Is Stephen Curry Actually a Better Offensive Player Than LeBron James?

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Is Stephen Curry Actually a Better Offensive Player Than LeBron James?
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry isn't the type to brag, but he holds himself in high esteem when it comes to his abilities on the offensive end—higher even than four-time MVP LeBron James.

"A better offensive player, me or LeBron? That's the first time I've ever been asked that question. Me," Curry said recently on NBC's The Dan Patrick Show, via ESPN.com. "He obviously demands a lot of attention on the floor, but I like to say I can distribute, get my teammates involved and be a playmaker as well."

The comment has generated a flurry of headlines, and naturally many have begun wondering if Curry just might have a point.

A superficial analysis of the two stars suggests that any real comparison of merits amounts to a competition between apples and oranges.

Curry is a more prolific (and efficient) three-point shooter and distributor. James scores more often and more efficiently.

Per 100 possessions, their respective numbers hardly resolve the debate.

LeBron James & Stephen Curry's 2013-14 Offense, Per 100 Possessions
Player PTS FG% 3FG% FT% AST TOV
James 36.9 56.7 37.9 75 8.6 4.8
Curry 31.9 47.1 42.4 88.5 11.3 5

NBA.com

The distance between the two is even closer when considering that James leads Curry by a slim 64.9 percent to 61.0 percent margin when measuring true shooting percentage, which accounts for free throws and three-pointers.

So we may have to do a little work to reach a conclusion, and that's assuming there's a legitimate conclusion to be reached. When assessing two players at such a high level, the most appropriate judgement may simply be that they're different—and both extremely good.

But a proper investigation is in order, even if it proves somewhat inconclusive.

If basic statistics don't demonstrate a clear advantage, perhaps some advanced metrics will shed some light on the comparison.

The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg writes, "According to Synergy Sports, James was seventh in the league in overall points per possession (1.12) while Curry ranked 63rd (1.01). With the exception of spotting up and coming off the screen, James bested Curry in points per possession on almost every other type of set play."

But from another perspective, Greenberg adds that Curry was perhaps more essential to his team's offense, writing, "When James was off the court, the Heat went from scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions (ORtg) to 104.7, a drop of nine. Golden State, on the other hand, went from 111.9 to 95.8 without Curry, a difference of 16.1."

Those latter numbers might hint at a further revelation about these two stars. With Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and an arsenal of shooters at his side in Miami, it was incredibly difficult for opposing defenses to zero in on James. The Heat simply boasted too many threats.

Curry doesn't have that luxury. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Outside of the sweet-shooting Klay Thompson, Golden State relies on second-tier scorers like Andre Iguodala and David Lee to offset the burden on Curry. With all eyes (and primary ball-handling responsibilities) on Curry, it's a little easier for defenders to pick their poison against the Warriors.

Another factor that weighs in Curry's favor is his ability to space the floor. While it's tempting to evaluate a player's skills on the basis of what he does with the ball in his hands, off-ball play has become equally important in a game defined by motion and spacing.

On both counts, Curry is superb. He works tirelessly to get himself open by running past screens and helps Golden State maintain ideal spacing with his seemingly limitless range.

In other words, that three-point shooting is more than a means to Curry's own points. It's a constant threat that opens lanes and destabilizes defenses to the benefit of his teammates.

It's hard to quantify that kind of value.

"I love everything about shooting," Curry told ESPN the Magazine's David Fleming in April. "But mostly that perfect form, when your body is in rhythm from the time you plant your feet to the time you release the ball. When it happens, everything is very smooth and calm from your feet through your release. Everything moves through you like a wave, almost. It's a beautiful thing."

And especially beautiful when Curry's the one taking shots.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Shooting guru and Hornets director of international scouting Adam Filippi told Fleming, "He's not just the purest, greatest shooter to ever play the game. His elevation-type shot is redefining and revolutionizing the art of shooting."

Former Warriors head coach Mark Jackson was similarly hyperbolic in his praise for Curry, telling Fleming, "We haven't seen anybody else with his ability to be a great shooter across the board," subsequently listing the myriad scenarios in which the 26-year-old excels as a shooter.

While James can't match Curry's jumper, the fact remains that he's never had to.

At 6'8" and 250 pounds, James is a different kind of beast altogether. His athleticism, strength and quickness instantly made him one of the game's all-time great slashers, and his explosive finishing ability has ensured all that penetration pays off.

Add to that an exceptional in-between game and above-average three-point stroke, and you're looking at a scorer with virtually unparalleled versatility.

That diverse arsenal of weaponry makes James' decisions impossible to predict, even for the most well-studied defenders. 

Though the two-time champion elicits most of his praise on account of overall well-roundedness, there's no denying his status as an historically talented scorer. He scored a career-high 61 points in March against Charlotte, setting a new franchise record and reminding us that he's every bit as dangerous as pure scorers like Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony.

James scored 25 points during the third quarter alone in that game.

So while Curry is a better shooter, James has more options at his disposal. Between his physical gifts and unparalleled basketball IQ, the latter is a virtually unstoppable scorer when he puts his mind to it.

But what sets apart Curry and James alike is that their skill sets on the offensive end go beyond scoring. Both are capable and willing distributors, and it's their abilities to facilitate that have ensured collective success for their respective teams.

Curry's career-high 8.5 assists per game would suggest he holds the advantage in this category, but there's been no shortage of documentation certifying that James is himself a masterful passer.

Per NBA.com, however, Curry also has an edge in terms of the more advanced calculations. His 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio bested James at 1.81, as did his 26.7 assist ratio when compared to James' 20.6 figure.

And Curry put those numbers up despite trailing James in usage rate by a margin of 30.9 percent to 28.1 percent.

While James certainly has a knack for timely and often flashy passes, the data seems to indicate that Curry has indeed emerged as one of the game's most complete floor generals.

Does that break the tie and mean we crown Curry the game's most lethal offensive threat?

Not so fast.

We'd do well to remember that a player's full impact isn't easily captured by numbers alone. One of the reasons James' teams have been so successful is that he's quite possibly the game's very best decision-maker, orchestrating plays with the patience and poise of iconic point guards like Steve Nash and Chris Paul.

"It's the theater of the absurd when you're dealing with what plays he makes at the end of the game," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters during last season's NBA Finals. "He makes the right basketball play. We trust him to make the right plays."

After Game 2 of that series, James himself added, "When the ball is in my hands, I'm going to make the right play. To have that trust from my teammates, they know when I got the ball, I'm going to make the right play."

Perhaps a bit easier to make so many plays when surrounded by the likes of Wade, Bosh and marksman Ray Allen. Perhaps we'd celebrate Curry's decisions a bit more were it so difficult to make a bad one.

But the eye test has long been fond of James' ever cerebral approach to the game. Where metrics fail to tell the whole story, four straight trips to the NBA Finals are pretty compelling evidence of the magic James makes with the ball in his hands.

From that perspective, Curry still has something to prove.

And yet, he's already proven quite a bit in his five seasons with the Warriors. Despite lacking James' All-Star sidekicks, and despite staring down a crowded Western Conference, Curry has elevated his franchise to newfound consistency and virtually limitless potential.

Though the verdict in this instance remains impossibly elusive, Curry is making his case year by year.

With or without the self-proclaimed accolades, it's Curry's game that's quickly inserted him into a discussion of the game's very best. Once his team's accomplishments follow suit, it will be increasingly difficult to deny that Curry's name belongs alongside James and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.

He's got the offense covered, and the big wins may not be far behind. 

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