I was lucky enough to ask ESPN's Tim Legler about Stephen Curry and the Warriors before Friday's game with the Celtics at 7:30 PT on ESPN. Legler himself has the seventh highest three-point percentage in NBA history, so I decided to steer the conversation towards the "shooter" in general, and Steph's place in the shooter's pantheon. Be sure to catch NBA Countdown Friday at 4:00 PT, which will show all 361 of Steph Curry's threes this season.
First, I asked Legler about Steph's historic year. He said he was fortunate to have witnessed it:
He came along and pushed it to another level that none of us have ever seen...So it is kind of mind-blowing every night. I think it's generated a lot of excitement for me personally; it gives me a renewed vigor to watch him play because he pushed the boundary of what anyone thought was possible.
Legler said that shooters often don't get recognized for the amount of practice and hard work it takes to excel. Because people often believe that great shooters are born, not created, they can discount the work elite shooters put in.
Shooters have a real appreciation for each other. When you see guys that really shoot at a high level, you know what amount of work and repetition went into that, and how difficult it is to be consistent at it. We all respect each other.
I asked Legler about the reason why some retired NBA greats like Oscar Robertson claim Steph is overrated, and whether Curry's label as a "shooter" above all hurts his reputation among the older crowd.
There's kind of a narrow-minded mentality of shooters in general. Some of what the criticism from the old-timers is they don't view shooters as complete players, like some of the other guys. Steph Curry doesn't fall into that category, because of all the things he does on the court. Part of it is also it's a totally different looking game from what Oscar Robertson and some of the guys that have taken shots at him looks like. It's just a different game. They make these comments because they feel that the way they played and some of the things they did are drowned out because there's such a volume of coverage of Curry.
Legler isn't in that camp though. He believes the game is different than ever before, but Steph's talent transcends the eras.
But for me, I grew up following it the '80's, playing it in the '90's, and I've been covering it for the last fifteen years. Steph Curry would've done these things in any era: I don't care how far you back you went, I don't care how far into the future you go. What he's doing he could do in any generation.
From there, I got a rare, poignant glimpse at Tim Legler's own personal NBA journey as a shooter. Legler went on to say that for most shooters, especially role players like he was, are pushed into a three-point specialist role from the moment they become rookies.
What people have to understand is, every role player who's a great shooter in the NBA did a lot more than just shoot in their entire life before the NBA. These guys sacrifice part of their game because at the NBA level they're asked to specialize more. That's hard for shooters to accept, because you don't want to be labeled as that. But when you get to the NBA, and want to stay there, you need to go be great at one thing at least.
This reality can shock young shooters. There's no glory in standing on the three-point line waiting for a pass, in running around screens for a few inconsistent touches.
[Being a shooter] is hard. Some guys are luckier than others, where they get to place where they are able to do more. For me, early in my career, I battled that somewhat in Dallas and Golden State. But when I got to Washington, I had a coach, Jimmy Lynam, who said, "You do a lot of things that help us win. You have a great IQ for the game, you're a phenomenal team defensive player, always making the right rotations, the right trap. I want you on the floor in the fourth quarter because you make great decisions. You're way more athletic than people think you are just because you're labeled a shooter."
Legler was fortunate enough to have had the chance to shine in the league as something more than just a shooter, and he sees a few players in the league thrive in that capacity today. But he had to become comfortable with the fact that his shooting ability was the most significant contribution to his team's success. Shooters, like offensive linemen in the NFL, are always expected to do their "simple" job well, and are criticized more than praised.
A lot of shooters just need a coach to finally allow you to do those things. JJ Redick has found it with Doc Rivers with the Clippers, and now they run a good portion of their offense through him. It's nice to see guys break through, but at first it's no doubt that you feel limited, that you can do more. Eventually, you come to accept the fact that it's better to be great at one thing than to fight it and hurting yourself. Ultimately, you will be judged on your ability to make shots, namely three point shots.
Legler's story of his struggles to show his full skill set during his career showed pain, perseverance, and appreciation. It's rare to get unfiltered glimpses of NBA players' lives, and we often forget or ignore the sacrifices they make for their team. As Draymond Green put it so eloquently, basketball players are not robots.