Stephen Curry Ends All-Time Shooter Debate, but What About His GOAT Argument?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 06: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors shoots a foul shot against the Orlando Magic during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on December 06, 2021 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Stephen Curry breaking Ray Allen's record for threes made in a career has felt like an inevitability for several years. On Tuesday, it happened.

With a 5-of-14 performance from three in the Golden State Warriors' 105-96 win over the New York Knicks, Curry is officially the NBA's all-time three-point king.

He now has 2,977 threes, four ahead of Allen's 2,973. But mere totals don't even begin to do Curry's mark justice (more on that in a moment).

And with the "greatest shooter of all time" debate dead and buried, it's time to spend a little more energy on where Curry will end up on the all-time ladder.

With this record, two MVPs (and the only unanimous MVP) and three championships, Curry has graduated to conversations typically reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Yes, arguing that the 6'2" Curry is on the level of those two is tough. Jordan and James have six and four titles, respectively. They fill the top two spots on the leaderboards for MVP shares, wins over replacement player and playoff wins over replacement player. And no one could suggest with a straight face that Curry is on their level defensively (at least, when they were at their peaks).

But if we can mention Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the same breath as 1A and 1B, we can do the same for Curry.

All of the above also had an aesthetic impact on the game. And though that isn't easily measured, Curry's obviously done the same.

Bird's sensational passing and head-fake game helped to mainstream the idea of point forwards. Magic's wizardry in transition was the engine of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe scored with a swagger eerily reminiscent of MJ.

Curry, meanwhile, is on the short list of NBA players who truly changed basketball. There may not be anyone in league history who's definitively better than him at off-ball movement.

There are countless examples that look like the following. From the first second of the possession to the last, the only times Curry stops moving are seemingly setups or attempts to lull the defense to sleep.

Because Curry has demonstrated an ability to hit shots from as far out as the logo, that kind of off-ball movement is especially manipulative from him. "Know where Curry is" has seemingly been drilled into the subconscious of every NBA defender. If you lose him, you're likely getting burned for three points. And you're likely getting burned quickly.

In a 36-minute YouTube breakdown in which he argues Stephen Curry might be the greatest offensive player of all time, Thinking Basketball's Ben Taylor noted the sub-half-second release time of Curry (starting at the 2:57 mark).

Defenders know if they give Curry mere tenths of a second, the assignment may be blown. This is why he's so often grabbed, clipped, shoved and sometimes straight-up hugged off the ball. That level of over-commitment has led to countless wide-open looks for Warriors teammates over the years.

When two or three (or sometimes more) guys scramble to find Curry, someone else is available. And Curry will either find him or the intermediary who will. That's why Curry is an annual staple near the top of the league's secondary assist leaderboard.

And the way that he bends defenses has far more than a theoretical impact. Over the last 10 seasons, Golden State has scored 116.7 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor, compared to 104.4 with him off. The team's two-point percentage climbs by over four points, while the three-point percentage jumps by 6.1, when Curry's on the floor.

Play-by-play data like that isn't available for Bird, Magic and Jordan's eras, but we can look at Curry's overall on-off impact in comparison to players more contemporary to him. Over the course of his career, Curry's teams' net ratings (net points per 100 possessions) are 11.7 points better with Curry on the floor. LeBron's career net rating swing is plus-11.2. Kobe's was plus-4.6.

But even without numbers like those, a basic comparison between Curry and other consensus top-10 players is instructive.

During the same 10 seasons referenced above, Curry has averaged 26.3 points, 6.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 threes and 1.7 steals, with a plus-8.4 relative true shooting percentage (rTS% is the difference in a player's true shooting percentage and the league average) and an 8.0 box plus/minus.

(BPM is a "...basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference).

Let's adjust for pace and playing time, and compare those marks to the 10-year peaks of Bird, Bryant and Johnson.

