Can we stop these lazy and convenient arguments against greatness simply because it looks a bit different than what we are accustomed to seeing as basketball fans? Long before Stephen Curry won his well-deserved second consecutive Most Valuable Player award, the Golden State Warriors and Curry faced plenty of criticism from some fans, analysts and former NBA players. Backlash and even back-handed compliments are almost expected any time you perform at a level that challenges the record books and written history of the game. But with that said, the dismissive and almost passive-aggressive nature of the narrative just makes no sense when it comes from guys who have actually played in the league, guys who simply know better and should absolutely appreciate how effortless Curry makes extremely difficult acts look at times.
Tracy McGrady was just the latest in what seems to be a growing line of former players to chime in on Curry and Golden State’s success when the recently retired great said Curry’s unanimous MVP is a sign of the league being “watered down” these days. The idea that today’s game is somehow more of a watered-down product than the league McGrady played in is absurd. Without unjustly denigrating the period, which was very competitive and enjoyable to watch, it should be noted that this type of talk is also disrespectful to the other greats of today.
Would LeBron James and Kevin Durant not be all-time greats in another era? Is Chris Paul not one of the best point guards of the last 30 years? Carmelo Anthony would still be a supreme scorer in ’80s and ’90s, and so would James Harden. Russell Westbrook would be the same freak athlete who can record a triple-double any given night. Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns would still be every bit as special in 2002 as they are now. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler would still be excellent two-way players in 1998.
While we now live in a world where the legend of Michael Jordan seems to grow more and more each year, those of us who were around throughout his early days remember everybody’s favorite crying meme being called things like “ball-hog” or “just a scorer” and getting criticized for not being able to drag a team that simply wasn’t ready to win just yet over the mid-1980s Boston Celtics and late-1980s Detroit Pistons. At one point folks were even critical of Shaquille O’Neal, claiming he was “just bigger and stronger” than everyone else as though he should have somehow not taken advantage of his best physical attributes.
Calling Curry “just a shooter” or saying things like “he wouldn’t do this in my era” is something that appears to be rooted in at least a small amount of jealousy. Not that ex-players like McGrady, Walt Frazier, Oscar Robertson or any of the other all-time greats who have weighed in negatively toward Curry and these Warriors have anything to be worried about in terms of their own legacies, but for whatever their individual reasons happen to be, each of them have essentially questioned the historical validity of today’s greats.
Perhaps it is due to Curry being the walking and talking (and shooting) antithesis of what many have grown comfortable calling the “best in the game.” Big men operating almost exclusively from the paint were once the game’s top commodity. The Jordan era was followed by an influx of slashing wing players who lived for isolation sets and the opportunity to finish over the top of someone at the rim. The game continues to evolve just as it always has and now there is a clear premium for interchangeable playmakers and three-point shooting. The pace of the games are significantly faster as well. According to TeamRankings.com, Golden State averaged 103.5 possessions per contest this season. By comparison, the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns team that kick-started the pace and space movement averaged 99.2 possessions per game at that stage. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs and these current Warriors improved upon the framework they put in place.
Is this somehow Curry’s fault or should it be the Warriors’ collective responsibility to play the game differently than their best simply because people are not accustomed to seeing it done this way?
Curry followed up a great 2014-15 campaign by becoming an even better and more efficient version of himself. He increased his scoring by nearly 6.3 points per contest – the largest scoring jump for a defending MVP – and still managed to shoot 50.4 percent from the field, 45.4 percent from deep and 90.8 percent from the line (for the first time in his career). Oh, and he did this while making a record 402 three-pointers and helping his Warriors win an all-time great 73 regular season games. His true shooting percentage, which measures shooting efficiency by factoring in field goals, three-pointers and free throws, was an amazing 66.9 percent and tops in the NBA. His selection as the first unanimous MVP should be celebrated rather than questioned. It isn’t Curry’s fault that someone inexplicably decided to vote against Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 or LeBron James in 2013. Send your vitriol to the analysts and writers who never let it happen in the past rather than holding Curry responsible now.
Dwyane Wade, who’s obviously a great in his own right, has played with and against all-time greats throughout his NBA career and he clearly thinks Curry is deserving of the praise and awards.
“[Curry’s] one of the special ones,” Wade said of the league’s back-to-back MVP. “There’s been players along the way that’s been that special, and this is his time to be that.”
What Wade acknowledges is the same thing others are either failing to see or refusing to accept: Curry’s greatness cannot be defined by what makes (or made) LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan great. Trying to compare him to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain or even someone who played his position in Magic Johnson is impossible, because each were incredible for their own unique reasons. What Jordan did in 1988 has absolutely nothing to do with the incredible year Curry blessed basketball fans with in 2016.
At a certain point, you simply have to appreciate greatness for exactly what it is. One player’s legacy shouldn’t threaten or damage that of another and Curry’s current play does nothing to diminish anything that has taken place before him.
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