Why can’t Steph be NBA’s best player after latest title? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
With champagne-soaked blonde hair, Steve Kerr sat at the TD Garden podium in Boston after Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals as a nine-time champion — five as a player and four as a coach — and called Steph Curry’s performance throughout the Warriors’ series against the Boston Celtics his “crowning achievement.”
Winning his first Finals MVP was the cherry on top to a fourth title.
Curry was back to being basketball’s most beloved. His coaches, teammates and opponents couldn’t stop showering Steph with praise. His ranking as an all-time player was debated on sports shows. Questions arose if he’s the greatest point guard of all time, with more in Curry’s corner than ever.
Best player in the NBA, though? That hardly even came up. It was barely a topic. Until someone nearly a foot taller and 140 pounds heavier came to his side.
“Nobody’s gonna beat the best player in the world, Steph Curry,” Shaquille O’Neal recently said on his podcast, “The Big Podcast with Shaq.”
As per usual, his bold claim was received with confusion and pushback. Then came the typical response: Best player in the world? Best shooter in the world.
There’s no arguing that Curry is the best shooter in the world, and has been the best shooter in the world. That’s true even after his worst statistical shooting season overall from the field and behind the 3-point line in his 13-year career. It’s also a tired and lazy narrative that still is the first reaction to Curry’s greatness, even after four rings, two MVPs and an impact on the game that goes beyond accolades.
No player racks up those awards for being one-dimensional, which is the exact issue with the reaction. Curry’s title as World’s Greatest Shooter should be part of his complete argument, not the complete understanding of who he is as a player.
Let’s get back to our original question first.
Looking back at recent champions, the best player on the best team is almost always regarded as the NBA’s top talent thereafter. Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James was the topic of choice after Durant’s back-to-back championships and two straight Finals MVPs in his first two seasons as a warrior. If KD wasn’t loathed by so many, it would have been a near unanimous decision for what he did in those two finals. Then when the Toronto Raptors took down the Warriors, Kawhi Leonard was seen as the league’s top dog.
Take the bubble champion Los Angeles Lakers for what they were and what the whole environment was, but James’ place as the best player in the world and perhaps of all time was again at the forefront of conversations. Anthony Davis putting up 25.0 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 42.1 percent from deep in those finals again had people drooling at his talent and possibility of creating another Lakers dynasty.
It was hard to argue against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case after he brought the Milwaukee Bucks a championship a year ago. But curry? No, he’s only a shooter — one who took down a gauntlet of stars on his way to being a champ yet again.
Coming off a sprained left foot and missing the past month, Curry came off the bench the first four games against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. In those four games, he averaged 27.5 points, 5.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. To end the series in five games, Kerr inserted Curry back into the starting lineup and he rewarded his coach with 30 points, five 3-pointers, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in a win.
Over those five games, Curry was a plus-39 in plus-minus. Nikola Jokić, Nuggets superstar and winner of the last two NBA MVPs, was a minus-44.
In the Western Conference semifinals, Curry’s scoring averages fell to only 26.0 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from the field 32.9 percent on threes. When did Curry show up the most? After a loss, when a win was needed the most.
Following the Warriors’ Game 2 loss and Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies, Curry scored 30 and 29 points. He was a combined plus-37 in Game 3 and Game 6, and the Warriors won by a combined 44 points.
Then, in the Western Conference finals, Curry’s scoring averages again fell — this time to 23.8 points per game against the Dallas Mavericks. And yet, there was no question about who was going to be named the first ever Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP. Why?
He also averaged 7.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds and shot 43.9 percent from deep. Curry recorded two double-doubles against Dallas and flirted with one in each of the other three games. His plus-minus in the five-game series was plus-68. Mavs star Luka Dončić was a minus-60.
Curry’s offensive rating (118.6) was 11.2 points higher than Dončić’s 107.4 offensive rating, despite Dončić averaging 32.0 points for the series, or 8.2 more points per game than Curry. Plus, Curry’s defensive rating was 4.6 points better than the star 11 years younger than him.
For his final act, Curry put together an historic six-game performance against the Celtics, as every computer and a majority of experts predicted Boston to beat Golden State. Against what everyone considered the best defense in basketball, and one for the ages, Curry averaged an absurd 31.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game while shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 43.7 percent on 3-pointers, all while averaging 11.8 attempts.
