SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors are closing in on a fourth NBA championship. Which means Stephen Curry is closing in on something even more impressive: The legacy of LeBron James, and the surprising spoils that come with such a chase.
Because even if he doesn’t catch LeBron — and he may — Curry is well positioned this month to pass names like Kobe, Durant, Bird, Magic and Wilt on the all-time great list.
Through eight years of Warriors domination, Curry has been his team’s talisman and catalyst. Under his surprising but unrelenting excellence, a rising tide of success and celebration has emerged because of him.
Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have emerged as sure-fire Hall of Fame players. Steve Kerr went from failed general manager and TV analyst to anointed as, literally, one of the game’s best 15 coaches in the sport’s history. Andrew Wiggins has reclaimed his promise from him. Jordan Poole went from G League hopeful to third splash brother. And so on.
Curry spurred all of this into being. His greatness him has brought rings, legacies, wealth, a new stadium and even another all-time great, Kevin Durant, to an organization that before Curry’s arrival and ascension was among the worst in the history of American sports.
Heck, these days Curry racks up more television minutes than game minutes.
Now, only the Celtics stand in the way of him capturing as many rings as LeBron, a fact that requires a sudden wake-up call about the way we thought we understood this era of basketball and those who preceded it.
We’ve spent so much time focusing on LeBron vs. Jordan that we missed the fact that a share of The King’s present crown may wind up being felt up the coast — at least for a summer.
Already, the collective media and fan awakening to Steph’s growing legacy has spurred conversations about whether he can pass LeBron’s standing on the list of all-time greats, and for understandable reasons.
That is, after all, the barometer for how we measure greatness today. The fact Steph bested LeBron in three series doesn’t hurt, either.
And while LeBron tools with a Lakers organization, Steph could very well enter next season as the betting favorite to again win it all. It is not inconceivable that we’re on our way to a reality that sees Steph someday retire with more championships than LeBron.
So the Steph-could-be-better-than-LeBron conversation isn’t insane. Steph is the greatest shooter in the history of the sport — so great, in fact, he changed the NBA and shifted the course of its history as much as Wilt, or Bird-Magic, or Jordan. The game’s focus on 3-point shooting and positionless play is rooted first and foremost in Curry.
He defined, and changed, an era.
All-time greatness is an interesting concoction of competing interests: Individual accomplishments, sure, but also team success. And luck. And the narratives that shape how we perceive — and remember — those rarest of stars.
Steph has a claim in all these categories.
His individual resume is astounding: Two MVPs (one second). The most three-point shots ever made. Career shooting percentages of 47.3 from the field, 42.8 from 3 and 90.8 from the stripe. One of only 11 players to claim a 50-40-90 season. And so on.
The team success Curry has spawned is also beyond dispute. There are the three rings and counting, yes, but also a run of six NBA Finals appearances in eight seasons. Kobe Bryant never did that. Nor Tim Duncan. LeBron did get to eight in a row, but he wasn’t able to do it with the same team. Only Steph, in this century, was able to stay and still thrive at this level.
He’s also, as noted, turned other players into Hall of Fame candidates. Jordan did that, most likely, but it’s hard to say the same for LeBron. That, too, matters, even if it’s harder to measure or prove.
And as the best shooter ever, and the guy who didn’t bounce from team to team, his narrative game is on point. This is the guy Durant had to join, rather than the other way around. And yet Curry, the then-reigning MVP, welcomed Durant to the team by subjugating his own shine — and the shots, accolades and credit that accompanied it. Everyone says the team and winning come first. Curry done that by diminishing himself to do so.
No all-time great has ever done that in his prime. That, too, is easy to look past but worthy of consideration in any GOAT debate.
That is a big part of the reason Curry is the superior player, historically speaking, to Durant. Durant needed Curry to win titles. Curry is about to prove, he, most decidedly, did not need Durant. That — plus the statistical reality of Steph’s import over Durant when on the floor in Golden State, as often outlined excellently by NBA writer Tom Haberstroh — elevates Curry over Durant.
There is no Golden State Warriors as we know them without Steph. And without Steph, Durant might have as many rings as James Harden or Russell Westbrook.
The argument over Steph vs. During is a warmup for the one about Steph vs. LeBron. Steph, by NBA standards, is not an imposing athlete. He’s not a freak of nature physically — not like MJ, or LeBron, or Kareem, or Wilt, or Shaq, or Magic, or virtually any of the other all-time greats who look more like Avengers superheroes than athletes.
That’s part of how, even now, too many have missed Steph’s greatness. They’ve also often overlooked the way his individual genius dele works seamlessly with his teammates, lifting them up, making them better, putting them in positions to find the best versions of their basketball selves.
The literal space alone Curry creates for teammates — the gravitational pull he exerts on defenses, and all that then does for everyone lucky enough to play with him — is hard to measure but impossible to miss. He is a game-changer, literally, the moment he simply touches the ball or passes halfcourt.
Yet LeBron is, well, LeBron. He will almost certainly end his career as the game’s all-time leading scorer. LeBron is already seventh on the all-time assists list. He’s been chasing, and chasing down, Jordan for a reason. He’s astounding, and this run by Steph doesn’t change any of that, even if it does close the gap.
As we always do, then, the talk on Steph Curry both celebrates him and misses the larger, current point. Curry coming up on LeBron’s legacy, true and interesting though it is, still probably ends with LeBron ahead when both withdraw.
But that’s not the current point, at least not today.
This is: The fact we’re having this conversation means that if Steph does lead Golden State to a fourth title starting Thursday, he’ll narrow the gap between himself and LeBron so much that it is other all-time greats who he will have surpassed.
Names like Kobe. Duncan. During Bird. Magic.
Another title, and Steph and the Warriors show that everything that’s preceded this was about Steph Curry. Not Durant and the two titles he piggy-backed on board for, despite his obvious contributions. Not Kyrie Irving leaving Cleveland. Just an all-time great shaping the game’s history, and his team’s destiny, utilizing his own rare, astounding gifts.
Another title, and the all-time great debate looks something like this:
Can Steph eventually pass LeBron? Maybe, but unlikely.
But beat the Celtics, and he will have launched himself further than any one of his patented deep shots.