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Stop disrespecting Steph Curry

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The media join the “they ain’t that good” frenzy.

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Championship Celebration
But can he turn a franchise around?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, really, at a certain point this is just getting silly:

David McMenamin, an ESPN writer (who, it must be said, is very close to several people in the Cleveland organization), ignited a firestorm when he tweeted this:

A variety of twitter users quickly noticed an omission from the list. Matt Moore, whose been leading the “The Warriors have made the playoffs boring” crowd, piled on, and in moments people were talking about Steph Curry as merely a “collaborative talent,” rather than being a franchise changer.

These takes are inexcusably bad and represent a sort of willful blindness that seems to follow some people around when it comes to Stephen Curry and the Warriors. After all:

That 46-win (actually 47, but we’ll give MT a pass) team is worth looking at because it gets to the real point about what “collaborative talent” is - or isn’t.

It’s a team that featured sophomore Klay Thompson, who at that point was a shooter and little else, rookie Harrison Barnes who was very young and very raw, rookie Draymond Green who was out of shape, hampered by a balky knee, and a role player, and injured and slow Andrew Bogut who was out or limited most of the year after micro-fracture surgery. It was also coached by Mark Jackson who focused on an iso-heavy system.

They did have David Lee, who was a solid player, although very weak defensively, and Jarret Jack, whose primary contribution was the “no-no-no-yes!” shot isolating from the top of the key rather than passing to Curry.

In the playoffs, despite David Lee’s injury, the team exceeded expectations, put as good a scare into San Antonio as anyone except for the eventual champion Heat, and only lost once Curry’s ankle injuries dramatically slowed him down.

Take a look at the highlight from game 1 of that series:

At 1:17 you’ll see something that’s now familiar to those of us who watch the Warriors: Curry’s gravity pulling multiple defenders because of the threat of his jump shot. At 1:46 you’ll see him creating an open look for Green. At 2:55 you’ll see him weaving through four Spurs to get a layup. At 3:50 you’ll see his gravity at work again, creating a wide-open look for Carl Landry.

As that game progresses, you’ll see more and more of the kind of defenses we’ve gotten used to over the years: teams selling out to stop Curry and Curry making them pay for it with smart passes and tough shots. This gets to what’s backwards about Moore’s claim (see below) that Curry exploits spacing: Curry creates spacing. How many dunks did Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala get in the finals because the Cavs were focused on Curry?

Those plays against the Spurs get at what’s so strange about dismissing Curry as a “collaborative” talent - he’s making his teammates better. If the goal is to change the shape of your franchise, isn’t that what you want?

The inclusion of players like Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis on the list is also problematic. Look, I love Anthony Davis. He’s an elite scorer, an elite defender, and he’s fun to watch. But if the goal is to change the direction of your franchise, well, don’t we know that Davis can’t do that?

We’ve got five years of Anthony Davis playing his heart out for the Pelicans, and has the direction of the franchise changed yet? Doesn’t look like it to me. They’ve only managed to break 35 wins once - that’s not all on Anthony Davis, of course, but if your argument is that he can somehow change a franchise and Curry can’t, how’s that work, exactly? If you’re one of the only eight players in the league who can change the direction of a franchise, shouldn’t you, you know, actually do it?

Shouldn’t we wait for Towns to lead a team to the playoffs before we start crediting him with turning Minnesota around? Giannis is clearly a monster talent, but he’s “turned his team around” to the point of being one game over .500, a whole four games better than they were before they drafted him.

What evidence is there that Kawhi Leonard- my vote for on-court MVP this year, if I had one - can change a franchise? The system was in place when he showed up. Maybe he can. He’d probably be my third choice if I was starting a team from scratch to win now - but Curry’s actually done it, and Leonard hasn’t, so it’s weird to give him credit for the ability to do so while denying Curry the same honor.

And this is completely leaving aside the point that if you’re trying to turn a franchise around, don’t you want the guy who draws other talent (Curry) over the guy who chases it away (Westbrook)?

