He’s only 6’3″. So what? He’s not super athletic. So what? He’s the best shooter, but not the best player. Incorrect, but so what? Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is the best player on the planet and there is not a damn thing anybody can do about it. Not LeBron James, not Kevin Durant, not Russell Westbrook. Nothing.
Stephen Curry isn’t new to this. I remember when he first broke out onto the national scene during the 2008 NCAA National Tournament. Averaging a blistering 26 points per game during the run, the Wildcats needed all 40 of his points to defeat the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first round. He followed that performance up with an eye-opening 25-point second half against the heavily favored but flawed Georgetown Hoyas that included current Laker Roy Hibbert.
During the Sweet 16 in Michigan, Curry displayed the magic against the Wisconsin Badgers that have now become commonplace in his NBA career. In a now-classic call from legendary play-by-play caller Gus Johnson, he exclaimed, “Folks, we’ve got a star in the motor city.”
Who was watching in the crowd during that game? Who did the camera pan to as soon as Curry hit a ridiculous reverse lay-up that sent Johnson into euphoria?
That’s right, the King himself has been a witness (pun intended) to the greatness of Curry just like the rest of us. Which makes what would take place over the next couple of years all the more interesting. Both Curry and James are sons of Akron, OH (and both born in the same damn hospital, which is nearly a statistical impossibility) and LeBron had just finished a herculean effort of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. At the time LeBron was in attendance of Curry’s breakout game, he was untouchable on and off the court. This is before “The Decision” and this is after Tim Duncan thanked LeBron for “letting him get this one (championship)” since he was about to own the league.
LeBron had just taken a team that had a starting lineup of Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes(?!) to the NBA Finals at the tender age of 22. This is after James put on a Jordan-esque performance of 48 points with 9 rebounds and 7 assists, and scored 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points including the game-winning lay-up with two seconds left against the Detroit Pistons. Surely, James was about to run off winning multiple championships, right? Right?
You see, it was that same off-season that began the age of the NBA superteams. One big domino that hardly gets talked about in the legacy of LeBron James is the formation of the Boston super Celtics. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, superstars still in their prime, spurned big offers from their current teams to join up with Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers to create the first manufactured “Big Three” of the modern era.
Sure, the Spurs had their big three of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but those were three players who were drafted to that organization. The Celtics deal set off an arms race that constructed the mighty Los Angeles Lakers team that they dueled with in back-to-back NBA Finals which included Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol, and eventually the extremely polarizing Miami Heat team of which James was a part of alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
On the other side of the country, Stephen Curry had began to get his career off the ground with the Golden State Warriors. As James secured his first NBA Championship during the 2011-12 campaign, Curry suffered injury setback after injury setback to his ankles. In total, Curry appeared in only 26 regular season games and his scoring average dipped to 14.7 points per game. As James’ star was rising to never-before-seen heights and winning championship trophies, Curry toiled in the loaded Western Conference with a team that was being built through the NBA Draft and savvy front-office moves.
Which brings us to last night.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors will always be a game circled on the calendar, especially on the NBA’s national stage of Martin Luther King Day. Curry left no doubt, especially against one of his first and biggest witnesses, who the new king of the NBA is. And that is a hard pill for some people to swallow.
James, as the NBA’s best player, makes sense. Statistically speaking, James is probably the most complete player that the league has ever seen. He’s as big as Karl Malone but plays like John Stockton. He’s as athletic as Michael Jordan with an outside touch like Kobe Bryant. For the better part of the last decade, LeBron James has been the best scorer, rebounder, passer, coach, and at times, general manager. It’s been bestowed upon him since he was 16 years old. James is supposed to be the best in the world. He’s got the rings, MVPs, and lifetime Nike deal to prove it. But the fact is, that just isn’t true anymore.
Stephen Curry has the MVP, he has the championship trophy, he leads the best team. Sure, those Under Armour sneakers aren’t nearly as fly off the court as James’ Nike collection, but this isn’t about that. This is about a player who, for all intents and purposes, is rewriting the game like James did before him. Never before have we seen a shooter who can destroy a defense from anywhere on the court. Curry is the anti-Shaq. The way “The Big Aristotle” was so dominant from the inside that he would collapse a defense onto itself like a black hole, Curry expands the defense with his range which makes his teammates that much more susceptible to great offensive looks. In many ways, Curry is more effective than Shaq because the ball is in his hands most of the game, and he has to be guarded from nearly 45 feet away from the rim because he’s a threat from that deep.
In a world where fantasy sports can, at times, take over what actual sports mean you can forget what the game is really about. LeBron, the statistical marvel, will still win you plenty of FanDuel and Draft Kings leagues, but the game is and always will be about buckets and wins. And nobody in the world is better than Stephen Curry at that. Currently, his Warriors are a legit threat to knock off the legendary 1996 Chicago Bulls’ record of the best season in NBA history at 72-10, and last night’s game did nothing to quell any thoughts that they could eventually break that record.
The Cavaliers are the best team in the much-improved Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers wanted to make up for the loss that they took at the hands of the Warriors on Christmas Day, especially with a very healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the roster. While it’s important to note that Irving and Love weren’t active due to injury in last year’s NBA Finals, it was an irrelevant point last night.
Curry, in a very Drake-like subtle-and-not-so-subtle way, called his shot against the Cavaliers. “Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories,” Curry said Sunday about returning to the arena where they won their first championship. “Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne.”
“That’s like saying ‘I hope confetti from The Finals is still left out on the court,’ and we’re at midseason,” one Cavalier player explained to cleveland.com before the game tipped off. “Hell yeah that pissed us off.”
If he meant to do it or not, Curry gave an already-fired-up Cavaliers team every reason to come out guns blazing against the NBA’s best team. One thing they didn’t count on was Curry being more than up for the challenge. The reigning NBA MVP exploded for 35 points in three quarters to lead his Golden State Warriors to a blowout 132-98 win Monday night. Curry launched in seven three-pointers including the following absolutely soul-snatching plays on “Curry-stopper” Matthew Dellavedova.
LeBron’s frustration shove on Curry (which was answered back with another disrespectful Curry three-ball) wasn’t just seen as a response to the “champagne” comment, but almost as a rewind to that fateful NCAA tournament game back in 2008. How the hell did this happen? It’s almost like LeBron was asking himself, “How did this little shrimp I watched in the NCAA tournament become my arch-nemesis?” LeBron had to get through the hell of the San Antonio Spurs at 22 years old, the super Celtics, an awful front office, “The Decision,” “The Return,” and all other types of turmoil to get to where he’s at now. LeBron literally used to teach this kid.
How is Curry doing this? How, Sway?
“That wasn’t my intent. Never that,” Curry told cleveland.com about the champagne comment. “I respect those guys too much over there. I wouldn’t do that. They asked me about what it would be like to come back to Cleveland for the first time since we won the championship, and obviously you’re going to have feelings walking into the locker room for the first time because that was the last time we celebrated. It was a little sarcasm obviously with the champagne, but it wasn’t about disrespecting them. That’s not me.”
Yeah, the comment wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. But the performance last night absolutely was. We used to feel bad about great players playing in Michael Jordan’s era and never getting another championship. Is it too early to start feeling bad for players playing in Stephen Curry’s era? Even a player as mighty as LeBron James?
Photo Credit: USA Today