By: Dan Grant
NBA media, pundits and fans alike all love to compare players. We love to make lists, rank our all time greats, to create ‘our all-time starting five’, to choose All-NBA and All-Star teams and to argue about these things endlessly, for hours and hours on end. It’s part of the fun of the game. It’s dominates basketball more than any other sport, because unlike the other major North American sports, basketball superstars influence each and every game on a much larger scale.
Consider the following: The leader in minutes in the NHL last year (excluding goaltenders) was the LA Kings’ Drew Doughty, who played in roughly 49% of his teams overall minutes (2378/4920). The leader in snaps played in the NFL last year was safety Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, who played in 1320 defensive snaps, or 99.6% of his teams plays on that side of the ball. He also played in exactly zero offensive snaps. Anthony Castanzo of the Indianapolis Colts played in an amazing 100% of his teams offensive snaps… and zero defensive snaps. I won’t even get into baseball, but as we all know, the best players bat only four or maybe five times in a normal game and the very best pitchers throw in about 220-250 of a teams 1420 yearly innings; not an especially high percentage.
What that boils down to, is that the very best players in these sports are only on their field of play about 50% of the time (or less). What happens when we compare that to the NBA? Well, 50% of an NBA game is 24 minutes. 156 NBA players averaged 24.0 minutes per game or higher last year. Couple this with a lack of helmets and other visually obfuscating equipment, and more than any other sport, the NBA is imbued with an air of individuality.
Recently, LeBron James became only the second player to reach 25,000 points and 6,000 assists, joining the great Oscar Robertson. When sports media outlets attempted to make the obvious comparison, James quickly spoke up, saying:
“I think what we get caught up in, in our league too much, is trying to compare greats to greats, instead of just accepting and acknowledging and saying, ‘Wow, these are just great players”
That’s completely valid. How do you compare Bill Russell to Shaquille O’Neal? John Havlicek to Kevin Durant? Bob Cousy to Gary Payton? It’s an impossible task, objectively speaking.
Comparing stats, styles of play, leadership and teammates across eras is an ultimately futile (though fun!) task. There’s never a right answer. However, we can still try define who the best player in a given season is. That’s what the MVP award is for. Sometimes those MVP awards mean more than others. Bill Simmons once wrote a column about this, arguing that the trophies should vary in size and weight, based on their level of difficulty and/or significance. However, the MVP race can be flawed. Voter fatigue, injuries and other factors *cough* The Decision *cough* can affect objectivity and lead to stupid decisions, like Karl Malone winning over MJ, or David Robinson winning over Hakeem.
But sometimes an MVP award means more. It can signal a seismic shift in power. It can announce the arrival of the challenger to the throne. It can raise the simple question: who is the best? To properly pose that question in 2015-16, you need look no further than the NBA’s reigning MVP, and a four-time MVP in the waning years of his prime.
On November 23rd, Stephen Curry and LeBron James were named the Player of the Week for their respective NBA conferences. It marked the first time that the pair had won the award in the same week, which seemed surprising to me when I first read it. However, when you look a little deeper, you quickly realize that it’s not that strange. We’ve become so drunk on the Warriors in the past eighteen months that we’ve forgotten they’re a relatively new powerhouse. Both players won the award twice in 2014-15, without overlapping. And that’s really the only comparison; before last season, Steph Curry had never won an NBA Player of the Week award. Ever.
Yet, still we hear whispers. OK, whispers doesn’t feel right. Talking heads bellowing at each other with such bluster and obstinance that it feels like a Thanksgiving episode of Roseanne? That feels more correct.
They’re driving a narrative, as is their wont. It goes like this:
‘Is Steph Curry the most unguardable player in the NBA?’
‘Is Steph Curry the best pure shooter of all time?’
(Still getting there, but probably yes)
‘Is Steph Curry the best player in the NBA right now?’
Hang on there a minute, Perry Pundit. Slow your roll. LeBron friggin’ James is still in the NBA! With all due respect to a variety of candidates young and old, James is the undisputed king of the league until he’s dethroned. Nobody still in the conversation has met with more individual or team success than LeBron, despite what his legions of haters would have you believe. Need a quick reminder? That Player of the Week award was James first win of 2015-16, and the second for Curry. That makes four overall for Steph and… 47 for LeBron.
Before just handing over the crown, we need to at least break it down. This is a league of superstars, big games and bigger personalities. What makes one player rise to the top? How do we compare greatness, not across eras, but living greatness that is right in front of us?
For me, there are four key questions.
Who is a better player in a vacuum?
This means stripping away teammates and coaches, and any other outside influences, and trying to determine who is actually more physically and mentally skilled at the game of basketball. Curry’s ball skills and unparalleled shooting ability makes this is closer than I initially thought, but for me, this still goes to LeBron.
