CULTURE WARRIOR

Why Steph Curry Scares NBA Legends

Older NBA voices are calling his greatness ‘a fetish’ for progress. Newer ones say unbelievers are ‘engaging in self-preservation’—and willfully ignorant to a new kind of greatness.

03.02.16 7:30 PM ET

With a little over six seconds left in overtime of Saturday’s game between the 53-5 Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Stephen Curry got the ball and casually, almost lazily, jogged up the court. On a night in which he had already scored 43 and drained 11 three-pointers in ever-escalating and dazzling brilliance, standing a mere 38 feet from the hoop, he flicked his wrists, effortlessly swishing home a record-tying 12th trey.

Take a gander at the Thunder bench in particular. Long before the ball reaches the rim, they’re already steeling themselves for the crushingly inevitable result. They know what’s coming.

What Stephen Curry is doing shouldn’t be possible. He’s taking and making what appear to be terrible, no-good heat-check heaves, the kind that would get any other player pinned the bench followed by a serious tongue lashing by a boiling mad spittle-flecked coach. But for Curry, they’re some of the best, most efficient shots in the game.

According to ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, as of Feb. 25, “From 28 feet to 50 feet, he's 35-of-52 this season. Better efficiency than making 100% of your 2s.” Ryan Feldman added that he’s nailed 50% of his shots from 30-plus feet (11-22), whereas the rest of the NBA has only hit 7.9% (53-669).

What makes this all the more improbable is that we’re not talking about a seven-foot behemoth like Shaquille O’Neal or even LeBron James, bursting down court like a gazelle if said gazelle also checked in at a hulking 6-9 and 275 pounds. This lithe, dancing, shimmying, holy fool on first glance scans as a relatively normal-sized and –shaped human, when in reality he’s anything but.

He’s already smashed the NBA record for three-pointers made in a season (previously held by Stephen Curry) with 24 games remaining on the schedule, a pace that dwarfs record-setting feats in every other sport.  To put it in context, if you transposed a Curry-like figure to baseball, it would be the equivalent of mashing 102 homers in a season. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging an insane 38.2 points per game and shooting .564 from the field and .573 from three, while adding 7.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds. By any advanced metric he’s having the greatest offensive season the game has ever seen. And yes, that includes Michael Jordan’s.

Curry’s onslaught has left everyone fumbling to find a framework with which to understand all of this. His fellow pros lost it on Twitter. ESPN reimagined Saturday’s game winner as a video game, The New York Times interviewed ballet dancers to gush over his nimble, improvisational, artistic performances, and the San Francisco Chronicle enlisted a retired Naval Academy physicist to break down the mechanics of his nigh-unstoppable jumper.

Maybe it’s best to just watch. If you’re response to all this appears to be a combination of awe and wonder, dotted with bursts of uncontrollable giggling or even a quasi-religious ecstatic state, perhaps that’s appropriate. After all, we’re dealing with “a basketball god in the flesh.”

Of course, lurking at the fringes of the sublime pleasure(s) Curry brings is the seething notion that his is somehow just not right. That it’s not fair

On ESPN’s Mike & Mike Show, NBA legend Oscar Robertson said that Curry’s game could be stomped out if it weren’t for the fact the current crop of NBA coaches don’t “understand the game of basketball. They don’t know anything about defenses. They don’t know what people are doing on the court. They talk about analytical basketball and stuff like that.”

“When I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you,” Robertson added. “I'm going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don't do that. These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I'm concerned.”

The idea that Curry’s greatness can be pinned on the failings of the modern NBA is pretty easily debunked, but even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still felt compelled to back up his ex-teammate.  

“I think that Steph Curry can absolutely shoot the lights out,” Abdul-Jabbar said on ESPN during the broadcast of a Lakers-Grizzlies game. “But it’s true that the physical play back then really made it difficult to take jump shots from that far out.” The threat of violence was echoed by Rip Hamilton and Raja Bell, who boasted that had Curry been playing during their heyday, they’d be able to “put him on the floor."

It’s true. Basketball today isn’t nearly as physical of a sport as at it was even 10 years ago, but that’s no reason to lend credence to the idea that the 2007 Warriors or the 1994 Suns could topple Curry’s Warriors—and yes, actual former NBA players floated that ridiculous notion. It’s easy to dismiss such “when I was a boy, we had to carry a block of ice in the snow while launching treys”-type harrumphing.

But the question that springs to mind is why anyone—even a grouchy old dude—would react negatively to something so inimically beautiful, especially when Curry himself comes across as so lightheartedly and giddily joyous?

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For Curtis Harris, a basketball historian who has written for The Sporting News, ESPN, and Bleacher Report, the anti-Curry backlash is to be expected, for reasons that aren’t limited to basketball. 

“Currently, we have older players saying everything these days is soft, while I’ve noticed that many users on Basketball Twitter think players from the past weren’t athletic. They’re all engaging in different stages of self-preservation and aggrandizement,” he told The Daily Beast. “American history is littered with people carping about one generation being indolent and lazy compared to the ones that preceded it.”

Harris said that game-redefining players like George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Shaquille O’Neal arrive on the scene at fairly regular intervals because “players are clever and creative and quickly find ways to subvert the established orthodoxy. Basketball doesn't stand still.”

“I'd say there's plenty of disrespect being thrown around because every generation of humanity is interested in defending its place in history,” said Harris.

Yago Colás, a professor of Comparative Literature and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities at the University of Michigan and the author of Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, added—when faced with the unknown and the heretofore unseen—it’s normal to want to minimize or normalize it.

“Our sense of wonder at Curry’s accomplishments seems to disorient us to some degree,” Colas wrote. “So that we need to stabilize ourselves by looking at them in relation to some qualitative or quantitative measuring stick; the way you might want that photo of a giant sequoia to include a person, for scale, to better convey the awe.”

But what may lie at the heart of the anti-Curry sentiments is the nagging sense that he’s not just an evolutionary or even revolutionary figure in basketball so much as he is breaking basketball. Or to put it another way, “to a degree, he's hurt the game,” his former coach Mark Jackson said. “What I mean by that is that I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is they run to the three-point line.”

That’s silly, but in one sense, Jackson’s not wrong. The infusion of analytics-driven front offices has led to a serious spike in the number of three-pointers, all of which has rendered what Curry does even more valuable. But appreciating basketball solely through this clinical, economic lens can be disheartening or at the very least, limiting, especially when that framework is held up as the be all and the end all, the only metric appreciating every aspect of the game.

For Colas, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”

And yes, the paradox of Stephen Curry is that his dizzying, borderline mystical shot-making is not only warping what we thought we knew basketball could and should be, he’s “a by product of tactics developed basically for the purposes of making the game more predictable (from the point of view, I mean, of coaches, general managers, and owners, seeking to maximize efficiency and tame chance),” Colas wrote.

“I marvel at his ability, I also find him predictable. I might have come to figure that Jordan was going to take and make a game winner, but I never knew how he was going to do that.  With LeBron the uncertainty has always been even greater.”

The sense of inevitability that this iteration of Steph Curry brings, “leaves me grasping, like college coaches in the 1950s watching Wilt, for rule changes that would bring Curry back into the League with the rest of the merely great players.”

If it’s any comfort, Curry remains an absolute outlier. He’s literally the only player that’s been able to take a chunk of what was assumed to be worthless space on the court and transform it into some of the most valuable real estate imaginable.

And hell, if you want to hate Steph and the Warriors just because they can’t and won’t stop winning, that’s OK too.