  • Curry: 27.9 points, 7.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 threes and 1.8 steals per 75 possessions, plus-8.4 rTS%, 8.0 BPM
  • Bird: 23.5 points, 6.2 assists, 9.2 rebounds, 0.7 threes and 1.6 steals per 75 possessions, plus-3.4 rTS%, 7.6 BPM
  • Bryant: 27.7 points, 5.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 threes and 1.6 steals per 75 possessions, plus-3.0 rTS%, 5.8 BPM
  • Johnson: 19.1 points, 11.5 assists, 6.9 rebounds, 0.4 threes and 1.8 steals per 75 possessions, plus-7.4 rTS%, 7.8 BPM

The legends may have Curry on an individual number here or there, but it's tough to look at that comparison and come away with any conclusion other than Curry having the biggest impact, at least statistically (and several of Curry's margins grow if you shrink the sample size down a couple years).

Even if detractors (assuming there are any left) are hesitant to say Curry is among the 5-10 greatest players of all time, they have to concede he's among the most impactful.

Beyond his franchise-altering effect on the Warriors, Curry changed the way basketball is played all over the globe. In 2008-09, the league's last pre-Curry season, teams averaged 6.6 threes per game. Just 22.4 percent of all attempts were triples, and six squads were below Curry's individual average of 5.5 this season.

In 2021-22, teams are making 12.3 threes per game, with 40.2 percent of all shots coming from deep.

In trying to keep up with the greatest shooter of all time, the league has essentially doubled its output from three-point range.

And yet, Curry always seems to be at least one step ahead of his peers (and predecessors).

Most of the impact and advanced stats detailed above are heavily reliant on Curry's shooting. One way to detail just how far beyond everyone else he is in that area is comparing production to the league average.

If you take a player's points per shot on three-point attempts and subtract the league-average points per three-pointer during the relevant time period, then, multiply by the number of attempts, you get a good measure of both volume and efficiency.

We'll call the resulting number "points over average from three," and the top four all-time in that mark isn't surprising.

  • Stephen Curry (plus-1,536.7)
  • Kyle Korver (plus-1,230.6)
  • Ray Allen (plus-993.1)
  • Reggie Miller (plus-909.5)

The gap between Curry and the rest of the field is already impressive enough, but it starts to look truly outrageous when you compare his mark to where the next three were at the same point in their careers.

Curry has played 789 NBA games. Through the same number of contests, Kyle Korver had generated 679.4 points over average from three. Allen was at 638.3, while Miller was up to 591.6.

When you account for volume and efficiency, as this exercise does, and narrow the sample down to the same point in everyone's career, Curry has more than doubled the output of those near him on the traditional leaderboard.

All this to say that Curry, already the greatest shooter of all time, still has plenty of years in which he can lengthen the distance between himself and the field.

And when he's this much better than everyone who's ever played at the game's most important skill, and has all the other other accolades (seven All-Star appearances, seven All-NBA nods, two MVPs, two scoring titles and three championships) it gets pretty difficult to understand how you keep Curry out of the top 10.

The no-brainers for that exclusive group are Jordan and LeBron, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic and Bird. Then, we start to get into the philosophical discussion of how to compare drastically different eras, but most would likely include Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

After that, there's a group with Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Oscar Robinson, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. You can probably think of a name or two you'd take out, as well as a few you might put in. Considering how favorably Curry compares to the likes of Magic and Bird, he has to at least be in that group. And there's a fairly straightforward argument that he may have already jumped it.

That would leave the GOAT tier as Curry's final frontier.

He'll turn 34 in March. And with the amount of talent currently in the league, there's simply no way to guarantee more championships. Catching the top two or three may be out of reach. But another title, a few more All-NBA and All-Star nods and Finals MVP could, at the very least, put Curry on his own level ahead of Bird and Magic.

Suggesting the possibility really shouldn't be all that controversial, though some still seem wary of doing so.

Is it his size, as NBC's Grant Liffman wondered on Twitter? Is it the uniqueness of his game? Is it the fact that two of his titles came alongside Kevin Durant?

Whatever the reasons may be, they're getting flimsier with each season and corresponding wave of threes.