While much of 2016 NBA season belonged to Stephen Curry, the NBA Finals belonged to LeBron James. That fact alone should motivate Curry in 2017.
Along with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and LeBron James, who actually accomplished the feat twice, Stephen Curry became the eleventh player in NBA history to win most valuable player in back-to-back seasons, doing so unanimously in 2015-2016.
Be it the unanimously-decided MVP, the only time that has occurred in league history, his record 402 threes made, or his integral part in leading the Golden State Warriors to a record 73 wins in the regular season, nothing can diminish Curry’s impact on the current landscape of the National Basketball Association.
Nothing, that is, save for his failure to factor much in the 2016 NBA Finals, a Finals won in a classic Game 7 by the Cavaliers 93-89 on Sunday night that cemented LeBron James’s legacy as an icon in Cleveland and an all-time NBA great.
Given this series overall, in which James lead all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, and Sunday night’s brilliant performance, involving the only triple double in the Game 7 of an NBA Finals, LeBron joins Jordan as the only other player in NBA history to win four or more regular season MVPs, three or more NBA titles, and three or more NBA Finals MVPs.
In the end, Curry left the series having made 32 three point shots, an NBA Finals record he accomplished in Game 6. However, if anything can be noted about Curry, it is that he is a tremendous shooter, arguably one of the best the league has ever witnessed, but a volume shooter at that. His 32 makes came by way of 80 shots from deep, over 11 a game, albeit, at a respectable 40% clip.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers facing elimination in Games 5 through 7, Curry shot a pedestrian 15-of-42 (36%) from distance, and a paltry 22-of-60 overall (37%), mustering a mere 17 points in a decisive Game 7, missing three attempts from beyond the arc in the final two minutes, including a chance to tie the game at 92 with Kevin Love clamping to Curry like a vise on defense. Despite a stellar game from Draymond Green, who managed 32 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists on 11-of-15 from the floor and 6-of-8 from deep, Curry’s backcourt mate Klay Thompson faded just as egregiously, mustering only 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the floor, and an abysmal 2-of-10 from distance.
The subpar efforts of Curry and Thompson, coupled with Green’s suspension in Game 5, Andrew Bogut‘s inability to play in Games 6 and 7 due to injury, and Andre Iguodala‘s playing hurt, allowed the Cavs, behind stupendous efforts from James and Kyrie Irving in Games 5 through 7, each time facing elimination, to become the first team ever, in 32 prior attempts, to win an NBA Finals when trailing in the series 3-1, effectively ending Cleveland’s 52 year championship drought, giving the franchise its first ever NBA title.
Other than Games 4 and 6, the only contests by which he scored over 30 points—38 in a magnificent 11-point win in Game 4 that lead many pundits to deem Cleveland finished in the series—Curry never took over the Finals in the way that, say, LeBron and Kyrie did for Cleveland (had they lost, both players honestly could have won Finals MVP) or Green had for Golden State in Game 7.
Alas, when Curry’s shot is not working, he will shoot his team out of the game, often times denying the hot hand in clutch situations (i.e. Green down the stretch in Game 7). When LeBron’s shot is not going for him, he will instead facilitate, involve his teammates, play defense, crash the boards, pretty much anything superhuman (including his stunning block on Andre Iguodala late in Game 7) to keep his team in the game.
And that is the difference between the league’s most valuable player and the game’s best shooter.
Without question, Stephen Curry is all that is good about this game. His leadership and ability to keep defenses honest because of his inhuman range and ability to create just about any shot off the dribble stretches the floor and provides countless opportunities for the likes of Thompson, Green, Harrison Barnes, and Shaun Livingston. Curry and Thompson feed off one another in a style of basketball that flows effortlessly like Shakespearean verse, and were it not for Curry, Thompson would likely be the game’s best shooter from distance. Curry’s play has redefined the landscape of the league, forcing most teams to adopt a small ball lineup that was in vogue during LeBron’s Miami days, and later mastered by head coach Steve Kerr‘s ball club these last two unforgettable seasons.
“It’ll haunt me for a while” – Stephen Curry on Game 7
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) June 20, 2016
But when the shots do not fall, the blame in moments like last night’s failure to equalize over Kevin Love in a game’s final moments lands squarely on Curry, mainly because of the hype locomotive that blasted Curry’s popularity past the reaches of our stratosphere.
Blame ESPN, who, in January, compiled a list of their top 100 NBA players of all-time, naming Curry the fourth-best point guard in league history, despite his having only played seven seasons. Worst of all is Curry being named ahead of the Pistons’ Isaiah Thomas, immortal in his own right, an integral player in Detroit’s own title repeat in ’89 and ’90 (and near-miss against LA in ’88), during which he won one Finals MVP to Curry’s zero.
At 27, Curry’s legacy has by no means been defined, let alone shaped. At the same age, LeBron had only just won his first NBA title (in ’12), feeding off the disappointment of being a relative no-show in the Finals in the previous year against Dallas. Curry, like LeBron, needs to be humbled by loss and his place in it to truly be great, for at present, he is not even close to LeBron’s class and would need a career worth of sustained brilliance to crack even the top 15 list of NBA greats.
At present, he needs to know that 73 wins was not good enough.
Neither was his 402 threes.
Or his unanimous MVP.
Not his unparalleled range or quick release.
And especially the hype that follows him.
— #WeAreDubNation (@WeAreDubNation_) June 20, 2016
Already, he has shown better grace in defeat than his Carolina brethren, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, giving all the credit to Cleveland and making no excuses for his poor play when his team needed him most.
Like many of his league mates, Curry will opt out of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, given the threat of the zika virus that has dampened the world’s fullest attention towards what aims to be an Olympic Games more controversial than even Sochi, more so given the news that Brazil is on the brink of financial disrepair.
Regardless, that is an entirely different story for another place, another time.
In the coming days, after Cleveland’s first parade to commemorate its first sports champion since 1964 on Wednesday, the league will shift its attention toward the draft on Thursday, and later, free agency and the Las Vegas Summer League in July. Headlines will swarm with speculation about Kevin Durant‘s free agency tour and eventual destination, whether or not Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili will officially retire, who will come and go in trades before and after draft night, and if LeBron will stay in Cleveland or depart for greater challenges in Los Angeles or New York, or even go back to Miami to reunite with Bosh and D-Wade.
While the tempest that is the NBA offseason brews and unfurls, Stephen Curry will have a long summer to ponder his place in the game, both present and future. Sunday night’s loss, which failed to deliver the proverbial cherry atop the decadent sundae of a dominant and at times surreal 73 win campaign, while not entirely Steph’s doing, will haunt Curry the way other title losses have impacted Jordan, Magic, Bird, and even LeBron, title defeats that played their role in urging them towards claiming greater heights in subsequent years.
There is no telling what this loss holds for Curry, whether it will make or break his career, although one aspect is certain: while the wide world of sports celebrates LeBron’s capacity to deliver on the promise of a long-awaited and hard-earned Cleveland title, it will also bemoan Curry and what he failed to do in pursuit of a second championship.
For now, LeBron emphatically reclaimed his mantel as the game’s greatest active player. While Curry will never equal LeBron in terms of prowess and ability, he can still reign as one of the best to ever grace the hardwood.
A summer off to work harder while he preserves visions in his mind’s eye of the Cavs celebrating on his own floor should be all the motivation he needs to get there.