe, yet, he never made it to the NBA finals. If you were to look at that one achievement alone, you might think that he was better than either of these players, when in reality, he wasn’t even close. Perception is everything. I’m going to try to keep this comparison where it belongs. Winning. As Micheal Jordan famously once said, “There’s no I in team, but there is one in win.”
Oscar Robertson has been coined by many as one of the best players of all time. Known to have been a walking triple double, on an account of his rare brilliance to stuff a stat sheet, Oscar was one of the best in his era.
However, stats as I’ve mentioned earlier, can often sway a player’s value and overall impact.
Case in point: Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has claimed averaging a triple double the past three seasons, yet his teams haven’t even won a playoff series. Basing how good a player is just because they averaged a triple double doesn’t mean anything unless they win.
Oscar won only one title in his career and it took a much younger and better Kareem to lift him to the promised land. He was never seen as the best player of his generation as Wilt and Russell dominated that conversation. Triple doubles are one thing, but if we measured a player on just this feat alone, Westbrook would be by far the best player in the NBA, which if you’ve ever watched a game of basketball recently, he clearly is not even close. Nevertheless, Oscar was awesome. He led the league in assists 7 times and his overall numbers are impressive.
1 title (1971) — second best player on the team
1 MVP (1964), 0 finals MVPs, 11 time All NBA (9 on the first team) Signature playoff moment.
**There isn’t much footage of Oscar in his prime or for that matter the 71' finals, so I just posted a clip of Oscar dominating.
In comparing Oscar to Curry, two dominant guards of their respective eras, it’s easy to be swayed by Oscar’s incredible numbers. Putting stats aside, his career narrative is summed up as thus — he was the fourth best player of his generation. The fact that he has 1 title and 1 MVP hurts his resume. I particularly don’t think this is a close call at all with Curry edging Oscar on many fronts. Five straight finals and 2 MVP’s pushes Curry’s case above a lot of players. Oscar’s Bucks also missed the playoffs between 68' and 70', his prime seasons. For players in the top 10, this would never have happened.
Jerry West is known as the Logo. He was the man responsible for bringing Shaq and Kobe to LA in the same summer. He’s now a consultant for the Los Angeles Clippers. His career in management has been just as impressive as his hall of fame playing days.
Nevertheless, in spite of his managerial acumen, when I think of Jerry West, I’m reminded of this clip of the 69' finals. This game transpired a full 11 years before I was even born, yet, as a basketball junkie I’ve watched this video 3 or 4 times now. West was unbelievable in this game. He almost single handedly brought the Lakers back from losing another series to Russell’s Celtics. He would finish the game with a stat line of 42–13–12 and would be awarded the Finals MVP. In the history of the league, this was the only time a player on a losing team would win the award.
I think Lebron should have won finals MVP in 2015. He was unreal.
1 title (1972) — Best player on the team
0 MVPs, 1 Finals MVP (1969), 12 time All NBA (10 on the first team), Signature playoff moment.
Yet for as much will as he had, losing came to dominate West’s legacy. He would win one title only, in 1972, on a team that would win 33 straight games and hold the record for most wins in a season for 24 years.
In his 14 year career, West would make it to 9 NBA Finals, losing 8 of them.
His stats are some of the most impressive of all time, yet he still lost over and over again. This is why I have him a lot lower than he probably could and should of been had you just looked at his numbers. Lebron’s narrative might fall in line with West’s one day if these last few years prove lackluster. 1–8 in the finals is hard to ignore. For Lebron, 3–6 is pretty bad as well. Curry’s dominance comes partly from the fact that, yes, he’s on one of the most transcendent teams of all time, but as the stat I posted earlier went on to suggest, his ability and skill set are so unique, he affects the game for the Warriors in such a way that he’s become a magnetic force players must recognize 35 feet from the basket. It’s uncanny how he warps the floor with so much attention. Only select players in the history of the game have had such an impact. Shaq was one of them. Jordan and Kobe to similar extents.
West dominated his era but for all his greatness he was still at best the third best player of his generation. Curry edges him on this one.
Dwayne Wade just retired. He’s going to go down as the third best shooting guard of all time, right behind MJ and Kobe. Not a bad place to start. His accolades are as follows:
3 titles (2006, 2012, 2013) — best player on 1 (2006)
0 MVPs, 1 Finals MVP, 1 Scoring title (2009), 8 time All NBA team (2 on the first team) Signature playoff moment.
As per John Hollinger of ESPN:
It’s hard to overstate how awesome Wade was in leading the Heat to their lone championship, particularly in the final four games when Miami rallied from a 2–0 deficit to stun the Mavs.
