After inking a five-year, $201 million deal, Golden State Warriors shooting guard Stephen Curry is now the highest paid player in league history. He will make roughly $10 million more than his Finals MVP teammate next season — and he’ll deserve it.
When Kevin Durant re-signed with the Golden State Warriors on a two-year, $53 million contract earlier this week, all the talk was about his unselfishness. He could have gotten a 2017 salary similar to the one Stephen Curry just signed for (around $35 million), but he opted to prioritize his team’s depth and financial flexibility.
Durant deserves full credit for this. No player of his stature has taken a pay cut quite like this to keep his team together. There are those who are attempting to vilify him for hurting the NBPA and wrecking competitive balance even further, but that anger is misguided. This is simply what happens when an all-time great player fits in and buys in to an all-time great culture.
Though he just signed the biggest contract in NBA history, Stephen Curry built that team-first culture. An all-time great player in his own right, the only skill of Curry’s that surpasses his three-point shooting is his unselfishness.
That sounds like a cliché. So often people who are transcendent in their profession are praised for being “even better” as co-workers, as leaders, as people. I won’t argue with this assessment of any other individual. What I will say is that this overused compliment rings more true for Curry than any athlete in NBA history.
Before getting into Curry’s “even better” traits, however, we need to first make quite clear how dominant of a basketball player he is.
Recently, I had someone who openly dislikes Curry tell me that he dislikes him even more after his new contract, because he has no business being paid more than Durant. Forgetting all of the CBA details that invalidate this take, there’s a more basic counter: Curry is a better basketball player than Durant.
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The most commonly heard explanation for the Warriors’ dominance during the 2017 NBA Finals was that they were a “different team” than the previous season. This was technically true, but not in the way that most meant it. While Durant’s presence made the Warriors more unbeatable, it was Curry’s health that made them overwhelming favorites in the first place.
The manner in which Golden State dominated was not unlike that of the 2015 NBA Finals. In that series, the Cavs harassed and pressured Curry, determining that open looks and mismatches elsewhere were preferable to Curry isolations. Andre Iguodala was named Finals MVP, but everyone knew Curry was the most important player on the floor.
In 2016, Curry lost a ton of mobility due to a sprained MCL. When he did isolate, he was less effective, but the Cavs still generally made him give it up. The bigger difference was that Curry’s supporting cast didn’t step up.
Even with Durant in the fold, the 2017 Cavs had the exact same mantra as they did in 2015: Anyone but Curry. Their constant pressure and trapping caused rifts off the ball, ones that Durant took full advantage of. He nailed the open threes that Harrison Barnes missed. He attacked the closeouts that Klay Thompson stubbornly ignored, and he punished the Cavs for trapping Curry in the pick-and-roll in a way that Draymond Green simply could not.
Durant also defended LeBron James, was a force in transition and made smart, unselfish plays. He was essentially a far better version 2015 Iguodala, but his success was still dependent on Curry. He was the MVP, but he wasn’t the most important player on the floor.
Many people rank basketball players based on how many areas of the game they dominate. Durant is better than Curry at protecting the rim, guarding the perimeter, rebounding, attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. Curry is better at shooting, ball handling and passing. Hence, Durant is the better player.
But that doesn’t explain how a hobbled Curry was able to lead his team to a playoff series victory over a team led by a healthy Durant last year. It doesn’t explain why the Cavs chose, unrelentingly, to let Durant beat them instead of Curry. It doesn’t explain why the Warriors were +19.6 with Curry on the court during the postseason and -3.3 with him off, compared to +15.9 with Durant and +9.0 without him. During the regular season, those numbers were +18.5 and -2.2 for Curry, compared to +16.5 and +6.2 for Durant.
A book could be written on why this is, but here’s the short version: Curry is simultaneously the best person ever at making the most valuable shots in basketball, and the best pure point guard in the NBA. If it were just the shooting, then taking his shot away would neutralize him, but it’s the ball handling, the finishing, the passing and the decision-making that makes his impact on the game unparalleled.
There’s also something else, something even more fundamental, that explains why Curry’s plus/minus consistently beats Durant’s, and everyone else’s in the league: He gives up the rock.
Blue Man Hoop
Think about the league’s great offensive orchestrators: LeBron James. James Harden. Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook. John Wall. All are widely regarded as being better passers than Curry. And yet you will rarely see any of them dribble up, move the ball and get out of the way. They pass on their terms. Simply initiating is not enough. They are playmakers, not facilitators.
Because of this, each one of them averaged more assists than Curry (6.6 per game, No. 12 in the league) this past year. Also because of this, each one of them places a cap on their offensive value that Curry does not have.
Curry’s non-ball dominance can be dismissed in two ways. One argument is that his shooting allows him to part with the rock more easily, knowing he’s still the primary option off ball. The second is that his superstar teammates and brilliant offensive scheme afford him the luxury of passing, a luxury the league’s other maestros do not have.
