A Healthy Stephen Curry Is Still the NBA's Best Player

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IJuly 13, 2020

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after shooting a 3-point basket against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Stephen Curry is the best player in the NBA.

There. I said it.

Curry was left off Bleacher Report's top 100 players project because of his injury-plagued 2019-20 campaign. He might have been top-five if he didn't miss nearly the entire year, but he belongs at the very top of the list going into next season.

As a two-time MVP, a three-time champion, the greatest shooter of all time and the engine of a record 73-win team, Curry's resume is loaded. He had the most efficient volume scoring season ever. He has the highest multiyear offensive player impact plus-minus in the league. He owns five of the top 10 seasons, including the top two, in offensive PIPM since 2010. The list goes on. 

These stats can help measure his talent and production, one of the two ingredients in determining a player's spot in the rankings.

Curry changed the NBA forever with his shooting, which is in a class of its own off the dribble. His handles are second in the NBA, at worst, and he finishes at the basket at an elite level for guards. He's a scoring champion (2015-16), and he's a better defender than given credit for.

He's also a proven closer.

In 2018-19, among players with as many field-goal attempts in games within three points and under three minutes, Curry had a 45.9 net rating and a 73.9 true shooting percentage while using 33.6 percent of possessions. In 39 such minutes, he scored 49 points while shooting 51.9 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from three and 100 percent from the line.

The NBA is not a one-on-one league, and though Curry rates as an elite one-on-one player, production is only a proxy for talent. Unlike most players, that production doesn't capture his impact.

You can have talent without making an impact, but you can't make an impact without being talented.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 5: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors warms up before the game on March 5, 2020 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this
Noah Graham/Getty Images

It can be difficult to parse what impact Curry has had on the Warriors' success because he has always played with superior talent. There isn't a more seamless fit of stars than the Warriors' trio of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Adding Kevin Durant made them unstoppable, but Curry allowed Durant to shine and win in ways he never could have with Oklahoma City. That's why Durant joined Golden State in the first place.

Curry isn't the greatest floor-raiser of all time. Replace him with LeBron James on the 2007 Cavaliers, and he may not carry them to the Finals. He is the greatest ceiling-raiser. It's much harder to go from bad to good than good to great and even harder to go from great to the best team of all time. Discrediting Curry for playing alongside other talented players is unfair when his presence makes it all possible.

Since 2013-14, his on/off plus-minus (the difference in net rating with and without him on the floor) has been in the 99th percentile four times, the 98th percentile and the 97th percentile.

These stats are helpful in understanding how effective he is, but Curry has challenged what it means to have an impact in ways that aren't yet quantifiable. There are terms such as "gravity" that try to show how much attention he draws. He's the most unselfish superstar in the game, and he puts the fear of God into opponents, but those don't tell the whole story because there has never been a team that runs its offense through a guy who doesn't have the ball.

Everything about the history of the game suggests a great player needs to have the ball, especially in closing time. If he doesn't, he can't be as talented or he would have the ball. Curry is a new phenomenon because the fear of him getting it is greater than the fear of any other player who already has it. It's something the Warriors have maximized en route to making five straight Finals.

The Warriors' split actions are a perfect example. Both Clippers defenders are more afraid of Curry getting the ball on the wing than Durant slipping to the basket for a dunk.

This is not a one-off instance—it's part of defending Golden State on every play.

The same is true in pick-and-rolls. The defense often sends two at the ball, leaving Green open to create easy shots in four-on-three scenarios on the back end.

This has become the Warriors' DNA, and nothing else they do would be as effective without him. They don't need to beat you with brute force or allow one player to control the game. Their success disrupted the zeitgeist on how to win games, and Curry's greatness got lost in that somewhere along the way.

The NBA evolves because every generation has a player who bends the reality of the present. No one thought a team led by a scoring guard and no big men could win until Michael Jordan came along. No one thought a team with a pass-first wing could win until LeBron broke that mold. No one wanted to put James in the conversation with Jordan because James didn't beat Jordan at his game.

Eventually, the differences in James' game came to benefit him in these debates, and when there is a way to fully comprehend what Curry does, it will be true for him too.

Curry's effectiveness takes a more powerful form than just scoring or passing. Not only in ways that help his team win but also in ways that have already changed the NBA forever. The three-point revolution is in response to Curry. Shooting off the dribble is in response to Curry. Efficient scoring took on a new meaning after Curry. 

The way basketball is played now is in response to Curry, and that helps make him the best player in the NBA. That degree of impact is a talent, and it's a greater one than any other skill in the NBA right now.

    

All stats are from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, BBall Index and Cleaning the Glass.

Follow Will on Twitter, @wontgottlieb.

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