Last night, I rushed home to watch an NBA playoff game for the first time since the Los Angeles Lakers––the team I’ve cheered for my whole life––were last competitive. I watched the Golden State Warriors defeat the Portland Trailblazers, a victory that allows them to advance to the Western Conference Finals. But none of that mattered to me. I just wanted to watch Stephen Curry play.
His dominance is part of what’s compelling, as when Tiger Woods arrived in the PGA and revealed that golf could be played on a higher level than anyone had ever imagined. Last season, Curry made an impressive 286 three-pointers, securing the all-time NBA record for triples made in a season by beating the next best by 10 shots. He did so in a year in which he won the MVP and his team won an NBA championship. It was reasonable to think he might break his own record, or even reach 300 threes.
Then, this season, Curry made 402 three-pointers!
After a broader assessment of his off-the-charts statistical efficiency, Benjamin Morris of 538 simply declared, “Stephen Curry Is the Revolution.” That article is the best account I’ve seen of how unfathomably valuable Curry is to his team. Yet efficiency statistics do not capture how enjoyable a player is to watch as entertainment. As Nikil Saval noted in his comparison of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant:
Though Duncan may end up being accounted the greater player, I am with those who find his post-up, bank-shot style a chore to watch. Very few, even the haters, have felt this way about Kobe in his prime. Every now and again, in my frequent moments of Kobe-doubt, I find myself rewatching one of those YouTube compilations of “Top 10 Kobe Clutch Shots” to regain my faith. Comparing his various off-balance threes to close out games of Stephen Curry’s, the most sublime of shooters, shows the superiority of the latter’s game—his half-court arcs slicing through the air like a knife through bean curd, with unprecedented ease—but also the peculiar inimitability of Kobe’s … not a single player who is statistically “better” than Kobe has been as glorious to watch.
While granting the sentiment, many would argue that Michael Jordan, a statistically better player, was as glorious to watch. David Foster Wallace once called the Chicago Bulls star “one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws,” noting that he “could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows.”
After Jordan’s aerial grace and Kobe’s leaping theatricality, perhaps there is nothing new under the sun to be seen in dunk contests or improbable drives to basket.
That isn’t, anyway, how Curry dazzles, though I would argue that he too seems exempt from certain physical laws: When he’s dribbling behind the arc, a defender close at hand, it seems impossible that a 6-foot-three guard could get off a shot. But Curry always can. He dribbles, steps back, and releases the ball so quickly, smoothly, and precisely that one can’t quite make sense of it, even in slow motion.
That tremendously impressive feat isn’t as visually spectacular as a dribble drive that ends in lift-off, a soaring, twisting flight path to the rim, and a spectacular dunk. And yet, Curry is as compelling as any slam-dunker in his own way––and this is, I think, for two distinct reasons. One is that, unlike Kobe or Shaq or LeBron, Curry does not have a perfect basketball body. That he dominates at his size is both more impressive and more compelling visually. The analog is Lionel Messi, whose highlights are dazzling because he is at once unstoppable and delightfully scrappy.
But in basketball, the best analog, the figure who is most helpful in understanding why Curry is so damn fun to watch, is the last point guard to be as compelling: Magic Johnson.
The Showtime Lakers were among the most entertaining teams to watch in NBA history largely because of Magic’s ability to throw passes that defied all expectations. On fast breaks and in transition, he would somehow see teammates that he couldn’t have seen unless he had eyes in the back of his head. He’d deliver the ball into their hands with no-look passes as visually confounding as a trick-play in football. Even in the half-court offense, he could thread an impossible bounce pass by the legs of defenders at unlikely angles, and with all the force of a bullet. And, of course, he could score, which only helped him to pass more superbly.
The effect, for the viewer, was constant suspense. You didn’t dare take your eyes off the screen when the ball was in his hands because the potential for surprise was ever-present.
Curry is like that, except that he’s a superb passer and a magical scorer. He can dazzle while setting up teammates. But the suspense he gives us flows from the fact that he could shoot anytime, from anywhere. In traffic near the basket? No problem. A defender in his face two steps behind the three-point line? Doesn’t matter. Early in the 24-second clock, mere steps past the half court line? Yes, even then and there.
People watched the NBA for Magic, and then for Michael and Kobe and LeBron. Now they will tune in for Steph Curry, who plays unlike anyone ever has: The point guard can and might well score at any moment, so he is riveting to watch at every moment.