Stephen Curry needs help to win championships, just like everyone else

May 31, 2022

If you have spent much time interacting with NBA Twitter, you are probably aware of how stan culture has created a series of rip currents just under the surface of broader NBA fandom. It’s not unique to the NBA, but I’m still often taken aback by the rabid reactions to random people with triple-digit followers expressing opinions about star players.

For the most part, NBA player stans aren’t on the same level as, say, the Beyhive or Army, but it is still disconcerting how certain stan groups will go off when they feel their beloved player has been disrespected. Maybe there’s something to the notion that when a person stans for a celebrity — athlete, entertainer, politician, or whatever — it is because the celebrity has come to represent something in the stan’s identity, so a perceived slight of the celebrity is a slight on the stan.

All that is prologue for what I really want to write about, which is that Stephen Curry’s greatness may be overstated by his stans, but I also feel he is held to an unfair standard when it comes to historical greatness, just like every other modern basketball star is.

I think Curry is a top-15 all time NBA player, and it’s wild how often I come across people who think that’s some kind of insult. (Fine, here’s my thinking: Right now, I would rank Kareem, Wilt, LeBron, Jordan, Magic, Duncan, Hakeem, Durant, and Shaq as the only players certainly ahead of Curry, and wouldn’t think you’re nuts if you wanted to place Karl Malone and Chris Paul ahead of him, too. Others might have more guys they would want to rank ahead of him — Oscar Robertson? Kobe Bryant? Elgin Baylor? Larry Bird? James Harden? — that I’d push back against, but I can understand the reasoning. Anyway…)

The difference is likely in perception of peak versus longevity, as Curry’s peak offensive production dwarfs that of, say, Tim Duncan’s. However, Curry stans tend to forget that he has been Killer Steph Curry for “only” nine seasons and Boundary-Obliterating Curry for six (not counting 2019-20, when he played just five games), whereas most of the other players NBA fans would place among the greatest of the great played at top levels for well more than a decade. For example, Curry is a few months older than Kevin Durant, but KD has had 13 seasons (11, if you’re stingy about counting 2014-15, when he played 27 games, and 2020-21, when he played 35 games) as an elite scorer, while still also having a peak in Oklahoma City that approached Steph’s heights.

I also have a bias toward modern basketball players for the simple reason that the NBA, as a whole, is more skilled, more athletic, and has a deeper talent pool from which to draw than ever before. Setting aside the rules differences before 2001 that neatly cleaves the league’s modern history in two, the league also underwent dramatic expansion from the ABA era until 1980, then paused briefly until the late 1980s, when it added six teams in seven years, and then added one more team in 2004.

The upshot of all this is because the NBA has not expanded in the past 18 years while the talent pool has gotten better and deeper, supposed truths about pro basketball teams developed in the 1980s and 1990s no longer apply. In the 1980s and 1990s, having one superstar all but assured a team of making the playoffs, and having two meant putting your team in the conference finals conversation, regardless of supporting cast. Today, Curry can put together a historically-great offensive season, and his team can barely sneak into the play-in round because there’s only so much one player can do.

Again: The Golden State Warriors flaming out early in the playoffs last year is no slight to Curry. That said — and at the risk of enraging any Curry stans who might come across this — there is one player in the modern NBA who was so great that he made his teams a Finals contender all by himself. LeBron James only made it to one Finals in his first stretch with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was during that brief period when the league was still figuring out how to optimize defense under the new rules, but I think his exploits in the 2000s, before leaving for Miami, often allow fans to crap on players who don’t win championships “all by themselves.” After all, LeBron’s individual greatness for a decade and a half, and in particular dragging, variously, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Mo Williams, and Antawn Jamison — none of them scrubs, but neither were they candidates to be lead stars, themselves — deep into the playoffs is without peer. However, using his greatness as a cudgel against other great players is unfair because, post-1980, there have been, arguably, only three championships won by teams with solo stars (Olajuwon on the 1994 Rockets, Duncan on the 2003 Spurs, and Nowitzki on the 2011 Mavericks).

For this season, Klay Thompson may be diminished from his previous greatness, and Draymond Green’s decline as a shooter makes things more difficult for the Warriors on the offensive end, but they’re still positive players. Jordan Poole has emerged as a dangerous weapon, and Andrew Wiggins, freed from opponents’ top wing defenders and able to put more energy toward defending, has been reborn as a Shawn Marion type of all-around supporting star. Curry is still great, but he did “drop off” from last season, so the Warriors’ success this year rightly ought to be credited to the improvement in support of him, rather than something different that he is doing.

Once more: That’s not an insult. It doesn’t shortchange Steph in any way. He’s one of the defining players of the past decade in the NBA. He needs help to win championships.

(Photo: "Steph Curry" by Erik Drost. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)