Wade started the comeback by leading the Heat back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit in Game 3, scoring 12 points in the final 6½ minutes to send the game to OT. He also made the biggest play of the series with his crazy dribbling foray to the rim at the end of overtime in Game 5 that — controversially — earned a whistle from referee Bennett Salvatore and a trip to the line for the winning free throws.
For the series, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals — and this in a slow-paced series (neither team cleared the century mark in regulation in any of the six games). His basket attacks were so deadly because the Mavs couldn’t stop fouling him. Wade shot a whopping 97 free throws in the six games — the most of any player since the merger — including 25 in Game 5.
Overall, Wade’s 33.8 PER is easily the best of any Finals performer since the merger. While it seems strange to have somebody besides Michael Jordan in the top spot, the truth is Jordan never dominated a Finals to this extent. At the time, many called Wade’s performance Jordanesque. It turns out they might have been selling him short.
Wade’s 2006 finals performance stacks up with the best of them as Hollinger effectively points out here. He was unstoppable in that series. However, he lacks many of the personal accolades his contemporaries have. Having zero MVPs hurts. As does his being only named to two all NBA 1st teams. Plus his decline was precipitous as he became a shell of his hall of fame self around the age of 32. Injuries and weight gain can be blamed for this. Nevertheless, if pressed to choose: Would you rather have had Steph Curry or Dwayne Wade?
I’d pick Curry narrowly due to his shooting prowess and the way he affects the floor for his teammates. He opens up the game in a way no player in history has. Curry’s two MVPs helps a lot in this comparison as well as it highlights that at one point in his career he was considered the best or second best player in the world. I don’t believe Wade was ever bestowed this honour. Wade is firmly a top 20 guy, but Curry deserves to be higher than him at this point in his career.
Also, I put Wade higher than Robertson and West solely based on his ability to rise up when it counts. He did it in 2006, in 2008 on the Olympic team, in 2011 when LeBron decided to no show and obviously in 2012 and 2013. Wade may have lacked for a lot of the credentials others may have garnered, but there seriously weren’t too many players better than he was. His 2009 season is one for the ages.
Dirk Nowitzki has to be one of the most lucky players in NBA history. He won his lone NBA title during a season of tumult for the league. Kobe Bryant dominated the 2000’s as he would win 5 NBA titles. 2011 would be the year he would finally cede the NBA’s best overall player mantle to LeBron James. Yet, even with this changing of the guard, LeBron still had some demons to wrestle with as his new found home in Miami would prove to become a more difficult transition for the newly crowned “King” of the league.
If there’s ever to be a huge stain on his career, LeBron’s 2011 NBA finals will be known as his lowest point. This season of upheaval would become the one chance Dirk would ever have to break through and claim his crown. Kobe and the Lakers were old and worn out from 3 straight finals appearances, while LeBron and the Heat were still trying to figure themselves out. The Thunder were a year away while the Spurs were in the midst of retooling (they would trade for Kawhi that summer.) This therefore, presented Dirk with an opportunity to seize his destiny, which he absolutely did.
1 title (2011) — Best player on the team.
1 MVP (2007), 1 finals MVP (2011), 6th all time in scoring, 12 time All NBA (4 on the first team), Signature playoff moment.
Much like how Detroit took advantage of a dysfunctional Lakers team in 2004, the Mavericks ended up being the right team to win at the perfect time. One year too early or too late and this never happens. Luck sometimes needs to come your way with these things. Nevertheless, Dirk’s career is a marvel. A 7 foot tall, lanky German who can shoot with the best of them, his career would be defined by big losses and one improbable comeback. A top 6 all time scorer, his career longevity and brilliance, with 21 years on the same team, might never be seen again.
But for all his talent, like Jerry West before him, Dirk caved a few times when it mattered. The 2006 finals and the 2007 first round playoffs are two notable examples of the lights being too big for the big mummy.
Stephen Curry hasn’t always been up to his best in the finals, but overall, his play has helped carry his teams and his legacy forward. A possible 4th ring will put him in rarefied air. Dirk is the best European to ever play, but Curry has him beat.
Kevin Garnett at one point was one of my favourite players. I’m a Lakers fan so when he was traded to Boston, naturally my fondness for him changed. But man was he fun to watch. Ruthless. Relentless. Driven. Passionate almost to a fault. You could just tell he loved to hoop.
Unfortunately drafted to the wrong organization, the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team so dysfunctional and poorly run, he would languish for 12 seasons until the trade to Boston. His best season was the year they won in 2008. He changed the culture in Boston and brought a winning attitude to a team that some say played the best defence the league has ever seen. Kevin was the catalyst for this. At 7' tall, with long arms and tremendous foot speed for his size, he would come to create a new position in a league dominated by continuity. The stretch 4 would be where he would make his living as Garnett would flourish over much smaller and slower players for years.
