NBA Sunday: Anointing Stephen Curry

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As he sat in his locker before tip-off in a grey, sleeveless t-shirt, the 24-year-old discussed game strategy with a pair of rookies while the media only seemed half-heartedly interested in how his team would adjust. As a result of David Lee’s role in an altercation with Roy Hibbert a few nights earlier, he was suspended for the team’s only appearance at Madison Square Garden that season, so the Warriors were shorthanded.

The 24-year-old Stephen Curry, then, flanked by those rookies—Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes—took matters into his own hands and responded with what is still the greatest scoring performance in his career and one of the greatest that the building has ever seen.

Three years after witnessing this scoring outburst, we now know that the historic night for Curry was no aberration. And today, I wonder at what point he will be universally accepted amongst the class of greatest scorers that the game has ever seen.

CurryKlayInside1Objectively, merely mentioning Curry in the same category as the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King, Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain (all of whom own the greatest single-game scoring performances in Madison Square Garden) seems blasphemous.

Objectively speaking, Curry has never even as much as won a scoring title. He has averaged greater than 20 points per game only three times in his six-year career. Because he began his NBA career at 21-years-old, you will not usually see him listed on any of the “youngest player to reach…” milestone lists. He has only made an All-NBA First Team once and the NBA All-Star Team twice. 

But what do these things really mean? Do they mean that Curry is less of a player or less deserving of reverence than the likes of Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul? Or does it merely mean that he is the least decorated impactful player of this generation? For years now, he has been the alpha and omega of everything the Warriors have hoped to become—and they have become just that.

At what point do we say “forget the numbers” and look past the accumulated numbers and statistics and see true greatness even when it doesn’t coincide with eye-popping tabulations?

Curry has caused these questions, all of which are valid. And these thoughts first entered my mind on the night where, in person, I saw him single-handedly dominate that February 2013 game in Madison Square Garden.

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I am fortunate in that I have witnessed, first-hand, the two greatest scoring performances ever at Madison Square Garden. Those belong to Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, who scored 62 points and 61 points, respectively.

For Anthony, the historic night was January 24, 2014, when he tallied 62 points against the Bobcats. I happened to write the game story that night for

In what was an otherwise disastrous 2013-14 season for his New York Knicks, Anthony at least turned in a performance for the ages. Still, most around the team were more surprised at the fact that those Knicks only managed to win 37 games than they were at Anthony’s taking the scoring title away from his friend, Bryant, whose record-setting night was also witnessed by yours truly.

On February 2, 2009, the poor Knicks had no answer for Bryant and the 61 points he dropped on them (on only 31 field goal attempts, mind you). But like Anthony, Bryant’s feat was amazing to witness, but not surprising. The fans in attendance mostly marveled at Bryant’s aesthetically-pleasing brand of basketball, but he was long known to be the best scorer the game has seen since Michael Jordan and on this night, he was obviously forcing the action.

Bernard King, Wilt Chamberlain, Ricky Barry and Michael Jordan were the others who put on extraordinary scoring performances at Madison Square Garden, with King being the only player aside from Anthony and Bryant to ever crack 60 points.

Officially, Curry’s 54-point night is the seventh-best scoring performance in the building’s history, putting him on a short list with some of the game’s greatest scorers.

What was most remarkable about it, though, was at the time, although there was some evidence that suggested that Curry was a capable scorer, there wasn’t much to suggest that he was historically good.

On that night in Madison Square Garden, Curry scored a career-high 54 points and converted a career-high 11 three-pointers. Prior to that performance, he had never scored more than 42 points in a game and he had only hit the 40-point mark twice.

Prior to that season, in fact, he had never even averaged as many as 20 points per game. In retrospect, looking back on it, that night in New York City was the night that Curry ceased to just be another “good scorer” and showed, on the biggest stage, that Allen Iverson isn’t the only miniature guard capable of single-handedly dominating a game.

