Larry Bird

Why Steph Curry's joy can't be mistaken for lack of competitive fire

Why Steph Curry's joy can't be mistaken for lack of competitive fire

The first two weekends of “The Last Dance” informed some and reminded many more that Isiah Thomas could be petty and cruel, that Larry Bird was an ornery cuss and that Michael Jordan was an unyielding son of a stiletto.

Which has a few folks longing for the days when NBA superstars brought a visible “edge” to the proceedings while simultaneously deriding the Kumbaya Crew of today.

Exhibit A: Steph Curry, the Warriors' undisputed leader.

Eleven seasons into his NBA career, having earned the highest levels of team and individual accolades on multiple occasions, some still tag Steph as Charmin Ultra soft. Elegant and meek, a lamb who’d be slaughtered by the lions of yesteryear.

These folks are not paying attention.

Or maybe they are unable to separate the cutthroat competitor from the humanitarian.

When Curry is on the court, he is a head-hunter. He lives for the kill shot and -- like MJ and the others -- is haunted by his misses. Don’t fall for the veneer, the displays of glee, the easy grin and the honey-colored skin. This genuinely joyful soul with scripture on his sneakers has spent most of his career as the league’s most prolific undercover executioner.

Over the past seven postseasons, Curry has beaten every MVP, or MVP candidate, that has beaten him. Only Kawhi Leonard, who as a member of the San Antonio Spurs played only 24 minutes over nine postseason games against the Warriors, can be argued as an exception.

Curry is 3-1 against LeBron James in The Finals and 4-0 against James Harden in the playoffs. He’s 3-0 against Damian Lillard. In the lone instance when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook represented the roadblock, Curry took them out.

Five of those six players account for all seven MVP awards from 2012 through 2018, with Steph and LeBron each taking two.

Curry has compiled 40 postseason games with at least 30 points. That’s more than Charles Barkley. Or Tim Duncan. Or Dwyane Wade. Or Allen Iverson. Or Harden. Each of those five is either bound for the Naismith Hall of Fame or already in it.

Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, each with 13 such games, combine for a total of 26. Steph has exactly twice as many as Isiah’s 20, and is three away from Larry Legend’s 43. Among the noted firebrand champs of the 1980s and ‘90s, only MJ (109) is out of reach.

Warriors assistant Ron Adams showers praise very carefully. He has been a coach for 51 years, the last 29 in the NBA and the last six under Steve Kerr. Adams has studied MJ and Isiah, then moved on to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett before James and Harden. He coached Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen before moving on to Durant and Westbrook.

Adams has, in short, seen enough of Curry to develop a theory behind what disguises his internal inferno.

“He’s a human being who lives his life with great joy,” Adams said this week. “He plays with great joy. The way he does it -- and I’m not saying others haven’t or can’t -- is really unique. He’s an outlier. That’s who he is and how he lives his life. He exemplifies the things that a good human being should possess.

“But he is (on the court) guided by his will to succeed, his will to win. And, more than that, his will to do it his way. That’s not unlike Jordan and the other great players. Steph is playing in a different era, with different defensive rules, but the way he is wired, he would have adjusted to any time period. His drive is very similar to all the great players that have played the game.”

What Curry doesn’t do is belittle teammates, as the abrasive Jordan so infamously did. He treats them as equals while accepting his status as team leader. Whereas Bird swung his hubris like a sledgehammer, Steph’s is more subtle.

Kerr often compares Curry’s leadership style to that of Duncan, the Spurs’ alpha whose generally austere countenance masked his fangs. The insinuation is that Steph picks his spots to speak out, is more supportive than demeaning and is perceptive enough to realize individual personalities respond to different forms of dialogue.

Opponents, in the heat of competition, are another matter.

On the night he famously dropped Paul at Staples Center, after his group interview session, I asked Steph if he felt even a tiny bit of pity about planting CP3 on the floor. He grimaced and said, “No.” He then added a gratuitous, “None at all.”

So, those shimmies that often follow Curry’s rally-punctuating 3-pointers are no more expressions of his own delight as they are of his opponent’s misery. When he’s dancing, he’s enjoying the feel of his feet atop their vanquished bodies.

[RELATED: How one early incident taught Kerr not to yell at Klay]

When Curry buried the Houston Rockets under a 33-point second half in the Western Conference semifinals last May, he was not satisfied with eliminating a rival. No, he approached the visitor’s locker room, with cameras and recorders rolling, and hit CP3 with a vengeful uppercut.

“Kick me off the court again, boy!” The reference was to the previous night, when Curry’s request to get in some practice shots at Toyota Center was denied because CP3 intervened at the last minute with his own request.

Eleven months after loudly shoveling dirt on a fallen rival, Steph joined CP3 for an Instagram Live conversation without a hint of animosity.