1 title (2008) — Best player on the team.
1 MVP (2004), 0 Finals MVPs, 9 time All NBA (4 on the first team), Signature playoff moment.
But for all his accolades and dominance, especially defensively, Garnett suffered plenty of defeats. His inability to bring Minnesota to the playoffs for three straight seasons, during his prime is a big asterisk on his resume. Seven straight first round playoff exits is another. He was one of the most transformative players ever, but often when the lights shone brightest, he could never get his team over the hump. In 2004, his MVP season, his Timberwolves should have beaten the Lakers in the conference finals. They had they better team and they still lost. Sometimes, this happens. It’s why the NBA is such a star driven league. Only a select few have the overall talent to will their teams to win over and over again. Each player in the top 10 all time possessed this trait and it’s why they won multiple rings. Garnett at best was the fourth best player of his generation. He’s a top 15 player for sure, but Curry’s body of work these past few years is tough to top. This Warriors run is unprecedented and it’s proving how valuable the one player most responsible really is.
Isaiah Thomas has to be one of the most overlooked NBA superstars of all time. Having just played till the age of 32, his career is one that troubles most more for how he was viewed personally with his Bad Boy persona than how he performed when it truly mattered. His heroic game 6 in the 1988 NBA finals is one for the ages. We often think of Jordan’s flu game in game 5 of the 1997 finals as the epitome of guts and sheer will to win when we really should be considering Thomas’ effort on one leg in the third quarter of this game as the flag bearer of this type of play. The Pistons would lose that game by one point and the series overall in 7, but Thomas’ might and desire in that series is one that should never be forgotten. His redemption the following year was bittersweet on all accounts.
2 titles — best player on both
0 MVPs, 1 finals MVP (1990), 6 time All NBA (4 on the first team), Signature playoff moment.
Comparing the two smallest players on this list seems obvious due to the position they share, however, their games couldn’t be any more different. Curry is a shooting assassin while Thomas was a crafty magician who could slice up a defence with his tenacity and interior skill set. He reminds me of Kyrie in the way he played, safe for the advancement of Kyrie’s 3 point shooting, which speaks more to the era than Thomas’ abilities as a long range bomber. Nevertheless, Thomas was a killer and a good defender. He led his team to 2 titles in an era of Michael, Magic and Larry, which says something. He almost won 3 had his injury and the Pistons collapse in 88' not transpired.
This comparison is really close with both having similar achievements. However, as I claimed earlier with Wade, Curry’s 2 MVPs stand out. At no point was Thomas ever considered the best player in the world. Curry has been whether you find that disrespectful to LeBron or not. This is why I think he’s ahead of Thomas, but not by much.
“Curry has warped the perception of what is normal.” — Zach Lowe
“Steph Curry needs to stop it man!! He’s ridiculous man! Never before seen someone like him in the history of ball!” — Lebron James
“Steph had 46, tied the record for 3’s in a game, broke the season record for 3’s and made a 35-footer to win in OT. What just happened???” — Bill Simmons
These quotes came after Curry drained this crazy shot to beat the Thunder in 2016.
His range and skill set are unmatched. But it’s his confidence to taking shots such as these, with the game on the line, which separates him from his contemporaries.
Plenty of players in the league can shoot as well as he can. But can they do it with a hand in your face and during games such as these?
No. No, they cannot.
It’s why Curry is on the verge of winning a fourth title. It’s why the Warriors are so damn good when he plays, with or without Kevin Durant. It’s why he’s become the most popular player in the league. It’s why the NBA has changed course these past few seasons and exploded into a three point heavy league. It’s all because of him. To steal a line from Game of Thrones, he’s broken the wheel of the NBA. In doing so, he’s changed how the game was played for decades. Being able to shoot with such accuracy from this distance as often as he does warps the entire floor.
How do you guard this?
The NBA top ten all time is full of players who possessed uniques skill sets that made them special. Kareem was really tall and he had this distinctive shot. Michael was crazy athletic and crazy competitive. Magic was a 6'9" point guard. Shaq was super tall, big as a house and athletic as a small forward. Kobe was probably the most driven of them all. LeBron was a freak of nature.
Curry’s advantage. He can shoot. From anywhere.
It’s a talent we’ve never witnessed before and it’s why I have him 14th all time right now. If he wins this finals and performs the way he can then he’ll move up a few spots. If Durant doesn’t play in these finals, this could get interesting, especially since they’ll have won without him.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.