Initial reaction: This will be easy. Make a claim about someone being the greatest ever—it doesn't really matter what the topic is—and you can warm yourself by the outrage that follows. Accomplished NBA marksmen in particular, past and present, would bury the idea faster than a wide-open jumper.
Five of them, spanning 50-plus years of NBA history, responded to that claim: Rick Barry, Kiki Vandeweghe, Chuck "The Rifleman" Person, Dana Barros and Steve Nash.
Surely they would not all be prisoners of the moment, even if that moment has lasted about three seasons now, representing Curry's streak leading the league in both three-pointers taken and made. Surely the reverse off-hand shots glancing high off the backboard before floating down through the net or made three-pointers launched in the shadow of a defender, an expiring clock and the game's outcome would not unduly sway them.
Surely someone would point out that defensive rules have changed, that it's infinitely easier to get off shots now than a few decades ago, that someone as slight as Curry would've had to spend a year or two in the weight room before he could hope to compete in the NBA against the likes of Michael Jordan and Derek Harper and Gary Payton free to hand-check to their heart's content.
Or surely someone would point out that he is only in his sixth year, that proclaiming anyone the best the NBA ever has seen—especially someone whose third season was reduced to 26 games because of ankle issues—after such a relatively modest sample size would be premature.
Whether driven by ego or insight, surely someone would insist they played with or against someone better than Curry.
Nope. Fit Vandeweghe and Co. for proverbial orange jump suits along with everyone else who is convinced that when it comes to launching a pebbled leather sphere through a steel rim suspended 10 feet in the air, no one has done it more ways, from more places, with more numbing consistency and accuracy than Wardell Stephen Curry II. Ever.
If there was a dissenter among the five, it was the ex-Warriors small forward Barry. He didn't outright dismiss Curry's claim to a mythic best-shooter-ever title, nor did he nominate someone else. He did raise some fair points—noting that the Atlanta Hawks' Kyle Korver has led the league in three-point shooting percentage the last two years and insisting "that there were probably a lot of" players in his era that were better mid-range shooters than Curry—but he took greatest exception to the all-encompassing aspect of the title.
"You can't even do it because you can't compare guys who played before the three-point line was introduced," said Barry, a 12-time All-Star—four times in the ABA—who led the Warriors to their lone championship in 1975. His last NBA season, '79-80, was the league's first with a three-point line adopted from the ABA. "You can only pick from the modern era," he said. "I had to learn how to shoot that shot."
So did Vandeweghe, who entered the league in 1980. A small forward selected 11th overall, he went 0 for 7 from deep as a rookie and 1 for 13 his second season. Five years later, he led the league in three-point shooting percentage (48.1), making 39 of 81.
As the son of a New York Knicks' swingman in the '50s, the late Ernie Vandeweghe, nephew to a four-time All-Star from the same era, Mel Hutchins, and a disciple of the late offensive guru Pete Newell, Kiki has a deep and abiding respect for the history of the game. He ticked off Jerry West, Nash, Denver Nuggets long-range gunner Dale Ellis and even Curry's father, Dell, as shooters who immediately came to mind for their technique and accuracy.
"I played HORSE with Nash and he's the best I've played with," Vandeweghe said. "Steph reminds me of Steve in some ways." Nash, of course, achieved the statistical holy grail of 50-40-90 (50 percent or better from the field, 40 percent or better from three-point range and 90 percent of better on free throws) four times in five seasons and narrowly missed five in a row. Four is still twice as many as the next most, by Larry Bird, and only nine players in all have done it at least once while playing at least 55 games in a season.
Although Curry is not among them—he shot 48.7 overall, 44.3 on 3s and a league-leading 91.4 from the line—Vandeweghe ranks this season for Curry as the best overall shooting performance he's ever seen when degree of difficulty and level of importance are included.
"Comparing year to year, people at their peak, I've never seen anyone better," Vandeweghe said. "The difficulty of some of the shots he makes is incredible. He makes shots I wouldn't even think of taking, and I took a lot of shots. He has a certain body and court awareness. He always knows where the basket is. His fundamentals are as good as anyone I've seen—Dell's form is actually more textbook because his release point was higher—and no matter where he is, he can always get off a good shot."
Nash has no problem conceding the title to Curry.
"The only pause I have is from fear of being ignorant," he said. "Am I missing someone? Does he need to play longer or do it longer? Does he have to do it in the playoffs more years? But my first reaction is, 'Why not?' He's as good as anyone I can think of on every level—pure shooting, array of shots, percentage, getting hot, plays to the end—he checks all the boxes."
Nash discounted the value of his superior percentages—listen up, ye who believe numbers are infallible and efficiency is everything—because he approached the game differently and was sometimes chastised for it.
"He's probably going to shoot a lower percentage than me his whole career because he's going to take more shots and he should," Nash said. "It's just a difference in mentality. I would shoot a higher percentage than Steph because I was much more conservative. I would try to shoot as high a percentage as possible to save shots for my teammates and then shoot more in the fourth quarter. I had coaches tell me I was hurting our team at times by trying to set up my teammates, but I always thought I got it back by how I made them feel and incorporated them into the offensive scheme and the chemistry of the team. He's capable of that, but he's more inclined to score. There are things he can do that I can't. He's such a beautiful shooter with such an array of shots and such a quick release, you wouldn't want to take that away from him at all."
The most notable similarity Nash and Curry share is their uncanny ability to shoot off the dribble, particularly from long range, but even there Nash sees Curry as a cut above.
"Steph takes it to another level," Nash said. "I was able to do it going left and right, and we can both do it at speed, but I was always trying to get to the three-point line. He can do it from deeper and, frankly, I never took a step-back. He has no trouble taking a step-back and making it. You add that to all the other shots. It could be a clincher in this game of deciding who's the best."
Both Barros and Person played the majority of their careers before the league eliminated the illegal defense rules in 2001 and essentially outlawed hand-checking in 2004. That meant Barros, a career 41.1 percent three-point shooter over 14 seasons and listed as 5'11" and 163 pounds, had to learn how to get his shot off against defenders who could legally use their size and strength as advantages.
"I had to learn a new definition of what being open meant," Barros said. "I'll never forget Michael Jordan enveloping my whole waist with his hand, directing me and saying, 'You're going nowhere, Little Man.' Every time I received the ball in the open court I'd run as fast as I could. Once I got everybody afraid of my speed, I could pull up at the three-point line and have space to get my shot."
Despite Curry's equally slight frame (6'3", 185 pounds), Barros is convinced his ball-handling skills and quick release would've translated in the black-and-bluer '90s. "What he's doing would be amazing and unstoppable in any era," Barros said.
Reggie Miller, Ray Allen and the late Drazen Petrovic are also on Barros' all-time list, but the distinction that might put Curry on top is that he isn't a great shooter merely playing off another great player setting him up. "I call him a real shooter, because he's not a spot-up shooter playing off an All-Star," Barros said. "Dale Ellis was a great shooter, but he wouldn't take one dribble. Steph can shoot off the dribble and he gets it off so quick. When he gets the ball, I feel like something is going to happen. You could make a case for him as the best ever. You'd have a harder time making the case against him."
Person also played (1986-2000) during the era of illegal defense and hand-checking and acknowledges that the increased use and favor of the three-point shot provides a platform for Curry that previous great players did not have. Person was regarded as a prolific three-point shooter at the time, averaging 3.6 attempts per game over his 13 seasons. When he shot his 1,000th, only a handful of players had done the same. Curry, for comparison, averaged 8.1 three-point attempts per game this season and could pass Person's career total next season, his seventh.
Bird, Miller, Allen and Glen Rice are on Person's personal all-time shooters card, but Curry stands above them all. "I don't think there's ever been anybody better," he said. "He can shoot the ball quicker than the spot-up guys. That's unprecedented."
While Barry might abstain from the all-time shooter platitudes, he, too, admires Curry's flare for the dramatic. "It's the way he does it," Barry said. "It's such a quick release with range. And his confidence is off the charts. He's fun to watch. And he's made himself into a great basketball player. He's a shooter, a scorer and a facilitator."
As surprising as it was for B/R's panel of shooting greats to bend a knee toward Curry so readily, it was just as notable that none tried to make their case by citing analytics, be they the newer true shooting percentages or the breakdown of distance or success in the final minutes. Anyone who has seen Curry in person understands why: He is that rarest of players who, as he makes his way up the court, draws the crowd out of its seats, no one sure where he will stop and pop. There's a collective 'A-ha!' when he finally lets the ball go, for the greatest mystery—where he will shoot from—has been answered. The result—coming down through the net—is only newsworthy when it doesn't.
"Consistency," Nash said. "Can someone consistently make shots, night in and night out, year after year? That's the true mark of a player. You could break it down a lot of ways, but that's the bottom line. How rare are off nights? There are certain guys, they shoot the ball, you always think it's going in. Steph is able to seamlessly get his feet down, gather his weight between his feet and go up in the air and shoot it in rhythm as if he'd just been standing there, caught it and shot it.
"Truly, from the eye test, he's the greatest there's ever been."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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