Curry’s appetite for destroying all challengers is no less voracious as those of Isiah, Larry and MJ. The difference is Steph is balanced enough to limit his greed to the minutes between tipoff and taking a postgame shower.

Chris Mullin recalls Kings legend Chris Webber dominating Dream Team

Chris Mullin recalls Kings legend Chris Webber dominating Dream Team

A pair of former Kings played a role in one of the most incredible stories in NBA lore.

When a group of college players scrimmaged against one of the greatest teams ever assembled and came out on top, one eventual Sacramento star stood above the rest.

Chris Webber, then a member of Michigan's "Fab Five," was just 19 at the time. The 6-foot-10 big turned heads with his incredible talent, leaving a lasting impression on Chris Mullin.

“I remember a year later in the draft, I remember sitting down with [then-Warriors coach Don Nelson]," Mullin recalled to Tom Haberstroh on the latest episode of NBC Sports' "Habershow" podcast. "He had a few guys on the board -- Shawn Bradley, Chris Webber and maybe Penny Hardaway.

"He said, ‘what do you think?’ and I said, ‘All I know, is one day in San Diego, this guy Webber was the best player on the court, including (Larry) Bird.’ ”

Nelson's Warriors traded three first-round picks -- and the rights to Hardaway -- on draft night in 1993 to land Webber, who played with Mullin for one season. Before then, Webber and a group of college kids gave the Dream Team a wake-up call.

Mullin's fellow Olympians took on what would later become the Select Team in the weeks leading up to the Barcelona Olympics. For all intents and purposes, they were supposed to be punching bags for the superstars of the NBA as they prepared for the games.

But Webber, Bobby Hurley -- the Kings' first-round pick in 1993 -- and the rest of their teammates comprised a hand-selected group that would go on to make their own names in the league.

“That was an incredible group of young players, first off," Mullin said. "All of those guys went on to have incredible careers.”

Hurley was a gritty point guard who racked up college wins and assists at Duke like very few before him. Webber was the reigning USBWA National Freshman of the Year.

They would have to go up against the likes of John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone in practice.

Michael Jordan didn’t play that day, according to Mullin, but that doesn’t completely detract from the oft-told story. Webber and a group of college players walked into the gym and took down a team of legends.

“It was one of those scrimmages where, look, as a kid, that’s a dream of a lifetime, and they came out and they played well,” Mullin added.

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Hardaway, Allan Houston, Grant Hill, Jamal Mashburn, Rodney Rogers and Eric Montross joined Webber and Hurley on the roster. Webber, Hardaway, Houston, Hill and Mashburn would each make at least one All-Star appearance. 

Hurley's career was derailed by a car accident in his rookie season, but he still played 269 NBA games. Montross played 465, and Rogers lasted over a decade.

The Dream Team dominated their college counterparts in a rematch the next day, getting the wake-up call they needed. They would go on to run the table at the Olympics, winning every game by 30 points or more. 

[RELATED: Kent Bazemore quickly became fan favorite in short audition with Kings]

The 1992 gold medalists are widely considered the greatest group of talent ever assembled for an international tournament. Eleven of the 12 players are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

But for one day, Webber -- not Malone, Barkley, Patrick Ewing nor David Robinson -- was the best player on the floor, at least according to Mullin.

Webber made five All-Star teams and was the anchor in the Kings’ glory years after coming to Sacramento in a 1998 trade, but the Hall of Fame has not yet called his name.

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Steph Curry omits LeBron James, Kevin Durant from all-time starting five

Steph Curry omits LeBron James, Kevin Durant from all-time starting five

When Stephen Curry's career is all said and done, there's a good chance many of the current younger generations of NBA fans will include him in their all-time starting five. They have seen the game evolve in front of their very own eyes, and no player was more responsible for that transition than the greatest shooter ever.

But Curry's career isn't over yet. Not even close. And as things currently stand, even he wouldn't include himself in his all-time starting five.

On the most recent episode of Showtime's "All the Smoke" with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, Curry was asked which five players he would nominate for that lofty designation, and it's pretty tough to disagree with his selections.

Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal? Safe to say that squad would be tough to beat. Of course, if there's one thing that the five-man unit is lacking, it's probably a lack of perimeter shooting. Maybe that's how Curry eventually fits in.

It's worth noting that Curry didn't include LeBron James on his list. Of course, if reported rivalries are to be believed, perhaps that explains the omission. Same goes for Kevin Durant, who recently left Curry out of his top-six hardest players to guard in the league. Are these sour grapes being thrown back and forth?

[RELATED: Steph admits he wanted Knicks to draft him instead of Dubs]

It's certainly possible in the modern NBA, but a far more likely explanation is that James and Durant, like Curry, aren't finished yet.