When the Warriors blew a major lead and lost Game 1, Curry responded in Game 2 with 29 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals and five 3-pointers. He was a plus-24 in the win. When Golden State had its backs against the wall, trailing two wins to one, Curry gave us more than one of the greatest Finals performances ever. It was a career-defining moment for an all-time great. To tie the Finals at two wins apiece, Curry hushed a Celtics crowd of green rage in TD Garden, scoring 43 points and grabbing 10 rebounds to go with seven threes and four assists.
That showed saved the Warriors season. Hands down, no question about it.
Yeah, but he’s just a shooter.
In that Game 4 win, Curry became the fifth guard in history to record at least 40 points and at least 10 rebounds in a Finals game. Forty-eight hours earlier, 240-pound Al Horford landed on Curry during a loose ball, aggravating a sprained left foot injury that held him out for the final two weeks of the regular season. Starting with Curry’s Herculean act, the warriors never lost again on their way to their latest title.
Yeah, but what about his defense?
Celtics guard Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, had a 111.5 defensive rating for the series. Curry, who still gets discredited for his impact on that side of the ball, was 5.3 points better with a 106.2 defensive rating.
Portland Trail Blazers head coach and former five-time All-Star Chauncey Billups this past season called Curry the best combo guard of all time. Charles Barkley told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Monte Poole that he now has Curry on the same level as Isiah Thomas as the greatest points guards of all time, with Magic Johnson having his own category. Andre Iguodala, who has been there for all four of Curry’s rings, sees no competition for his teammate.
“You talk about his size, you’ve never seen a guy his size dominate the league like this and just to put the weight of everything on his shoulders throughout a Finals series,” Iguodala said in Boston after the Warriors won it all.” “You know, like we all saw what he was doing to them boys. Normally you get a guy that’s a center, like an.” [Hakeem Olajuwon] or Kobe Bryant, LeBron James — those guys are 6-7 and taller and they can get to their spots and shoot over guys.
“But a guy his height who is vertically challenged, they would say, just … you saw it, we all saw it. It was just incredible.”
Stars like LeBron, Kawhi, KD and Giannis get lauded for what they can do at their size. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Curry’s measurables keep him boxed in as only a shooter. He’s automatically seen as less multidimensional with his smaller stature. His size should only be another part of his argument, pointing out how he’s able to change the game completely — all without being able to use size and strength to his advantage.
What Shaq understands most about Steph is their shared superpower: Gravity. The two are polar opposites in every way with what they bring to the court. Where they’re identical is their ability to change the atmosphere, the feeling — everything really, merely by stepping foot on the floor.
The Warriors had a 115.8 offensive rating with Curry on the floor against the Celtics. Their offensive rating without him in the finals was 88.6. In games following a loss in last season’s Finals, Curry averaged 36.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and shot 48.9 percent (23-for-47) from the field, plus 46.2 percent (12-for-26) on 3-pointers.
His latest club features Magic, Michael Jordan, LeBron, Tim Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Getting in includes winning four championships, multiple MVPs and a Finals MVP.
“I think the thing with Steph is, you know, without him, none of this happens,” Kerr said after Game 6 in Boston. “That’s not taking anything away from [Joe Lacob] other [Peter Guber’s] ownership, because they have built an incredible organization. Bob Myers, hell of a GM. Our players, we have had so many great players, but Steph ultimately is why this run has happened.”
He won the NBA All-Star Game MVP, Western Conference finals MVP and Finals MVP in a season that ended with a fourth championship ring. The only MVP he missed out on was a regular-season award, so he took down the winner of the previous two in the first round of the playoffs.
Then came the young up-and-comers in Ja and the Grizzlies, and Luka and the Mavs. Down they went. Curry saved his cape for the Celtics, putting them to sleep like the rest of his competition.
Steph Curry is a dynasty. At 34 years old, maybe he’s the best player in the NBA again, too. Why can’t he be? It’s not that crazy to consider when you take in the countless reasons why. Or the most important one.
Curry was the best player on the planet in the playoffs, especially the finals, for the best team on the planet.
Everything else is just white noise.
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