clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson are making a case as the best backcourt in NBA history

New, comments

There should be little question at this point that the Splash Brothers are the best shooting backcourt of all-time, whether you consider their percentages or the fact that they won a championship. But beyond that, you could make a pretty good case that they've already put themselves in the discussion as the best modern NBA backcourt period, leaving out the qualifier.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As widely discussed yesterday after Klay Thompson's statements in China, the Splash Brothers are pretty much unquestionably the best shooting backcourt of all-time.

We already know that Stephen Curry has broken the record for regular season threes in a season two years straight. He just set the record for most threes in a single postseason with Thompson not far behind. Thompson and Stephen Curry are currently the two best 3-point shooters in NBA history among those who have averaged more than five attempts per game during their career (and even if you drop the number to just two attempts, they're in the top 10).

And, of course, all that firepower just led the Golden State Warriors to a championship.

The best single season from any backcourt in history?

Setting aside the Splash Brothers' prolific 3-point shooting over the past two seasons — which is obviously beyond compare by virtue of being record-setting — the very fact of building a championship team around a high-scoring backcourt is relatively rare in NBA history, which makes sense when considering the way that big men dominated the league for so long. Beyond just having perimeter players shouldering the scoring load, succeeding with a dynamic scoring point guard like Curry has been so hard for some people to swallow that they struggle to even acknowledge his ability as a distributor or classification as a point guard.

And all of that is before adding in the awards.

Annual awards are obviously contextual, relative, and subjective — winning a MVP in 2015, for example, does not necessarily mean that a player is better than, say, the player who came third in voting in 1985. Yet when it comes to what Curry and Thompson accomplished this season, it's hard to avoid that this was the best season of any backcourt in history.

I started to look at the historical record of backcourt combinations around the All-Star break, identifying about 10 of the best All-Star backcourts of all-time. At that time it was difficult to place the 2015 Splash Brothers because their season had yet to be completed. Yet even then, you may recall that just five backcourts in history had started the All-Star game together — an obviously imperfect marker among the list of imperfect markers, but nonetheless impressive in just how infrequently it has occurred.

But a pair of All-Star starters, a MVP, and a championship? That hasn't happened since Bob Cousy won the 1957 NBA MVP award and led the Boston Celtics to a championship with backcourt mate Bill Sharman.

Additionally, the Warriors' release about Curry and Thompson making the All-NBA team mentioned that they were the first guard duo to make the team together since 1980 when Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams did so for the Seattle Supersonics. Prior to that, only three duos did it: Walter Davis and Paul Westphal, Phoenix Suns (1978 & 79); Cousy and Sharman, Celtics (1953, 1955-1960); Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer, Rochester Royals (1952 & 53). Granted, looking beyond 1980 is sort of irrelevant since Thompson only made the third team and there was no third team prior to 1989-90 anyway, but the fact still stands that having an All-NBA backcourt still just doesn't happen often.

So an All-Star backcourt, with a MVP, a championship, and two All-NBA players? Again, not since Cousy and Sharman during a time when the league had just eight teams.

As players always modestly imply, awards aren't necessarily a big deal in their own right but in this case the historic range of awards that the Splash Brothers have racked up really is impressive: from fans (All-Star voting) to coaches (All-Star reserve voting) to media (post-season awards) to peers (Curry winning most clutch and hardest to guard is pretty valuable to me), there is an uncommonly broad agreement that the Splash Brothers are the best backcourt going. When you look at all the recognition they've received to justify placing them in the conversation as the best backcourt ever, you have to agree with Curry that "it's kind of funny" that there now seems to be broad agreement that they're not the favorites to repeat as champions.

In other words, as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh wrote early last season, this is uncharted territory in modern pro basketball history. But given the competition not only in the Western Conference but also in a 30-team league, we can probably just remove the qualifiers at this point: no backcourt has been so widely recognized for having a season as good as what the Splash Brothers did in 2015.

Even if you adjust for rules and style of play, you could easily make the case that the Splash Brothers just had the best single season of any backcourt in NBA history. And once you venture into that territory, you have to wonder about their standing overall.