He has the highest basketball IQ of any player I’ve ever seen play the game; that’s why it was so maddening to watch him be forced to revert to hero ball in the Finals last year, when injuries decimated his team. While LeBron’s defense took a vacation last season, he’s been back to normal this year, and a huge consideration in this category is that he plays the game at both ends of the floor; while Curry has improved on defense, LeBron has five First Team All-NBA Defense selections and one Second Team selection on his resume. Curry has never sniffed either. For two players with such unique and elite strengths, it comes down to comparing weaknesses, and here, Curry’s (defense, size) outweigh LeBron’s (free throw shooting). Keep in mind, these aren’t ‘weaknesses’ as compared to normal human beings or even normal NBA players. These are just the weakest parts of their respective skill-sets.
Here’s the thing though: basketball isn’t played in a vacuum! That leads us to our second question.
Who is playing better right now?
With all due respect to LeBron, who has his 13-4 Cavaliers on top of the improved Eastern Conference, this section goes to Curry, hands down. The 19-0 Warriors are coming off a 67 win season, a championship and are currently re-breaking the record for wins to start a season with each successive game that they play. The untouchable 33 game win streak of the 1971-72 Lakers truly feels within reach; speculation is beginning to run wild about whether or not these Warriors could approach the 72 win Bulls of 1995-96. Is it a mirage? We don’t know! All we know is that it’s glorious and that at the centre of it all is Wardell Stephen Curry. That’s right, he gets three names now. Just like assassins and Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Curry’s play over the past two seasons has reached a transcendent level that many never thought possible when he was struggling with ankle injuries just a couple seasons ago. If his career ended tomorrow, I have no idea where he’d rank on any all-time list, but I do know that he is currently performing at the most consistently high level I can remember from a player since LeBron in 2009. Night in and night out, everything the Warriors do on offense runs through him. He’s taking eleven three’s per game, and making five of them. He’s made 94 three pointers in 19 games. He’s shooting over 50% from the floor, 44% from deep and 94% from the line. And it’s not just the brutal, unfailing efficiency. It’s the way in which he does it. He makes opponents feel absolutely powerless. Forget a heat check. Curry went supernova some time ago and it remains to be seen when, if ever, he’ll cool down.
Who is better historically?
This question was one that I considered before realizing I had violated my own edict from earlier! We’re not comparing the past here, we’re looking for who is currently the best. LeBron is much closer to the end of his career and came straight out of high school – he’s played five more seasons than Curry, so comparing their historical significance isn’t really relevant, particularly as Curry is just hitting his peak. So yes, when you compare literally any tangible achievement, LeBron is leading. That doesn’t mean that’s how it’ll finish up. Let’s move on to a much more interesting question:
Who is the more rare player?
Imagine you’re starting an NBA franchise from scratch, in 2095. The league dissolved because of a twenty year war with the Martian offspring of Matt Damon and Ridley Scott. It’s a long story, but everyone involved felt it would be best just to redraft. Then imagine I told you that you could have one of the following two players.
First: The great, great, great, great-grandson of Scottie Pippen. Like his ancestor, he’s a tremendous athlete, a punishing perimeter defender who brutalizes opponents on both ends of the floor. He uses that athleticism to hammer opponents in transition and he’s a skilled enough ball handler that he can play the point forward position, while guarding positions 1-5 with aplomb. Evolution has also improved his shooting: he now bangs it in at 40% from deep and plays beautifully both inside and outside. His passing has evolved from merely great to superb. His commercial game is equally strong.
Second: The great, great, great, grand-nephew of Steve Nash. Possesses the otherworldly court-vision and infectious play-making of peak Nash. Nash was always an under-rated shooter, sneakily one of the best ever. His kin has harnessed that ability and developed the ability to become the best shooter who ever lived. He can shoot from anywhere with confidence. He regularly buries 30 footers and has a hair-trigger release. He’s much more adept on defense, as his athleticism has improved, and he embraces a swagger only present in his ancestor at times. While physically not as blessed as his peers, he makes up for his shortcomings with unmatched work ethic and dedication to his craft. Who do you choose?
The answer is both. Or neither. It’s impossible. You can’t go wrong. The shooting element of Curry’s game is probably the most impressive raw ability that either player lays claim to, but the complete package that is LeBron effing James is not only a victory for the NBA but for human evolution. Evolutionary Pippen or Evolutionary Nash. How do you choose between a chimera and a unicorn? It’s a draw.
All right Chatty Cathy, what’s the verdict?
Hey now, no need to get testy! What was the question again? I kid, I kid! It is pertinent though. The verdict depends on us accurately defining what we’re looking for in the ‘greatest’ ever. Who’s playing the best in the NBA right now? Steph Curry. Who’s the active player in the NBA with the highest ceiling? LeBron James.
For me it comes down to one final question. One series, you don’t know who your teammates are and you can have one of these two, who do you take? For me, it’s LeBron. His versatile game fits better with a larger variety of players, and for all the talk about him ‘entering a new phase’ of his career, he’s only 30 years old (soon to be 31). Curry will be 28 when the season ends! The age gap isn’t as disparate as it’s made out to be. Curry might get to the top of the mountain some day soon, but for me, he has some work left to put in.
Long live the King.