NBA: Is Stephen Curry Really a Better Scorer Than Jordan?
Our first reaction to this headline? Disgust. Call it a byproduct of the Air Jordan marketing campaign that brainwashed millions of nascent hoops-addled brains into believing Mike was, is, and will forever be The Greatest Basketball Player Of All Time Forever, Amen (capitalization implicit in the uttering); call it the tendrils of nostalgia — the same way even older folks will go to their graves defending Larry Bird as a better shooter than the Bay Area’s brightest star — but our collective knee jerked far and fast away from this one.
Then you realize the idea comes from an article written by Tom Ziller, a guy who has been on top of his game ever since he started out blogging about the Sacramento Kings way back when the Kings being good was a mostly-fresh memory, so it’s probably not totally bogus. The argument? Mostly that Curry is converting more shots at a higher rate than anyone else in NBA history. Ziller doesn’t address it explicitly, but the questionable thing about True Shooting Percentage — an advanced stat that attempts to account for threes and free throws in a way that normal Field Goal Percentage does not — is how much it favors bigs that do nothing but dunk.
Out of the three players who have finished with a TS% of 70, two of them are Chris Wilcox (in 2013) and Tyson Chandler (in 2012). Underrated players? For sure. Best shooters of all time? Absolutely not. In terms of his historic contemporaries, Steph is shooting better than 2014 Durant, ’81 Adrian Dantley, ’84 Kiki Vandeweghe, ’89 Jordan, ’87 Bird, and ’88 Bird. And it’s not a game of inches, here.
Assuming Curry’s pace is sustainable — after the All-Star break, he’s sitting at a league-leading TS% of 67.6 — he’ll best 2014 Durant (in second place with a TS% of 64.5) by more than the difference between those six seasons combined. And those aren’t empty numbers because, as the man behind The Hook points out:
Jordan’s the only player in the modern era who won the title the same season he averaged 30 per game … and Jordan did it four times. Allen Iverson is the only other player to do it in a season in which his team made the finals. But Iverson’s efficiency was always below league average and Curry’s per-minute scoring is higher than that of The Answer. A.I. is not in this conversation.
There are more points made, but the gist is that Curry is eviscerating more or less everyone by any metric you can think of, and he’s doing it to a greater degree than anyone has before, ever. But what about the eye test? How does this work in a world where sports involve more than plotting efficiency charts?
The “Steph Curry is a video game hero” trope has basically been beaten to death, and it more or less misses the point anyway. Yes, the Golden State point guard routinely makes plays that look like nothing save a guy who woke up one morning with God Mode activated, but Jordan did the exact same thing. So did Bird. So did Iverson, for that matter. That’s more or less how you define a Great Player: the guy who makes the extraordinary look mundane in a league full of the best athletes in the world.
His place in a digital universe of unending perfection is not what makes Stephen Curry particularly distinct from MJ in terms of feel. No, the difference between Curry and Jordan is simple: Jordan took bad shots and made them. Curry takes bad shots and makes them into good ones, which is why he’s a statistician’s wet dream and unarguably the best scorer of the modern era.
It’s fitting that with the impending retirement of Jordan’s purest basketball descendant (One Kobe Bean Bryant) the basketball universe will finish its paradigm shift from the unabashed aesthetic purity of a fadeaway two in isolation to the absurdity of an efficient three-pointer from 25 feet out.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.