The career of Steph Curry can be neatly divided into four eras. Which version of Steph was the most potent, the most productive?
We are a couple of weeks removed from the Golden State Warriors capturing their fourth NBA championship in the past eight years. After a hotly-contested six-game series, the Warriors’ experience and timely playmaking overcame a younger, deeper Boston Celtics team. Golden State, of course, was led by Steph Curry — one of 10 active players to be named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. Curry won his first Finals MVP, averaging 31.2 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
That elusive Finals MVP was a new addition to Curry’s resume and sparked a whole new conversation about where he ranks among the best and greatest NBA players of all time. To me, “best” and “greatest” are not interchangeable, but the unspoken part of these conversations is that we always have their best iterations — their prime — in our minds. No one who believes Michale Jordan is the best basketball of all time has 1984-87 or Washington Wizards Jordan in mind.
The same is true for Steph. If 34-year-old Curry is still moving up in the all-time ranks with a Finals MVP, does that mean he is still getting better as a player? Is this the best version of Steph we’ve seen?
To try and answer that question, I separated Curry’s career to this point into four distinct sections and then ranked them in order of which I think are best.
Which version of Steph Curry was the best?
4. Mark Jackson-era Steph Curry — 2011-2014
We start at the beginning of Steph’s career. Before the accolades and awards, there were questions about his effectiveness at the pro level. There were questions about if Curry could recreate what he was doing at Davidson. Could he shoot and score at such a high clip with better athletes and defensive schemes? Sure, his 2008 NCAA Tournament run put the NBA on notice and shot him up Draft boards to be selected No. 7 overall in 2009. But that selection did not come without a doubt. I’m sure the six teams that passed on him wished they had taken the best player from that Draft, but Curry was not considered the best guard prospect — let alone deserving of being selected first.
Curry was a remarkable player at Davidson, even with the stigma of being at a mid-major program. In his three seasons there, he was well over 20 points per game — with a staggering 28.6 his junior year. He was slight of frame and not the workout warrior who could deadlift 400 pounds like he is now. And with less talented teammates at Davidson, he was subjected to “triangle-and-two” defenses at times.
Early on in his career, because of that slight frame, injuries were an issue. The main concern was his ankles and it led to him signing a four-year, $44 million rookie extension in 2013. It proved to be one of the best-valued deals in NBA history, as that 2013-14 season was the first of what would be six straight All-Star seasons. Curry fortified his body and was well on his way to becoming the historically great player we know him as today.
3. Current Steph Curry — 2019-present
Here is where the debate begins. There is no question that this was Steph’s most impressive individual playoff run because of the circumstances. With Klay recovering from two years of catastrophic injury and questions around the Warriors’ offensive firepower, Curry put the team on his back. This was especially true in the Finals, where he was the only person on the Warriors who was a consistent threat all over the floor. He was phenomenal in the Finals, but is this the best Curry’s ever looked?
This era of Steph also saw the worst regular season he’s had in his career (2020) and another season where the Warriors underperformed (2021). Granted, Steph was injured during a lot of this period, but injuries are a detriment in these best/greatest of all time discussions. While 2019 did have a Finals appearance, and this year saw him break the record for 3s made all time and the season ended in a title, the redemption arc did have plenty of struggles even when he was healthy. By Curry’s own admission, he went through the worst shooting slump of his career. In January, Steph shot 38 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3 — the worst in his career, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Curry worked through it and we see the year’s result.
2. Durant-era Steph Curry — 2017-2019
Here is where the nonsensical idea that Steph Curry doesn’t play well in the Finals broke down even before this past postseason. In the two NBA Finals with Kevin Durant as his teammate, Curry averaged 26.8 points, 9.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds in five games in the 2017 NBA Finals and 27.5 points, 6.8 assists and 6.0 rebounds in four games in 2018 (via StatMuse). It can be reasonably concluded that Steph Curry did not struggle in these Finals nor did he take a backseat to Kevin Durant while they played together, even though the consensus and Finals MVP hardware denotes Durant as the best player on the team.
Curry is nobody’s sidekick. His abilities were not diminished playing next to Durant. Opinions describing him as a, system player are disproven by the simple fact that the system does not run with the nuclear explosion if Curry himself isn’t capable of being a supernova. It’s the efficiency along with the volume from Curry that allowed for them to play the most unique brand of basketball in the NBA. Even the slightest dip in efficiency takes the Warriors from dynastic to “a really good team.” That dip is why they were not seen as championship contenders throughout the playoffs.
This iteration of Curry might have been next to a fellow all-timer. But anyone who thinks Curry was overshadowed isn’t paying attention to the on-court product and leans into the drama that surrounded that team.
1. MVP Steph Curry — 2014-2016
This isn’t solely based on the two MVP Awards, including the unanimous MVP in 2016. It’s about what a true peak looks like. In 2016, Curry made over 400 3s, shattering his own single-season NBA record. To put that in perspective, he was averaging five made 3s a game — Steph walked into any arena with a guaranteed 15 points on the books. It’s similar to James Harden’s peak free throw numbers allowing him to be assured of 10 points — but Steph didn’t have to put his body in danger like Harden does.
As stated before, Steph is the system player who created his own system. This era of Steph was the prime version of it. It was the best that Curry has ever looked over multiple years, and the MVP trophies — including winning it unanimously in 2016 — confirm that.
Ultimately, whichever version of Steph we believe is best will be what is used in these seemingly never-ending debates about ranking our all-time greats. But to believe that a player as great as Steph for as long as Steph has been great has more to prove in order to elevate his place in the NBA pantheon is nonsense. Appreciate the total arc of his career without feeling the need to put a label and ranking on it and the discussions around this game will greatly improve