Fifty years from now, when mankind is reflecting on the times we now occupy, there is a better-than-average chance it will conclude Stephen Curry — known to his contemporaries as “Steph” — was obviously the greatest player of his era.
If you can forgive a statement of the obvious, he is the common denominator on three (going on four) of the best teams in NBA history, and not a common denominator in the “Robert Horry has six rings” kind of way, but in the way of a two-time MVP who is probably the best shooter in basketball history, one of the top five point guards in basketball history, one of the best overall scorers in basketball history, the most popular player of his time, and the individual player who will be most associated with a change in the way basketball was played by his contemporaries.
That his scoring numbers have dropped by a few points per game since the Warriors got Kevin Durant is not an argument against his greatness, but an example of it. Curry — who, again, is the best shooter and point guard in the NBA — was a third-team All-NBA pick this year who allowed an inferior player (Durant) to take more shots than him, because if you want to play with Durant (which you do), you’re just going to have to let him do that.
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This prediction of mine depends on our future society valuing winning in sports to the same approximate degree our present society does. This is the aspect of this prediction that concerns me most, because modern NBA fans seem to care less about winning than ever before. The league today exists for many as a loose context in which to observe balletic feats and interpersonal dramas; which team wins is a lesser concern. If this trend continues, my prediction will be hopelessly wrong, as it will be based on the false premise that the NBA is sports, and its fans therefore care who wins.
The existence of this piece, naturally, indicates I expect this trend will reverse itself. And in 50 years, when people are looking back on the 2010s, they will see that Curry was the defining player for the defining team of his time.
LeBron, on the other hand, will be mostly remembered for losing.
Fifty years from now, LeBron’s record in the NBA Finals (3-6, going on 3-7) is going to matter more than it does now. We know this because of Wilt Chamberlain. He was obviously the best player of his era — he averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game for his career, yet nobody cares because Chamberlain lost twice as many Finals as he won and Bill Russell won 11 championships.
Because of this, Russell is almost universally considered the superior player, even though, statistically, Russell was a shadow of the player Chamberlain was. Bill Russell never managed so much as 19 points per game in a single season. He averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds in his career, with a worse shooting percentage from the field than Chamberlain and with similar numbers at the foul line and on assists. Likewise, few in the non-Chamberlain realm can match James’ statistical production – he’s at 27-7-7 for his career. Still, the statistical gap between James and Curry (26-5-6) is not as wide as the one between Chamberlain and Russell.
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A one-on-one tournament featuring every player who ever lived might come down to Chamberlain vs. James in the finals. But that is not the game we’re talking about.
That being the case, Russell is correctly thought of as greater than Chamberlain, and Curry eventually will enjoy the same boost over James, assuming their careers continue to follow the same trajectory.
It is here I have to acknowledge a major difference between the Russell-Chamberlain era and the James-Curry one, which is video. Future generations will be able to watch unlimited amounts of video of these two players, which we can’t do with the players of the 1960s. This may favor James, since he really has to be seen to be understood. So many of the baskets he scores are baskets that could only be scored by him, doing things that will look just as astonishing 50 years from now as they do today.
But the same can be said for Curry. He has more imitators than LeBron, because the things Curry does on the floor are more easily copied by people far less skilled. But how many players in the history of basketball have been able to play the way Curry plays on a nightly basis while competing for championships year after year?
It goes without saying that neither James nor Curry can do what the other does. But as with the statistics, there isn’t much of a gap between the two when it comes to degree of difficulty. They are equally shocking to watch. And while personal tastes in players will vary from one to the other, video is not likely to swing this future debate.
So far, all the points I’ve raised apply to the present just as they would the future. They are static points. Once all the games are over for these two, that’s the book on them for ever and ever, amen.
But there is one way LeBron could gain on Curry after both their careers have ended. It is possible that basketball as it is played in this era will be seen by future generations as a historical aberration, which would be very bad for Curry.
To take one possible example, the NBA of 2068 might well be dominated by teams that use deep rosters of huge, extremely athletic players to run a full-court press and chase shooters into two-point attempts. I use this as an example because it seems like a logical counter to the pace-and-space style of today, but you can fill in your own basketball fantasy here. The point is, if future generations perceive the scoring and shooting numbers from this era to be goofy in some way — like present generations perceive the rebounding numbers from the Chamberlain-Russell era — then its possible Curry could be seen as an interesting gizmo who was the foremost practitioner of the style du jour, but was ultimately of little consequence.
If Curry was having Steve Nash’s career, that’s exactly what I would be predicting. But he isn’t. He is the central figure on a full-blown NBA dynasty, something people do not forget, and something LeBron has never had the ability, the patience or the good fortune to become.
LeBron will always have his defenders. But history, as they say, is written by the winners, and in his time, in this era, that’s Stephen Curry.