The first argument is easily debunked. If Curry’s shooting allows him to make decisions that others cannot, that is 100 percent a credit to Curry and indictment of others. Maybe Russell Westbrook was right not to pass more this past season, but only because he cannot pressure the defense by standing in the corner like Curry can.
As for Curry’s favorable teammates and system, it all circles back to that one thing that is even better than his shooting.
Curry was among former head coach Mark Jackson’s strongest supporters. Generally speaking, a superstar’s endorsement is enough to keep a coach in place, but owner Joe Lacob had other plans. At the risk of alienating Curry, he fired Jackson and brought in Steve Kerr.
Praising Curry for buying into Kerr’s cultural and schematic changes from Day 1 sounds, like the “unselfishness” tag, trite. But go back to that list of elite playmakers. Who else, after seeing their beloved coach fired, would have pivoted as earnestly and effortlessly as Curry did?
Kerr may be a brilliant coach, and he may have been a brilliant hire. Without Curry’s immediate and total buy-in, it wouldn’t matter. The question of who is “most responsible” for the Warriors’ culture of excellence — Joe Lacob, Kerr, Bob Myers — need not be asked. It is clearly Curry.
Curry certainly reaped personal benefits for his selflessness. He won an MVP and a title in Kerr’s first year. The following year, he became the most famous, beloved athlete since Michael Jordan, won the league’s first unanimous MVP, and surpassed James as the consensus “best player in the world.”
Then, over the course of two weeks, his reputation crumbled faster than it has perhaps for any athlete ever, short of an off-court controversy. He was labeled a fraud, a fun regular season player who can’t dominate the big stage, a choker.
Two weeks later, he was in the Hamptons, recruiting Durant. Again, it seems undue to eulogize a player for lobbying another superstar to his team, until you consider the details here. A month earlier, Curry was a living God. Now, he was signing away his chance of ever reaching that stature again.
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Durant had many reasons to join the Warriors. Whichever you believe (the promise of quality looks, the egalitarian scheme, the fun-loving culture or the overwhelming likelihood of winning titles), Curry was responsible for it. And yet, had he not looked Durant in the eye and convinced him that he wanted his help, Durant would not be a Warrior.
Throughout the 2017 season, Curry continued to forgo personal redemption in favor of team success. He took a backseat to Durant early, allowing his new superstar teammate to feel less cog and more engine. As his numbers suffered, he watched Westbrook, Harden and Kawhi Leonard ascend ahead of him in the MVP rankings, as well as on the majority of “best player in the world” lists.
Curry eventually re-asserted himself as the offensive fulcrum. This was an obvious change, but his initial ceding to his new teammate had forged an imperative dynamic. Durant felt empowered to take over when the moment called for it. In other words, when the Cavs again forced anyone but Curry to beat them.
The moment came, and Durant seized it. He averaged 35.2 points per game in the Finals while shooting 55.6 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from three and 92.7 percent from the line. He added 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists, while shutting down everyone from James to Kyrie Irving to Kevin Love defensively. He won Finals MVP, and he deserved it.
Curry has not yet won that particular award. Given the quality of his teammates and the manner in which opponents play him, he may never win it.
There are those who look at Curry’s Finals’ deference as a sign of weakness. Truly great players, the thinking goes, can overcome the tightest of defenses.
Golden State Warriors
But why is it that “taking over” is defined only by hero ball? Why is the ability to leverage one’s insane talent in a way that dramatically increases his team’s chances of winning, regardless of who scores, not viewed as dominance?
It took people years to finally give James credit for choosing the smart pass over the dumb shot. Perhaps we simply haven’t gotten there with Curry yet, but unlike with James, we probably never will. His lack of size makes his passing appear to be less of a choice and more of a necessity (this is of course untrue; no player in the history of the game would score with their usual volume and efficiency against the type of defensive attention Curry receives).
James has also never teamed up with a player who threatens his alpha status. He’s so great that Durant may be the only player in the league that could do so (the same is true for Curry), and the idea of James recruiting Durant is laughable.
That is not because they are the two best players in the world, though. Curry has been named MVP twice since the last time either received the honor, while also winning more games and more titles than either one in that span. Rank these three players how you will, but they are all in the same tier.
No, the reason that James would never play with Durant is the same reason that Durant would not play with James: ego. Not a massive, condemnable ego, just a normal one. Just one bigger than Curry’s.
Durant is extremely unselfish for a superstar. He had to be to leave money on the table in OKC to come to Golden State, to play with the reigning back-to-back MVP, and to again sacrifice cash on his latest contract.
All of those decisions, however, ultimately benefit Durant’s image. Giving up money to join the Warriors won him a title. Playing with Curry got him the easiest looks of his life and won him a Finals MVP. Taking a pay cut on his latest deal has allowed the Warriors to remain fully intact, and has earned him the “selfless” moniker.
Curry benefits from his own unselfishness too, of course. His immediate dedication to Kerr won him two MVPs and a title. His recruitment of Durant won him another one, and all this, along with his immense talent, has made him the NBA’s first $200 million man.
Just don’t think, for a second, that there is a single player more deserving that distinction.