Stephen Curry vs. Magic Johnson: NBA's GOAT PG Debate Is Closer Than You Think

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2019

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first half of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Over the last five seasons, Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors have more or less dominated the NBA. Individually, Curry has two MVPs, the league's only unanimous MVP, a 73-win season, five Finals appearances and three titles in those five years.

In the '80s, Magic Johnson was the league's dominant point guard. Five titles, three Finals MVPs and three regular-season MVPs. His size, versatility, passing and competitiveness didn't just lead to wins back then. They also helped Magic establish himself as the best point guard of all time for much of the last three decades.

Oh, sure, there may be an argument for John Stockton, the NBA's all-time leader in career assists and steals. Chris Paul has the top career box plus/minus in history. My dad's old-school analysis might point to Oscar Robertson. But prevailing wisdom backs Magic.

"The greatest point guard in NBA history," ESPN's J.A. Adande wrote for a 2016 roundtable ranking the top 10 at the position. "Magic had unparalleled vision; he could see players get open and deliver the ball before they even realized they were open. He could play any spot on the court as well."

In that same list, which came out halfway through Curry's second MVP campaign, Steph ranked No. 4. Three-and-a-half years later, he's nipping at Magic's heels.

"He won't ever get [the respect]," Andre Iguodala told reporters in March when asked about Curry. "It just is what it is sometimes. But when you sit down and have serious conversations ... he's the second-best point guard ever."

Even that might be an undersell.

In a blind comparison poll taken this week, the numbers from Curry's last six seasons beat Magic's six-year peak in a landslide:

Things tightened up a bit when using career numbers, but Curry still had a comfortable advantage:

Now, these polls shouldn't be seen as dispositive. And we're not at the conclusion of this debate yet. But there is certainly some evidence to suggest that Magic may no longer hold the crown. And it's worth digging into.

So, at the risk of oversimplifying, let's examine some of that evidence from the following categories: scoring, passing, defense, leadership and accolades.

   

Scoring

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Let's start with the following premise: Curry is the greatest shooter of all time. If we can establish that, it'll be tough for Magic to take this category.

If you take the 420 players in NBA history with at least 1,000 career three-point attempts, Curry's 62.4 true shooting percentage ranks first. But that's not even the most impressive part.

Curry's volume is mind-boggling. For his career, he's taken 8.6 three-point attempts per 36 minutes. The rest of the top 20 in true shooting percentage combines for 4.1 attempts per 36 minutes.

The only player from that group who's close on attempts per 36 is Steve Novak. But he took less than a quarter of the total attempts Curry has, and catch-and-launching is almost literally all he did (77.9 percent of his career attempts were from three, which ranks first all-time).

Run the same search (minimum 1,000 career three-point attempts) for effective field-goal percentage, and Curry is third, behind Novak and Joe Harris, both of whom created far less for themselves than Curry. For three-point percentage, he's third behind his coach Steve Kerr and Hubert Davis. For free-throw percentage, he's tied with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for first.

Unfortunately, we can't compare the following to the same numbers from players of the past. The data just wasn't tracked back then. But go back and watch the tape on Novak, Kerr and Davis, and you're not going to see many dribble pull-ups.

Curry, on the other hand, has been ridiculous with those his entire career. Here are his effective field-goal percentages on pull-up jumpers for the last six seasons (as far back as the data goes):

  • 2018-19: 56.2 (first among players with at least 100 three-point attempts)
  • 2017-18: 59.9 (first)
  • 2016-17: 55.2 (second)
  • 2015-16: 61.9 (first, and 9.6 points ahead of second)
  • 2014-15: 55.7 (first)
  • 2013-14: 54.5 (first)

Now, scoring has a lot more to it than just shooting.

There's the ability to create one's own shot. The numbers above establish Curry can do that.

There's the importance of getting to the rim. Curry is underrated there. For his career, he's hit 63.8 percent of his attempts from within three feet and averaged 1.9 makes per game in that range. Kyrie Irving, widely regarded as one of the game's best finishers, has shot 60.0 percent and converted 2.7 buckets per game from that range.

And finally, there's the mid-range. It may be a lost art, but Curry is no slouch in that range. For his career, he's hit 46.2 percent of his two-point attempts from beyond 10 feet. DeMar DeRozan's career mark from the same range is 40.0 percent.