How do the Splash Brothers compare to the greatest backcourts of all-time?

I really don't think we can overstate just how talented this backcourt combination is: There have been plenty of dynamic guard combos in the league, but rarely have there been guard combos this good. We witnessed something really special this past season, especially given the doubts surrounding both of these players when they were drafted and within the first three years of their careers (Curry due to that nagging ankle issue, Thompson due to his involvement in trade rumors — part of what makes their evolution so surreal is that we're not that far removed from wondering what kind of future either would have in the league). In fact, you could easily make the argument that for all the talk about this team's versatility, the most remarkable thing about the roster really was the season that Curry and Thompson put together.

As much as everyone is talking about this being the era of small ball, to the extent that the Warriors style of play is inimitable because Curry is a one-of-a-kind talent as part of a historically unique pairing that is still young enough to expect growth, we may be entering a new Splash Brothers era in which they manage to define a period of time by their individual and collective success rather than setting a standard that others hope to match. I'm not even sure we've fully appreciated what happened this season because their ascent seemed to happen so fast and without the typical narrative of either overcoming that one persistent challenge or landing that instantly game-changing transcendent talent — it's so unique that I'm still grappling with the fact of what has happened months later.

But best backcourt ever? As wild as it is to think that what the Splash Brothers did this season is unmatched (and probably never will be matched), Curry is 27-years-old and Thompson just 25 — remarkably, these two haven't even peaked by normal standards and they've already accomplished unheard of feats together.

The challenge that lies ahead is repeating all of this: as I said back in February, just two teams have won consecutive championships with an All-Star backcourt: Bob Cousy & Bill Sharman and Isiah Thomas & Joe Dumars. Repeating as champions would quiet anyone who believes that these 2015 accomplishments — individual or team — should be written off as a fluke.

The potential to define an era

The potential to establish a guard-led mini-dynasty that ends up defining an era but not necessarily laying the blueprint for others to follow is what I most appreciate about the comparison of this Warriors team to the Bad Boy Pistons of the late-80's, as Jared Stearne laid out here at GSoM two weeks ago. Curry and Thompson are just the fourth backcourt duo in NBA history to make a Finals appearance and All-Star appearance together at any point in their careers (others: Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, Boston Celtics; Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons; Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, Pistons). So when you begin to look at the Warriors — a historically good scoring guard duo with an elite defense — the Bad Boys quickly emerge as one of the top comparisons. It's just exceedingly difficult to find a backcourt combination in NBA history that comes anywhere close to approximating Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Is talk of a mini-dynasty similar to the dominance of the Bad Boys at least a little premature given that they haven't even started the campaign to defend their title? Possibly. But we're talking about a team that's bringing their entire rotation back, has a young core (depending on how you define their core), and has their key components locked up long-term. As history has shown, repeating is difficult even if you have dynamic talents, but if any backcourt is going to do it again why not this one?

And if they do manage to repeat, you could make a strong argument to put them ahead of the Dumars-Thomas and Goodrich-West backcourts on the merits. And we can already put them ahead of championship All-Star backcourts like Boston's Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, Chicago's Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr, Detroit's Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton (a possibly underrated pairing), L.A.'s Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon, New York's Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, or Portland's Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. (Sidebar: the problem with looking just at All-Star selections is that some pairings like San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker never made an appearance together and Ginobili has been coming off the bench. But they should be in this conversation as well.)

We can debate how you compare anyone to what Cousy and Sharman did, but the main point is that backcourts this dominant led by a high-scoring point guard on championship caliber teams are just extremely rare. Of course, that makes sense given the flow of NBA history: it has very much been a big man's league for much of its history with really only a small group of championship teams led by a pair of perimeter players (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen will be a "best perimeter duo" standard that nobody will ever match).

What the Splash Brothers really have going for them is that, similar to Dumars and Thomas, they've won their first title relatively early. If they continue to improve and rack up the All-Star bids, postseason awards and titles they're going to become a much more clear candidate for the best ever.