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Is Stephen Curry already an all-time great?

ESPN and Sports Illustrated recently ranked the best NBA players of all-time, and Curry ranked highly among scores of hall of famers -- despite being just 27 years old.

"The MINE."
"The MINE."
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

That didn't take long.

Nothing drives blog traffic like lists, and nothing stirs basketball fans into a tizzy like a good ol' controversial who would you rather have? question. So it should come as no surprise that Sports Illustrated and ESPN have just released an NBA all-time top 50 and top-100 list, respectively.

SI pegs Stephen Curry as the 31st best player in the history of the game, sandwiched between Bill Walton (32) and John Stockton (30). ESPN is even more bullish, and slots Chef Curry (23) in between Elgin Baylor (24) and some dude named Kevin Durant (22).

It's a surprisingly high ranking for a seventh year player -- especially one who may have his best basketball ahead of him. Whether you like his ranking, think it's too high, or too low probably depends on how you value greatness. How big a part does longevity play, as opposed to top-end ability, low-end ability, and historical context?

Comparing Stephen Curry to Bill Russell and everyone since is a very difficult thing to do. After all, we can't strictly define what a best player is - we rely on lists just like this to abstractly imply what we value. When your friend starts his or her list: "Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Tim DuncanKobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Magic Johnson..." we can safely assume that the friend values winning quite a bit.

Likewise, the friend who gushes over Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Durant might value individual statistics (and perhaps even context - they had no help!) a bit more heavily.

Stephen Curry has a long way to go, but he may yet prove to be the quintessential cross-over candidate who scores incredibly high on either list. He's already closed within three months of an all-time great two year stretch - perhaps the all-time great two year stretch. He may finish the season with the best home record in history, the best Player Efficiency Rating in history, the best record in history, the best...well you get the picture. Should he do that, he would certainly make a lot of sense in anyone's top-25 or 30 list.

But until he does, he still has so much going for him. Despite a natural bias against current players, he's already hailed as the best shooter in the history of the sport (remember when the consensus was that he wasn't just a year or two ago?). His basketball handle is legendary, and his killer instinct is basically second-to-none. All qualities that we cite when thinking of an all-time great.

I'm one of those folks who will rush to include the new guy in my all-time list. I did it with Kobe Bryant once upon a time, and I did it with LeBron James not long after. I'm going to go ahead and do it with Stephen Curry right now. He's probably the best basketball player on the planet at age 27, and no one appears equipped to completely overtake him tomorrow - certainly not while his team remains a championship favorite for the near future.

Don't just take it from me, though. Curry himself believes he's the best in the NBA right now.

From ESPN:

"That's my mentality, my focus when I go out there. I don't ever try to get into debates , like ranking myself versus other current guys, or anything like that. It's just my mindset is: When I'm out there, anything I wanna do, anything, gotta have that confidence that you can go out and execute and play well and be the best in the league."

If Curry fell into an Ozzie Smith-sized Mystery Spot after winning the 2016 NBA Finals, and all we had to go on was seven (mostly) glorious years, four of which were played at a high all-star level, and two of which were played at a near-GOAT level, would you question Curry's inclusion on the top-25? In hindsight, he could be one of those guys who absolutely had the talent, and delivered on the promise before forces outside of his control took him away. But is that enough?

Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't. There's no definitive answer. But there's precedent for that sort of thing. Baseball's Pedro Martinez slaughtered the entire sport for seven years before he largely turned into just-a-guy. Greg Maddux enjoyed a similar seven-year run atop baseball's National League. Eric Dickerson of the NFL's LA Rams was among the best running backs of all-time for the first seven years of his career. And the bay area's own Joe Montana cemented his place in football's hall of fame with exactly seven amazing seasons (over the course of eight years, so sue me).

The point is: I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule about how long a player must be good. At some point, personal accolades combined with team success are significant enough that a player's career can be taken on its merits, even if it's abbreviated (or if the career simply wasn't as great throughout). If not now, Stephen Curry is rapidly approaching a point at which no one will question his years, and we know that because so very few players have ever been this good at any point in their careers.

For me, Stephen Curry's recent history earns him a spot somewhere on these lists. If you disagree now, that's fine. Maybe I'll just have to check back with you in a year or two.

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