Being the only man in the 74-year history of the NBA to receive every first-place vote in the annual MVP balloting automatically places Stephen Curry among the top 20 players ever.
More to the point, that distinction also gives the Warriors superstar considerable clout in any debate over the best player of the 21st century.
Let’s immediately clarify this much: Curry is among the top three.
Determining the top 20 can inspire spirited, subjective and ultimately inextricable debate. The search for Curry’s place begins by trimming the list to 10, which eliminates 10 terrific players.
If you’re looking for James Harden or Russell Westbrook, you’re in the wrong place. Too many liabilities and not enough postseason pelts.
If you’re looking for Shaquille O’Neal, you’re ignoring too many empty seasons. His decline began at age 33, five years into the millennium.
If you’re looking for Giannis Antetokounmpo, you’re too early. He needs more time.
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The top 10 players of the millennium are: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Curry. Nine own first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials, and the 10th is at the doorstep.
Iverson belongs because no one was more dynamically superb in the first eight seasons of the millennium. He also missed the entire second decade. He’s No. 10.
Nash belongs because he’s a two-time MVP who was the engine behind not one but two of the league’s most potent offenses, the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. He’s No. 9.
Dirk belongs because he never was the league’s best player but spent the vast majority of the millennium among the top six or eight. He’s No. 8.
KG belongs because he was unsurpassed as a two-way player and, briefly, the best in the NBA. He faded in the second decade and was irrelevant by 2013. He’s No. 7.
Kobe. He belongs because he was the first icon of the 21st century, made 17 All-Star teams and is the closest we’ve seen to Michael Jordan. He’s No. 1 as a competitor, but his lack of efficiency leaves him at No. 6 overall.
Kawhi belongs because he is a two-way demon, an outright terminator who was the best player on two teams that won championships five years apart. He’s knocking of the Hall door and, at 28, should have plenty of time to rise. He’s No. 5.
Duncan belongs because he, too, was a two-way beast. Underappreciated by many -- perhaps due to his austere countenance and metronomically productive game -- he was the nuclear weapon of the Spurs, easily the most enduring contender of the millennium. He’s No. 4.
KD is No. 3. He has every piece of hardware worth owning, has a complete game and is the most challenging non-center matchup -- Wilt Chamberlain and Shaq deserve to have their own category -- we’ve ever seen. Durant has a solid case for being No. 1 overall. So, why is he third? That will be explained with Nos. 1 and 2.
Steph is No. 2 not necessarily because he’s “better” than KD or Kobe or anyone lower on the list. He’s ahead of them because no one since Jordan has been more impactful. When one of MJ’s commercials jingled to “I wanna be like Mike” beat, many young ballers dreamed of soaring through the air for acrobatic dunks.
Curry had no such song. He doesn’t fly. But his game is the most mimicked in basketball. He changed the game, altered the dynamic at every level, from middle school to the NBA. That can be said by no one else on this list.
No. 1 is perhaps the top enemy of Dub Nation. The Warriors saw LeBron four consecutive years in The Finals and beat him (and the Cavaliers) three times. It’s reasonable to argue the Warriors could have taken Cleveland all four times if not for a league-imposed suspension to Draymond Green.
That said, LeBron was the best player on two teams, the Heat and the Cavs, that appeared in eight consecutive Finals, something no one else can claim in the post-merger (since 1976) NBA. Love him or detest him, that’s worthy of profound respect.
Does that make him better than Steph? Better than KD? Not necessarily. But it’s pure folly to even suggest that anyone has been “better” than LeBron in the first 20 years of this millennium.