Stephen Curry seldom resembles Michael Jordan. But on a Wednesday night in late October at Oracle, the two-time MVP was making an exception.
After splashing his 10th 3-pointer of the game against the Washington Wizards and sending the crowd into a mad frenzy at the end of the third quarter, Curry looked to the Warriors bench and gave his teammates a throwback -- The Shrug, a la Jordan from the 1992 NBA Finals.
Curry’s quick 3-point attempt -- casually launched from 31 feet, just beyond the hash mark on the sideline and only nine seconds into the shot clock -- is his trademark, one that the entire NBA is chasing, just like it did with Jordan and his tongue-wagging dunks and fadeaways.
Watch the NBA on any given night and the story of this season has Curry’s fingerprints all over it. The league is taking 3s more frequently than ever, deeper than ever and quicker than ever.
It’s time to come to grips with the fact that Curry is the Jordan of his generation, single-handedly changing the way the game is being played and being appraised.
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The dunk used to be the domain of giants like Wilt Chamberlain, but not guards. But Dr. J helped changed that, and then Jordan took it to another level. Basketball researchers dug up dunk totals from old Sixers media guides and found that Jordan’s reign coincided with a dramatic rise in the slam dunk. In ‘87-88, the year Jordan won his second Slam Dunk contest in a row, there were 5,727 dunks in the NBA. By Jordan’s final Bulls season in 1997-98, there were 9,318 dunks, a rise of 63 percent.
As the rarely questioned GOAT of basketball, it seems impossible to believe that Jordan used to be dismissed as “just a dunker” by his peers.
But Larry Bird did just that, talking to the Hartford Courant in 1987 about the MVP race.
“If I had to pick a guy beside myself [to start a team], there’s no question who I’d choose,” Bird said. “Magic’s head and shoulders above anyone else. I’ve always said, and I haven’t changed my opinion, that Magic is the best player in the league.”
Bird went on.
“Dominique [Wilkins] and Michael Jordan? They’re not Magic Johnson. They’re dunkers. Michael takes 30 shots to get to 30 points. You know, there’s a difference.”
Forget the fact that Jordan averaged 37.1 points on 27.3 field goal attempts and never scored below 30 points on 30 shots. But that “just a dunker” narrative would eventually change. Soon, Jordan would become a global icon. There was the “Be Like Mike” commercials. There was the generation of kids who started sticking their tongues out on the court and buying his Nikes. A barrage of high-flying guards, like Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and even Harold Miner, became the heir to Air Jordan, the “Baby Jordans.”
Like Jordan, Steph has become an inspiration all his own.
For the fourth straight year, Curry led the league in jersey sales. Curry nearly single-handedly put Under Armour on the basketball map (a Morgan Stanley analyst once pegged Curry’s value to UA at $14 billion). Kids, often clad in Curry gear, are shooting so many deep 3s that the NBA and USA Basketball issued new guidelines to discourage 3-pointers in youth leagues.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It was with Jordan. It is with Curry. Enter Trae Young and a whole generation of Baby Stephs.
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It was 10 years ago, almost to the day, when Trae Young first saw Steph Curry play basketball.
Young was just a scrawny 10-year-old who scored tickets to the Blake Griffin-Steph Curry blockbuster showdown. Griffin’s Oklahoma Sooners were facing off against Curry’s Davidson Wildcats in Young’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. Young sat across the student section while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sat courtside in a packed Lloyd Noble Center.
“Steph had 40 or something,” Young says now. “Blake and him put up crazy numbers.”
Curry actually had 44, while Griffin had 25 points and 21 rebounds. It was then that Young saw himself in Curry, a scrawny guard who would one day become the NBA’s first unanimous MVP. Young began DVRing Curry’s games and maniacally watching his drills.
Young believes Curry’s skills and confidence revolutionized the game. Nowadays, point guards like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard are routinely scoring 30 points a night with loads of pull-up, deep 3s.
“Steph has changed the whole league, period,” Young says. “I think it’s a perfect time for a guy like me who’s not the biggest guard in the world but can shoot the ball. He’s made it OK for teams to go out and get those type of guys and play them.”
Young drew an onslaught of Curry comparisons after leading the NCAA in points and assists per game with a 180-pound frame and a propensity for deep 3s. And it’s no surprise that Travis Schlenk, former Warriors executive turned Hawks GM, chose him as the franchise guy in Atlanta. This summer, executives around the NBA noticed when it came time for Schlenk to hire a new head coach and new trainer, he reached back into the Warriors organization with Golden State assistant Lloyd Pierce and head trainer Chelsea Lane. Consider it Warriors East.