Since then, he has proven that Iverson isn’t the only miniature guard capable of single-handedly dominating an entire season. Since Curry’s historic night, we have seen scores of coaches and defenders fail at finding a way to diminish his effectiveness. We can now look back at his career night at Madison Square Garden and know that it was no aberration; it was the his coming out party.

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The Golden State Warriors enter play on November 8 at 7-0 and is the only remaining unbeaten team in the league. Although he is the team’s point guard, Curry is at the center of it all.

He is not insanely athletic like Russell Westbrook, but is probably the best ball handler in the league. Playing somewhat slowly and meticulously, Curry’s best attribute is the fact that he is just as effective at creating his own shot as he is at catching-and-shooting. When one considers that he is both a willing passer and has superb court vision, it is easy to understand how charging even a plus-defender with stopping Curry is the basketball version of sending a knife thrower into a gun fight.

No matter what scenario or position you put Curry in with the basketball, he is likely to succeed, because he doesn’t force anything and always plays within himself and the system. Most recently, he has shown a propensity to drive the ball to the basket, adding the final piece to an offensive repertoire that is literally unstoppable.

Many moons ago, I remember having a conversation with a fellow NBA scribe and mentioned that in Curry, I see the off-the-dribble shooting ability of Gilbert Arenas, the overall marksmanship of Ray Allen, the court vision of Jason Kidd and the sheer passing ability of Steve Nash. At the time, perhaps rightfully so, I was told to “take it easy,” so I did.

I wonder if I would receive the same directive today. And if I did, I wonder what it would take for the detractors to see Curry’s light.

Just how long does a player have to sustain their greatness before we can consider them to be a part of the “all-time greats” conversation? Certainly, if a random player manages to score 101 points in an NBA game we couldn’t really consider him to be a better scorer than Wilt Chamberlain, because Chamberlain himself not only scored 100 points in a single game, he managed to average over 50 points per game for the entire 1961-62 NBA season.

Most people wouldn’t consider Kobe Bryant to be the greatest NBA guard ever, but not even Michael Jordan managed to sustain his greatness for a period of 20 years. The same sorts of things should be said of Kevin Garnett. Certainly, as he and Bryant made the leap from high school to the pros, they had an opportunity to enjoy longer careers than many of their predecessors. Still, even some more contemporary players—Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, Brandon Roy, and perhaps even Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose—their lack of sustained greatness diminishes any place they would have had in history.

There is something to be said for longevity and sustained greatness. There is some line between being a flash in the pan and being “for real,” and I am not sure that we ever had to try to find an answer to that question, and I am especially not sure how that conversation would go with Curry. It is, however, time to have it.

Objectively speaking, Curry lacks the credentials that many of his peers do and he eight years into a career that really seems like it has just gotten started. But in such short order, he has become one of the game’s brightest stars. How long does he have to sit atop the mountain before he can rightfully have dinner with LeBron James? Or is he already at that point?

Does the 98 three-pointers he converted during the course of last season’s playoffs put him there? What about the fact that he has broken Ray Allen’s single-season record for three-pointers made twice over? If we are speaking objectively, it is only Curry’s shooting prowess that allows him to enter the conversation, otherwise, it seems blasphemous to declare Curry to be “the best ever” at anything.

That is, unless you have actually been watching, because Curry, although not having sustained his greatness for a decade, has already shown us things we have never seen and taken us to places we have never been.

As his Warriors continue their quest for their repeat, he will often recede in the shadows to allow the scores of other talented players on his team to bask in the spotlight. That, unlike many of his peers, is what makes Curry truly special.

Unfortunately, for those who simply look at cumulative statistics when attempting to truly recognize greatness, Curry may fall short. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also why we need to discuss this.

Stephen Curry may not be the greatest scorer ever, but, he is the greatest something ever. And like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, he is must see TV.

When it’s all said and done, he will have probably separated himself from the field, even if his statistics won’t necessarily reflect that.