Super Bowl in San Francisco. I’m sitting at the bar with some colleagues, having a beer as Stephen Curry is dropping 51 points on the Washington Wizards. The 134-121 victory pushes the Golden State Warriors to 45-4. I start chatting with a very decent, courteous and inquisitive 20-something who wants to know what brought us to San Francisco. “Radio Row,” we tell him, and then he gets even more inquisitive.
“Where do you put, Steph?” he asks. “Top 10? Top 5?”
“Whaddaya mean?” I answer. “Like, all-time?”
“Yeah,” he says.
Yeah. For some reason this had never really occurred to me… at least not yet. I grew up in the `80s effectively, with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and, to a lesser degree, Isiah Thomas. I lived through Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and now LeBron. And I have to admit that until that moment, I had never considered Steph Curry among the greatest players of all-time so much as among the greatest shooters. And there is a difference.
Until right about now.
The Golden State Warriors will go for their 73rd win tonight in the Bay Area, against the Memphis Grizzlies. Let the record show: this is when Stephen Curry’s life changes. This is when Curry goes from America’s darling to a man who is supposed to win, to a favorite instead of an underdog. This is when Curry tries to go down as the best player on the most accomplished regular-season team of all time. And then this is when he tries to go down as the most dominant player in the NBA, and not just the most likable.
Do you understand the difference? Up until now, Steph Curry has done the chasing. But if he sees this season through, if he leads the Warriors to a 73-9 regular season and another NBA title, he will become the hunted. A two-time MVP and two-time NBA champion starts to enter a discussion with the other great players of, say, the last 40 years.
Jordan? Please. As I said to the young man in San Francisco, as politely as possible, Michael Jordan would clean his backside with Steph Curry. (The language was far more graphic, but the tone was congenial. We are, after all, in the business of hyperbole.)
Jordan won six NBA titles, and he never once went to a seventh game. He was the NBA Finals MVP all six times. (Curry, interestingly enough, lost out on that honor to Andre Iguodala last year.) Jordan was a nine-time All-Defensive first-team selection, five-time league MVP, 11-time scoring leader and three-time league leader in steals. He was 6-foot-6 and quick, able to play with the big and the small. As a player, he was damn near perfect.
For Curry, there is no shame — none whatsoever — in failing to be Jordan.
Nonetheless, where Curry goes from here is a fascinating discussion because he is so, well, unique. Should the Warriors win the championship this spring, Curry will have as many titles as LeBron, who is generally regarded as the standard of this era. True NBA greats are graded in rings, as we all know, and nobody even gets into the building without at least two. Even then, real separation begins at three, though maybe I’m merely trying to include Bird in the discussion.
But back to the question: where does Curry go from here? Where does he end up? Already, NBA illuminati from various eras are calling Curry the greatest shooter of all-time, and it’s hard to remember a player with both a quicker release and more deadly accuracy. For what it’s worth, with or without the second title, I’d take Curry at point guard over Isiah Thomas in less time than it takes Curry to launch from 35 feet, if for no other reason than Curry might someday shoot better from three-point land than Isiah did from the free-throw line.
The ball-handling? The passing? Curry is way better here than many would like to admit. If there’s a negative to his offensive game, it’s that his other skills sometimes get lost behind that precision shooting.
Regardless, with a win tonight and another title — and there are still obstacles to the latter — Curry may very well enter into uncharted territory for a point guard, at least one his size. Magic was a freak, a 6-foot-9 unicorn who could play all five positions on the floor. Oscar Robertson similarly had an advantage in size. But Curry has shooting skills that neither of those men possessed, and he has just entered the peak physical years of his career.
Tonight, Curry goes for regular season win number 73. Starting this weekend, he begins the quest for a second title. Just beyond both awaits an entirely new world for a man who has already challenged the model for how NBA champions are built, who has already changed the landscape of the league, who has already revolutionized his position.
And who will forever change, in many facets, the way we perceive him going forward.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.