Curry didn’t just alter the way the NBA plays, he influenced the direction of another franchise.
“The way Steph has changed the game, it’s been great,” Young said, before launching a pair of 30-footers in Curry’s hometown of Charlotte later that night. He missed both.
The opposing point guard that night, 6-foot-1, 184-pound Kemba Walker, made 4-of-10 of his 3-pointers en route to 29 points. Before Curry’s MVP season in 2014-15, Walker had taken double-digit 3-pointers in a game just once in his career. Now, he averages 10.4 3-point tries a night.
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It’s been four years since Curry’s storybook ‘14-15 season, and yet, he continues to elicit dumbfounded reactions. Take, for example, these responses after his 51-point explosion against the Wizards, when he made 11-of-16 from downtown.
“You got a guy taking 40-footers,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after that October game against the Wizards, “and you’re on the sideline going, ‘Yeah, that’s a good shot.’ Nobody’s ever done what he’s doing.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks was asked for his perspective after the game, and could barely get out the words.
“Uhh, not, I mean, some of the shots that he was making, they were just, they were … you don’t see that,” Brooks said. “He’s a special player, special scorer, special shooter. I mean, he was taking 35-foot shots. It’s hard to double-team a guy that is that far out. And he makes them. He makes them like they’re layups. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On that night, Curry took eight 3-pointers from 28 feet and beyond, and made six of them. This season, per Basketball-Reference tracking, Curry has taken 25 3-pointers from this area and made a jaw-dropping 16 of them. That’s a conversion rate of 64 percent -- on shots near the halfcourt logo.
Brooks calls them layups. But if you do the math, they’re more like dunks. The bonus point within a 3-pointer means that on these deep 3s, Curry is averaging 1.92 points per attempt this season. Dunk attempts are averaging 1.82 points this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking.
Yes, Curry launching from deep this season has been a smidge more efficient than a friggin’ dunk.
Teams are struggling to adapt. Curry’s incredible shooting has at times necessitated his own version of the Jordan Rules, the famous bullying tactic the Detroit Pistons deployed on Jordan in the playoffs. After the game, Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal was asked how to defend Curry when he’s in the zone. His response could have been straight out of Chuck Daly’s playbook.
“Foul the sh-- out of him,” Beal said. “And even when we did that, he was still making them. So, I don’t know.”
Beal then closed his eyes, raised his eyebrows and turned his head as if someone just asked him to explain the physics of gravity.
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The 30-foot dunks have put Curry into hallowed ground.
The early favorite for MVP, Curry is on track to go down as the NBA’s most efficient scorer ever. If you pull up the 55 NBA greats who boast a career scoring average of at least 20 points per game on Basketball-Reference.com, Curry’s true-shooting percentage of 62.3 percent is the best ever (minimum 500 games). Said another way, Curry is an incredible 62.3-percent shooter when you factor in 3-point attempts and 1-point attempts (free throws). For reference, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal check in at a career 58.6 percent and Jordan at 56.9. There have been plenty of 20-point scorers, but no one has done it this efficiently.
Just as Bird discounted Jordan’s unconventional game while MJ terrorized the league, Charles Barkley has been the dismissive critic of Curry. In February 2016, months after Curry won the MVP and a championship, Barkley was asked by DIME magazine if Curry is as dominant as he and Shaq were in their prime. Barkley disagreed.
“He’s just a great shooter. It’s a totally different animal.”
He’s more than a just a shooter, right? Barkley’s response: “No. He’s not more than a shooter. He’s just a great shooter.”
Jordan was just a dunker. Curry was just a shooter. But both are incredibly valuable skills on a basketball court. If you can seemingly slam the ball in the basket on command, you’ve figured out a cheat code. Same goes for sinking 30-footers that are worth three points.
Should you need proof of why Curry’s superhuman shooting ability is not to be belittled, consider the fascinating Nylon Calculus research that showed Curry’s mere presence helps lift his teammates’ shooting percentages better than anybody in the game -- even LeBron James.
If the name of the game is to stuff as many points as possible into every possession, Curry belongs in the conversation with the greatest. Not just greatest shooters, but greatest ever.
And if you don’t love modern analytics, don’t forget Curry’s traditional accolades are piling up as well. Curry is now just the eighth player in NBA history with three titles and multiple MVPs. If things stay on course and Curry wins a third MVP and his fourth title this season, that list gets whittled down to just five players -- Kareem, Russell, Jordan, Magic and Curry. Not bad for just a shooter.
Tom Haberstroh is the national NBA Insider for NBC Sports. You can follow him on on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh).