here’s this phrase that NBA players use in the wake of winning their first championship. I’ve heard it from role players, bench scrubs, superstars and glue guys.
“They can’t ever take this away from me.”
Perhaps it says something about the insecurity of athletes that they feel the world is always trying to take away their accomplishments, but nonetheless, that’s the thing the first championship means. No matter what, they have a ring. They are champions. They will not walk away from their career with that monstrous regret that hangs over so many players, particularly great ones.
Going from one title to two, however, puts you in an entirely different category — a category that is less about inner peace and more about an etched place in history. After the Golden State Warriorswith this core by going 16-1 in the playoffs Monday with a 129-120 win over the Cleveland Cavaliersin Game 5, Stephen Curry is now officially in that category.
Having done all of this in just eight years, it makes Curry an all-time great even among all-time greats, already. Even if Curry, who has only been at this for eight years — and really, only five with a legitimate NBA team behind him — were to fall from grace next season, which there is no reason to believe will happen with this well-positioned title juggernaut– his place is already secure. He’s the best shooter ever. A Hall of Famer. A legend. Already.
Consider his dominance over the last three seasons — 207 regular-season wins — including the NBA record 73 last year — against 24 losses. Two championships. Two MVPs, one unanimous. A scoring title. Going 15-1 in the playoffs, beating LeBron James twice. Not to mention, Curry has redefined what basketball is, completely changing not only the way it’s played but the way it’s watched.
Then there’s what Curry did this year. Curry’s fans will always points to his objective stat line in the playoffs and argue that he’s been great. He hasn’t. He’s had moments. He’s had games. He’s had an impact, as star players do. But he hasn’t dominated in the same way, he’s vanished at times, and his mistakes have been killer. But this year? You’re free to point out it’s because of Kevin Durant, but that doesn’t change what Curry’s done. He’s more in control of the game than ever. His defense has been lights out. He’s rebounding at insane levels. For the playoffs, he averaged 28.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and shot 48 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep.
In the Finals? It’s even more insane. Curry averaged 28.6 points per game (with 44-39-90 shooting splits), 8.8 rebounds, 9.4 assists and 2.2 steals. The numbers do him justice, but not enough. Kevin Durant has been the best player for the Warriors, this season and in these Finals. But Stephen Curry has been the most important player, and the one that decided the most of this series. He is the one Cleveland’s defense consistently focused on. He opened up everything. He passed every test. Ultimately, here is what it means.
When you’re an all-time player and you get that first title, you punctuate your career in a way guys like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone never could, and that is a monumental leap in your career. But getting number two? It changes your legacy at least as much, if not more than the first.
Consider the guys who’ve never gotten No. 2. Kevin Garnett — a phenom from age 16, an MVP, a surefire Hall of Famer: one title. Dirk Nowitzki, the greatest European-born player in history and one of the five best power forwards in league history: one title. Jason Kidd, who redefined the point guard position nearly as much as Curry has: one title, and he wasn’t the best player on his team when he did. Same for Gary Payton, Oscar Robertson, Clyde Drexler, and even the logo, Jerry West.
Look at those names, and realize what Curry has surpassed. Championships are team accomplishments, subject to the cruel twists of fate and the matchups you encounter. But the Warriors have been so good as to survive and thrive despite last year’s monumental collapse. Any cries of the lack of adversity the Warriors faced in 2015 were silenced by last year’s crushing defeat, even if it meant adding Kevin Durant to get back over the hump. They responded with poise, domination, and a focus that meant they got better with every game. (They also added Kevin Durant.) That’s not just the seemingly fait-accompli nature of the Warriors’ dominance, but a testament to how singularly great this team is.
Winning two titles is a dream for most superstars; Curry has breezed his way through it. When criticized for poor play, he delivered monstrous efforts late in the series vs. Oklahoma City last year. When he was called to task for last year’s failures, he first sacrificed and deferred to Kevin Durant to get him involved, then learned to thrive next to him. They call Curry the Golden Boy and that moniker fits; he is, at this moment in time, untouchable, shiny, and brilliant like the sun.
There will, of course, be comparisons to LeBron James. The player that has held the league in the palm of his hand over the past 10 years has three titles to show for it; Curry has been at the summit for three years with two rings upon his hand. Whether that’s fair or not doesn’t matter. Championships are how history judges players, fair has nothing to do with it. You can be great without a ring, you can be revered with just one. Two championships makes you a legend.
There’s little reason to think Curry’s done, either. He just turned 29. His prime likely lasts the next four to five years, considering how little he relies upon his athleticism and how much of his game is skill based. You can say you expect bad luck or injury to rob him of one to two years but A) the Warriors’ star power simultaneously allows him to rest and means they can win in his absence, and B) even if that happens, he’ll still have four to five prime seasons to add to his total. The Warriors’ core is young and versatile, able to adapt to changing matchups and challenges as the roster evolves. Their front office and coaching infrastructure are, by their own defiant admission, “light years ahead” of everyone else.
Three or more titles puts Curry on the so-talked-about Mount Rushmore of the NBA. Curry 2016 season will likely go down as the greatest individual regular season in NBA history, and this three-year stretch compares with any three-season run in history. Jordan. Magic. Bird. LeBron. Duncan. Wilt. Curry stacks up among those greats. That’s only made possible by this second championship, though.
In the end, the results of the process are what validates Curry’s new place in the all-time pantheon.
This second title forever alters the way we’ll see him, ends any talk of him and his team being a flash in the pan, silences the idea of a point guard (even a score-first one) being incapable of being (arguably) the best player on a title team, ruins the “jump-shooting teams can’t win championships,” and cements Curry on a level that the Big Ticket, the Logo, the Glove, and many other incredible players never reached.
Cocky yet lovable, unbelievable yet relatable, Steph Curry has elevated himself to a new level of greatness, with no end in sight.
One title proved that Curry was one of the game’s greats.
His second has proven him a legend.