As for Magic, well he could score a little bit too. Unfortunately, we don't have access to the same level of information for his career, but there are some pretty compelling numbers available.

Over the course of his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points, good for 36th among players with at least 5,000 minutes in that span. And the combined average for the 519 players in that sample is 11.8.

So, Magic's scoring average is 7.7 points above average. Or, his relative scoring average for that time frame is plus-7.7. Combine that with his career relative true shooting percentage (seen in the poll above) of plus-7.3, and you have a pretty impressive scorer.

But here is where Curry is on those numbers: 23.5 points per game (eighth over the course of his career), plus-12.2 relative scoring average and plus-8.0 relative true shooting percentage.

Throwing everything together, it's probably safe to say Curry is the superior scorer. And that is mostly due to the shooting.

ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry summed it up well:

No player in the history of the NBA has combined range, volume and efficiency from downtown as well as Curry, and over the course of the Warriors' dynasty, he has changed the way the entire league looks at 3-point scoring. Curry's jumper is so lethal that he has become the most efficient volume scorer on the planet -- of the league's top 20 scorers, nobody has a higher true shooting percentage than Curry. Not even Giannis Antetokounmpo, and all he does is dunk it. 

Curry 1, Magic 0

   

Passing

There doesn't need to be a ton of analysis here. Johnson being the game's greatest passer may be as widely accepted as Curry being its greatest shooter.

Just take a look at this highlight reel of his top 10 assists the league assembled:

Johnson was a wizard with the ball. And his height allowed him to see angles most point guards typically can't.

"No stat really shows the visionary behind those record-breaking dimes, a contorted 6'9" Magic hurling a bounce pass midtransition to James Worthy underneath," The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy wrote. "Defenders were always a step behind, and so was the crowd, whipping their collective heads to trail the ball."

O'Shaughnessy is right. Numbers don't fully capture what Magic was as a passer. And generally, numbers struggle to effectively gauge a player's level in that skill. Assists don't tell the whole story. But let's look at a few anyway.

  • 11.2 assists per game (first all-time)
  • 12.4 assists per game in the postseason (first)
  • 40.9 assist percentage (seventh)
  • 42.2 assist percentage in the postseason (third)
  • Plus-8.4 relative assist average

Magic's passing was the engine that powered the Showtime Lakers. And, to this day, we haven't seen anything quite like it. LeBron James and Ben Simmons may be close, but the game has become more egalitarian in who runs individual possessions.

Magic's ability, combined with the number of opportunities he had to use it, is something that simply may never be replicated.

Curry certainly won't be the one to do it.

He's a willing–and probably underrated–passer. But he's just not close to Magic here.

  • 6.6 assists per game (37th all-time)
  • 6.3 assists per game in the postseason (32nd)
  • 31.5 assist percentage (42nd)
  • 28.0 assist percentage in the postseason (33rd)
  • Plus-4.1 relative assist average

Again, assist numbers don't provide the full picture when analyzing passers. Curry has his own highlight packages filled with dazzling dimes. But the data we do have clearly favors Magic.

Curry 1, Magic 1

    

Defense

Mark Avery/Associated Press

Neither player has ever been known for their defense. However, there are some positive points for both.

They have identical career steal percentages of 2.46, which ranks them inside the top 100 in that number. And while over-gambling for steals can be problematic, there may also be more value to them than people realize.

FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris used a regression model that estimated "a steal is 'worth' as much as nine points."

For example, a player who averages 16 points and two steals per game is predicted (assuming all else is equal) to have a similar impact on his team's success as one who averages 25 points but only one steal. If these players were on different teams and were both injured at the same time, we would expect their teams to have similar decreases in performance (on average).

So, both Curry and Magic are bringing some value to the table on the defensive end, even if neither was known as a lockdown defender (there are zero All-Defensive selections between them).

There's also defensive rebounding. And, as coaches like to say, the defense's job isn't done until someone secures the board.

There, Magic has a pretty sizable advantage (though maybe not as large as some might imagine). His career defensive rebounding percentage is 15.8. Curry's is 11.8, 10th all time among players his height (6'3") or shorter.