McMeniman doubled down by suggesting that somehow Curry is a function of his teammates.

And Moore suggested that Curry is hard to build around:

But, again, this is exactly backwards. Curry is as easy a superstar to build around as there is because of how he makes his teammates better and can play multiple roles.

For example, Westbrook is almost useless off the ball (leaving aside the question of his willingness to be off-ball). You can’t space the floor with him, and while you have to be wary of his athleticism on back-cuts, he’s just not a threat to shoot from out there. Therefore, your ability to build-around Westbrook is limited - you won’t get full value out of others guys who are at their best with the ball in their hands if he’s on the floor.

Curry can carry the offensive load, but he can also play a supporting role. LeBron James is the only other player in the league who can be both an offensive fulcrum and an off-ball destroyer at the same level (although Harden and Leonard are close). He can fit with any player in the league.

I don’t know. Maybe Moore and McMeniman would call prime Magic Johnson a collaborative talent. After all, Johnson never won a title without another all-time top-five player on his team - so I guess they’d rather have built a franchise around Dominique Wilkins. But isn’t it really the other way around: Johnson was so good that teams were often afraid to trade with the Lakers because they knew that whomever they got would be a little less shiny without Johnson setting him up, and whomever they send would suddenly look better than ever.

It’s similar with Curry. His gravity and passing gets guys open looks and they show up as the best versions of themselves - and that’s exactly what you want to build your franchise with.

It’s easy to imagine what the criticism would be if guys like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala were teammates with Westbrook, Harden, or Davis: “Can’t space the floor. Can’t really create for themselves.” Iguodala spent his whole career being under-appreciated - not effective enough as a volume scorer, couldn’t really carry a team - and then you put him on the same team with Curry and he’s a finals MVP and scoring 20 points in a championship-sealing game.

McMenamin’s “extraordinary teammates” comment really tells us more about him than it says about Curry. It says that without a team capable of going on the greatest regular season run of all time, without two titles in three years, Dave McMenamin wouldn’t be capable of seeing Curry’s greatness.

It means that he doesn’t know how to see it unless it’s scowling while it overpowers opponents. Unless it’s pounding the ball for a low-percentage shot that, yeah, sometimes goes in so you can dance around like a hero. If it’s in the subtle misdirection, the teardrop finish, or the in-rhythm three, he can’t see it.

When writing this:

It’s hard to know what definition of success Moore is using here, since Westbrook’s success without spacing (i.e., without Durant) is limited to a first-round playoff loss. (That also ignores the fact that the Thunder, with Ibaka and Durant, actually often did have excellent spacing).

It seems quite possible what Moore was unfamiliar with this:

With David Lee out and Klay Thompson having an 0-6 night from deep, Steph Curry had to carry the offensive load, and carry it he did. Given nights like that, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Curry can carry a team when they need him to, even if the offense is Mark Jackson’s “stand around and watch the ball-handler” 90s-ball.

If he’s choosing not to - if he’s choosing to pass, cut, and set screens rather than chuck it up every time down the court - doesn’t that suggest that maybe, just maybe, he recognizes how to win? And isn’t a superstar who cares primarily cares about winning exactly what you want to build your franchise around?

This is the prejudice Curry has faced his whole career: he’s a different type of great player, and people can’t adjust their thinking enough to appreciate it. They always have to qualify it, limit it, diminish it - in some cases contrary to mountains of evidence. It’s the same bias that leads Westbrook to laugh at Steph in a press conference (how’s that working out for you?) or LeBron James to make potshots at Curry a theme of his Halloween party.

It’s what leads former greats to say they’d sweep Curry’s Warriors - a hyperbolic claim (addressed elsewhere) that they’d never make about a team headed by LeBron James, even though the Warriors just beat that team.

We could dive in deeper - even a cursory statistical analysis demonstrates that Steph Curry has been the engine that makes the Warriors go. No matter who else is on the floor, the Warriors have been a great team with Curry, and a middling one without him. But this post is long enough, so, instead, let’s give a member of the Curry clan the last word: