It's OK to Admit That Stephen Curry Is One of NBA's All-Time Greats

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It's OK to Admit That Stephen Curry Is One of NBA's All-Time Greats
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Stephen Curry is not just a shooter. He is not a multiyear anomaly doomed to regress toward some assailable mean. And he most certainly isn't less of an NBA superstar than LeBron James, Kevin Durant or any of his other peers.

Curry is many things—including an all-time great.

This isn't entirely clear to everyone for some reason. In a matter of months, Curry has crossed the line separating his rise through the NBA's MVP ranks from the debate-fraught pit that almost solely aims to discount the moral of his fairy tale.

To be sure, Curry's accolades remain a dream. He is forever on viral-Vine notice, and Basketball-Reference.com's MVP probability tracker gives him a 76.3 percent chance of retaining ownership of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Plenty of fans and pundits revel in his absurd shot selection and on-court execution, many of whom will never experience Curry fatigue or bristle at the sound or sight of profoundly positive analysis.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images
Curry has gone from the NBA's sweetheart to a polarizing figure.

But the quest to properly contextualize what he is doing has journeyed outside the underdog-turned-superstud bubble and, for the first time, created a visible divide within the NBA community.

There are those who welcome Curry without hesitation, offering flattery and reflexive placement inside the pantheon of legends.

The folks over at ESPN.com put Curry in the top 25 of their all-time rankings, while Doc Rivers, coach and president of the Los Angeles Clippers, admitted that the Golden State Warriors point guard could end up going down as a "top five or so" talent. TNT's Brent Barry arguably went even further that, per SiriusXM NBA's Justin Termine:

Others aren't so inclined to accept Curry as, at this stage of his career, someone more than a basketball novelty.

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson half-jokingly, half-seriously guaranteed his 2006-07, 42-win, eighth-seeded Warriors could unseat the juggernaut of 2015-16 while speaking on ESPN's The Jump. Cedric Ceballos, who played in the league for 11 years, did the same on Fox Sports Radio, per Paul Coro of AZCentral Sports, claiming the Warriors would fall to the 1993-94 Phoenix Suns in part because Kevin Johnson would be a "nightmare" matchup for Curry. 

Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson downplayed the significance of Curry's feats by railing against modern-day defenses during an appearance on ESPN's Mike & MikeOver the offseason, Ty Lawson, of all people, found grounds to criticize Curry's defense, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

Heck, even Curry's physical appearance implies he's less a basketball killer and more an out-of-place minor.

"Michael [Jordan] intimidated players just by walking on the court. Fans too," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. "Steph walks on the floor, and people are like, ‘How old is he? 13?’”

All new regimes are met with some pushback. That resistance is in many ways a form of validation. It means that people are talking about you—that you've left enough of an imprint to trigger purposeful discussion.

Still, the remaining holdouts on Curry are baffling. His spot among the greats, both past and present, is so inarguably secure, it shouldn't be subjected to captious constraints. 

It doesn't matter that he, presumably, isn't yet halfway through his career. Or that he's made just three All-Star appearances. Or that, once upon a time, his ankles were supposed to be made of papier mache. 

Indeed, so much of Curry's all-time case is tethered to the 2015-16 season. But that's because it's one hell of a season—the best individual effort the NBA has ever witnessed, per Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey:

Curry's offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) of 13.2, for example, is head-and-shoulders better than Jordan's record of 9.8. This 3.4-point gap is identical to the chasm separating Jordan's mark from the 71st-best score.

Jordan, incidentally, is the only player besides Curry to average at least 30 points and six assists per game while shooting 50 percent or better from the field. And of the 67 times someone has ever pumped in 30 points per game, there hasn't been a single instance in which anyone has come relatively close to rivaling Curry's true shooting percentage: 

.

It's not just that Curry's 2015-16 crusade is towering above incumbent and future Hall of Famers. He's championing a style all his own, an approach foreign to the NBA until now, and one that, quite possibly, could ebb back into nihility whenever he retires.

More than half of Curry's total field-goal attempts are coming from three-point land. He has broken the record for triples made during a single season for a third time, with more than 25 percent of the schedule left to play.

No other player has ever wielded Curry's outer-space range so effectively—or so frequently. As Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com put it:

This anecdotal evidence has wavered a bit since. Curry is now 36-of-58 when stationed at least 28 feet away from the hoop, the equivalent of shooting better than 93 percent from inside the arc.

As for those 36 makes, there isn't a single team that has made even half the number of shots Curry has drained from 28-plus feet:

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The amalgam of confidence and precision it takes to routinely fire away from 25, 30, 35 and 40 feet from the basket cannot be overstated. It shouldn't even exist.

And yet, it's thriving in Curry, the assassin who neither cares about nor understands the concept of limitations, regardless of the situation or its stakes:

The mistake at this point would be to depreciate Curry's resume because of an isolated sample size. His 2015-16 season may be the engine that's allowing his car to function, but this is the same whip he's been driving for most of his career: incomparable efficiency in volume.

Eighty-five players have matched or exceeded Curry's career usage rate of 26.6. Not one of them has matched or exceeded his true shooting percentage.

Among every player to average at least 22 points for his career, LeBron James is the only one with a higher assist percentage than Curry. The defending MVP is also one of just three players in the modern era to maintain an assist rate of 30.0 and steal percentage of 2.5 while clearing 20.0 points per game. His company? Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook.

And then there's this from Bailey:

"I mean, that’s a goal," Curry told Reilly when asked if he could picture himself being better than Jordan. "I want to be the best. I do. I have a huge amount of respect for him, but I don’t think it’s disrespectful to say, 'I want to be the best of all time.'”

This, from just a great shooter. This, from someone who stands to be a damning influence on the next breed of basketball talent.

Those are just a couple of the most prevalent knocks against Curry, each one as unwarranted as the next, even when repackaged with additional substance.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press/Associated Press
There has never been another Curry, making it a tad more difficult to place him among the all-time greats. But make no mistake: He belongs.

If Curry's legacy is at all being shackled to the fear that he's trailblazing a path for unsuccessful imitators, it's because naysayers and nitpickers are running out of material. There will be those who model their games after Curry. Most of them will fail. The most successful ones will carve out hybrid styles, not unlike Damian Lillard's, that bear resemblance to Curry's mode of attack but don't perfectly mirror its design.

That impact, for better or worse, is the harbinger of a legitimate legend. It's why Kobe Bryant studied Jordan. It's why the universe at large is obsessed with comparing prospects to LeBron, whether it's Andrew Wiggins or Louisiana State University's Ben Simmons.

Any detraction and overreaction surrounding Curry stems from this absence of palpable comparisons—in addition to generational gaps and, as ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan relayed, a rise so swift, so unique, conventionalists are unable to comprehend its permanence:

In the end, then, accepting Curry as an all-time great is more about consenting to change. The game is changing, and Curry is pushing the boundaries of those modifications in a way that's difficult to interpret but deserves recognition. 

That doesn't guarantee he'll end up being mentioned alongside Jordan before James or that he'll finish his career as a top-five player of all time. But he could.

He might.

And saying as much, even this soon, is OK.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on March 2.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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