But there are no bonus points in this exercise for lack of height. In fact, the opposite is true.

Switching wasn't as prevalent in Magic's day, but he was certainly more capable of defending multiple positions than Curry is.

And while defensive box plus/minuses flaws are well-known (Basketball Reference even suggests fans "Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don't hesitate to discount them when a player is well known as a good or bad defender"), Magic's 1.4 is far better than Curry's minus-0.7.

Magic's advantages in size and rebounding ability give him this category and the overall lead.

Curry 1, Magic 2

    

Leadership

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 8: Zaza Pachulia #27, Kevin Durant #35, Stephen Curry #30, Draymond Green #23 and Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors huddle up during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 8, 2017 at Golden 1 Center in Sacra
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Here's where we have to be mostly subjective. There aren't any numbers that really capture leadership ability. Instead, we'll look at some firsthand testimony.

First, here's Steve Kerr on Curry, per ESPN's Chris Haynes:

"I think it's how hard he works combined with his humility off the floor. He's just a decent human being; such a nice player. He's obviously a superstar player, but he acts like he's the 12th man. I can get on him in film sessions and he never seems to mind. He leads by example. He's a great guy, a great teammate and the players respect him. That's what a captain is about."

Humility is an often overlooked component of leadership. And it may be one of Curry's greatest strengths. The best leaders serve those they lead. And that's exactly what Curry has done with the Warriors.

Just look at the last three years, when Curry was teammates with Kevin Durant. After having arguably the greatest offensive season in league history in 2015-16, Curry welcomed a ball-dominant volume scorer with open arms. He never made a fuss about a slight decrease in usage (30.4 in the Durant years, compared to 32.6 in the season before his arrival) or his coach seemingly looking for any opportunity to deem Durant the team's best player.

He just continued to lead in that quiet, humble way, launching his trademark contested threes and creating the gravity that forced defenders away from his teammates.

Now, with Magic, let's just try to ignore the last few years in the Lakers front office. This comparison is about what each did as players.

Johnson's teammate, James Worthy, told Spectrum SportsNet that "Magic was born a leader."

And in an interview with Patrick Bet-David, Worthy explained further:

"And it took me a few years to understand that he was a true leader, and that even though I had been a leader, I had to become a follower again. Because, this was Magic's team, and everyone knew that. I was a really good player, but I was also a lone wolf. ...

"Magic had to convey to me. He wasn't trying to overrule me or have authority; he was the leader. And once I understood that, it made me better, it made me a better person, a better teammate, and a better player. And ultimately, it made our business and our brand.”

Johnson certainly had plenty of help in Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But as the former said, it was Magic's team. And under his direction, the Lakers won five titles.

But on this subjective category, when both deserve plenty of praise, it's hard to definitively say one is above the other. We'll call leadership a wash.

Curry 2, Magic 3

   

Accolades

PORTLAND, OR - 1985: Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Portland Trailblazers at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon circa 1985. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Brian Drake/Getty Images

Finally, an element in any basketball debate about greatness revolves around longevity and the honors that come along with that.

Curry is a six-time All-Star, has made six All-NBA teams, won two MVPs, won three titles and one scoring title. For a player with 10 total seasons to his name, that's a heck of a resume.

But he needs more time to get to Johnson's level.

The Hall of Famer is a 12-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection, three-time MVP, four-time assist champ, five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP.

Like all the other categories, this doesn't settle the debate. Because most of these are voted upon, they're subjective. And Curry has time to close the gap.

But for now, this piece of the puzzle favors Magic. 

Curry 2, Magic 4

    

Who Ya Got?

While the blind polls went pretty heavily in Curry's favor, a more in-depth breakdown shows a closer race.

The fun part about debates like these is that there may not be a definitive right or wrong answer. Readers are welcome to quibble over any of the conclusions made here. Or, they may give more weight to a certain category.

For example, should Curry's advantage in shooting and gravity carry more weight than Magic's edge on defense? That makes sense. And perhaps, as Curry continues to rack up numbers, accolades and accomplishments, points like those may be argued more fervently.

In the meantime, Magic probably holds onto his title as the best point guard ever. With Curry still at it, though, he may not want to get too comfortable there.

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