Is Stephen Curry Underrated?
He’s the greatest shooter ever. And that’s not saying nearly enough.
Stephen Curry finds himself in a unique circumstance for a superstar: he’s a championship-winning, MVP-winning, legendary sniper. He’s in his prime. He’s the face of a franchise, NBA royalty, and an iconic star: one of the best-known, best-liked players in basketball. And if you believe a lot of the talk, the second-best player on his team.
There have been all-time great pairings in recent memory: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, or, going further back, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But at least one player from each of those pairings was not fully in his prime: Kobe was just entering his prime, and Wade was starting to exit his. Curry is at the peak of his powers and playing second fiddle. The Kobe-Shaq and LeBron-Wade pairings clearly had an alpha, but the status of top-dog has been less clear when it comes to the Warriors.
LIkely, because he has lost out on the Finals MVP award the last two years, Stephen Curry has looked like the second-best player, and seen a disproportionate share of the credit for the Warriors’ last two championships go elsewhere. Curry’s efforts have become overshadowed, and that is one of the biggest reasons why he finds himself underrated as a player.
But it’s not enough just to throw a ‘Steph Curry is Underrated’ take into the void. Let’s really lay out the case for why Curry is one of the most criminally underrated players not just in modern basketball, but perhaps in basketball, period.
Steph Curry has remade basketball in his image. Modern analytical understanding of the three point shot and how to maximize it would have happened eventually -- math is math -- but the personification of the modern game is Curry.
Because of his near-limitless range, the defense has to come out from the three-point line to meet him; Curry literally stretches defenses apart because of how far they have to pick him up. He has changed the shape of basketball with his singular skill set. This opens up the floor for Klay Thompson, and allows Draymond Green the space to maximize his unique skill-set. It extends the efficacy and career of Andre Iguodala and Shawn Livingston.
On top of that, his relentless activity on the offensive end is a major distraction for defenders, resulting in wide open looks for himself and his teammates. He is egoless enough to work tirelessly to get his own shot, and if his efforts lead to a good opportunity for a teammate, he is just as content. This is confirmed by his screen-setting in the middle of the floor, a completely overlooked aspect of his game that translates to clean looks for his teammates.
And you may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Durant.
Because while Curry is the engine of the Warriors, Durant is the chrome. One is integral to the team and its successes, the other is a really nice upgrade that we can do without. Over the past three years, the Warriors were 33-4 when Durant sat and Curry played, and 28-18 in the opposite scenario, per The Score. In these playoffs, the Warriors have played five full games and a tightly contested fourth quarter without Durant. They are 6-0 in those games, with three wins on the road. Curry has gone from 23.3 points a game with Durant in the Warriors’ first ten playoff games to averaging 34.0 in the six games without him.
It’s not just on his own team. When the Bucks were annihilating the Celtics, the NBA wondered aloud ‘Is Giannis the best player in the game?’ before Kawhi Leonard stomped out their seasons. So the conversation shifted: ‘Is Kawhi the best player in the game?’ Everyone wants to know. Steph Curry just scored the most points in a four-game sweep in NBA history, in the Western Conference Finals, and we collectively yawned. It’s not right.
The argument here is not that the Warriors are better off without Durant. With him, they are basically unbeatable. But without him, as long as Curry is Curry, they are still the best team in the league and a tick below unbeatable. The source of their strength is Stephen Curry.
But Curry doesn’t get enough appreciation for this distinction. Why? Because he has no Finals MVPs to his name, and because his talents have been suppressed playing alongside Durant. In the last two Finals, Kevin Durant was otherworldly, averaging 35.2 points on 55.9% shooting and 28.8 points on 53.6% shooting, respectively. He came up big down the stretch of Game 3 in each year. Who can forget the 3-pointer over LeBron in 2017?
But let’s not act like Curry was simply along for the ride. In 2017, he came close to averaging a triple-double with 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 9.4 assists a game. And he came back the next year with 27.5 points a game. Being 0-3 in Finals MVP awards doesn’t do justice to Curry’s individual contributions in those Finals, or to all of the off-ball contributions he makes in creating for his teammates, including Durant.
And there is an argument that the Warriors would have won those two Finals without Durant. It is completely hypothetical and impossible to truly know, but it still underlines the fact that Curry’s play has been shackled by the presence of Kevin Durant. And in turn we’ve been deprived of seeing an unleashed version of Curry for the last three years.
The questions will linger: What could Curry have done if he had the offense to himself this whole time? Would we have gotten the 2016 version of Curry every year for the past three years? Is 33-4 more than just a crazy number, and actually indicative of what they could have done year-in and year-out? It’s fun to imagine.
Kobe needed Shaq to win during their run, Wade needed LeBron during theirs. But Curry can win without Durant. He finished the Houston Rockets, his team’s supposed nemesis, while on the road. He just swept his opponent in the Western Conference Finals, all without the help of a player most consider better than him.
Should the Warriors go all the way this year without Durant, and Curry wins the Finals MVP award, perhaps some of the credit he is owed for his team’s success these past few years will be returned to him. A light will be shined on how critical he is to this team, and retrospectively we can recognize how important he was in all of his team’s championships. And going forward, his name may rightly be mentioned in the mix of guys pining for the crown of “best player in the game.”
The man is great. Crucially great to arguably the best team ever. Let’s give him his due.
Stats courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise mentioned