By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
Twelve years after Steph Curry entered the NBA, there’s still nobody who plays like him. Not even close.
One can certainly see glimpses of Curry’s influence in nearly every NBA game. His abilities have redefined what a “good shot” can look like. Before Curry, a pull-up from 5 feet beyond the arc, or in transition, would have gotten a player a one-way ticket to the bench and a pointed talking-to from the coaching staff.
Today, those shots are universally accepted. Curry’s unprecedented ability to shoot the ball quickly and accurately from distance made shots like the pick-and-roll pull-up and the step-back, once thought to be profitable only from the mid-range, acceptable 3-point options as well. The logo shot, taken from ridiculous long distance, has arguably replaced the dunk as the NBA’s most exciting play.
The creative and cheeky way Curry plays the game has also caught on. The man is a wizard off the dribble, and can deliver the ball to his teammates in all manner of creative ways. More importantly, he’s always willing to do so.
So yes, you can see glimpses of what Curry has brought to the NBA when a player like Damian Lillard (before his catastrophic slump this season) casually pulls up from logo range. And there’s more than a little bit of Curry in players like Trae Young, who has become one of the league’s most prolific scorers with a mixture of deep 3s, audacious drives to the basket and all manner of floaters.
However, there’s still nobody who plays like Curry. Not really. That’s to be expected. Most truly elite players are unique.
Will we ever again see someone dominate three straight NBA Finals, with nothing but a jump hook, a drop step and 300-plus pounds of pure force, like Shaquille O’Neal? When will a player win five MVPs and 11 championships, without ever averaging 20 points a game, like Bill Russell? Can the league be dominated by a true point guard standing 6-foot-9 on one side of the country and a dead-eye shooter with sublime court vision and tremendous touch around the rim on the other, like it was in the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird? Who will be the next 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward to win the MVP without a reliable outside shot the way Charles Barkley did? Will we ever see another 7-foot-2 player win six MVPs and six championships on the strength of his skyhook, as was the case with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? And who’s holding their breath for the next blend of size, shooting ability, skill and quickness that Kevin Durant possesses?
They were all one of a kind. Which brings us back to Curry.
Here’s what makes him unique. Those who focus on Curry’s long-range pull-ups and mesmerizing crossovers are missing what lies at the heart of his game. Curry plays the game from the outside-in more than any primary scorer in the league.
He’s a guard who leads his team without being its primary playmaker, ceding that responsibility to Draymond Green. Curry works more tirelessly without the ball to set up his offense than any other MVP-level guard ever has. His first, second and third option is the 3-point shot.
When Curry won his most recent MVP in 2015–16, a full 55.4% of his shots came from beyond the arc, and he hasn’t taken more than half of his shots from the 2-point range in any season since. Whenever he gets a sliver of space, he is firing with what is still the league’s quickest trigger.
That all makes it highly unlikely we’ll see another Steph Curry anytime soon. There have been players in the past few years who have had great offensive seasons, with relatively pedestrian shooting percentages, because of their ability to only take shots from high-efficiency areas on the court. (See: Harden, James.) But Curry is a different story.
Curry isn’t just a great scorer, he’s an incredibly efficient one. When you think of pull-ups from 35 feet out, efficiency isn’t the first word that comes to mind. That’s one of the main things people miss about Curry. His career True Shooting percentage, a statistic that adjusts FG% for the value of 3-point shots and free throws, is a ludicrous 62.5%. The rest of the league has a True Shooting mark of 54.8% over that time period.
Because of Curry’s relatively short stature and slim frame, his success is typically described as more achievable than the success of a big man, or a player like LeBron James. And while it’s certainly impossible to train yourself to be 6-foot-9 with the speed of a Ferrari and the build of a tank, more players have had success playing like James than they have playing like Curry.
Beneath the speed, the bulk and the seeming inability to age, James is someone that was relatively unprecedented before he came into the league — a perimeter player/wing player who functions as his team’s primary scorer and playmaker. It had been done before, namely by Bird. But it is increasingly becoming the norm in the NBA.
It used to be that offenses ran through big men; some players were playmakers and some players were scorers. That’s no longer the case. The style Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball has labeled “heliocentric basketball” has become increasingly popular. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, the aforementioned Harden, Luka Doncic, and even Young are, like James, offenses unto themselves. They get the ball at the perimeter, pressure the defense with their scoring threat and either take the shot themselves or pass to an open teammate when the defense collapses on them.
The details of their game differ, but the ultimate impact is roughly the same. Meanwhile, Curry gets his success in a manner that is not being replicated, and may be harder to replicate than anyone seems to realize. When discussing Curry, people seem to miss the fact that he is not a good shooter, or a great shooter, but the best shooter of all time.
Look no further than the most unyielding arbiter of shooting success, the free throw line, which has not moved since the inception of the NBA. Of all the players that have ever stepped onto an NBA floor, Curry ranks No. 1 in free throw percentage at 90.7%. Nobody has made more 3s than him, and only a handful have been more accurate from beyond the arc.
It’s technically possible to play like Curry, but only in the abstract. The game has never seen anything like this. And likely never will.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.