Want to have some fun? Find an old basketball head and mention that Stephen Curry is closing in on the NBA record for three-pointers made in a season and the Golden State Warriors’ franchise marks for career threes and three-point shooting percentage.
The old basketball head will nod appreciatively. He might even say something like, “He certainly can shoot the $%&* out of it.”
Then ask him if that makes Curry the best three-point shooter in team, and possibly league, history. This is where it gets fun. The old basketball head will twist and squirm as if an alien creature were trying to pop out of his chest.
Case in point: Terry Porter, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Porter completed a 17-year career in 2002, evolving from a defensive-oriented point guard with limited jump-shooting range into a floor-spacing three-point shooter. He tilted his head and squinched his mouth when asked, because of the pending statistical benchmarks, if Curry ranked as the Warriors’ all-time best shooter.
“Not quite ready to say that,” Porter said. “I’m not trying to be biased toward our generation, but you can’t compare when the rules have changed so much. You can’t touch guys on the perimeter, so they get all the airspace they want.”
The rub arises from the fact that Curry can, indeed, shoot the $%&* out of a basketball. His career three-point shooting percentage over almost four seasons now, 44.4, is currently second in NBA history behind Steve Kerr (45.4), who retired with only 200 fewer attempts than Curry presently has. Curry has done all this despite being a 6’3”, 185-pound shooting guard with limited hops or speed even before his rash of career-threatening ankle injuries. He is listed as a point guard almost by default, seeing as no one else in the starting lineup remotely qualifies.
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Positional debate aside, Curry holds the respect of elite NBA shooting artisans – Jeff Hornacek and Chris Mullin, to name two – because they see someone much like themselves, someone who has put in countless hours to master a shot they can consistently create and knock down despite not having the pure speed or leaping ability to get open.
If there’s any dispute about what Curry is doing, particularly from three-point range, it’s because the shot is emphasized now more than ever before. Even in the Run TMC era, when Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin led the league’s highest-scoring team in ’89-90 and formed the highest-scoring trio a year later, they were all perimeter players in name and coach Don Nelson emphasized offense over defense, but that didn’t mean they were free to fire at will.
“In the early ‘80s and early ‘90s, it wasn’t considered a good shot,” Mullin said. “It wasn’t something you based your offense on. On the break, we had to run for layups and then if you looped through, the ball might come back to you out at the three-point line. Now the three-point line is a stop sign.”
The Houston Rockets of the ‘90s were the first to emphasize the three-point shot with a one-in, four-out offense, operating at times with four long-range shooters around center Hakeem Olajuwon. Even then, though, the first option always was to get the ball to Olajuwon. The second option was to find someone cutting through the lane. But whereas now it is illegal to impede an offensive player slicing toward the basket, it was basic protocol for any defender within arm’s reach to chuck the cutter with a forearm to re-direct him and upset his timing. “It was called the pro bump,” Mullin said. “You knew when you went down the lane you were going to get hit. Now I’m not sure the college game isn’t more physical than the pro game.”
The term, “hand check,” isn’t even part of the basketball lexicon anymore, but it was a standard part of the game when Mullin and Porter played. A defender was free to put his hand on a ballhandler’s hip and, depending on how strong he was, could use his grip to guide that player in a certain direction. Alvin Robertson, a one-time defensive player of the year and six-time All-Defensive team selection, was so adept at it that Porter and Mullin said it felt as if he were squeezing a kidney. “It wasn’t a hand check, it was a urine test,” Mullin said.
Between the bumps and the hand checks, the challenge in shooting was to have the strength and stamina to break free from a defender’s clutches. As players got bigger and stronger, it became increasingly hard to score, prompting the league to drastically reduce the contact allowed by defenders. The breaking of NBA offensive records probably needs to be kept in context in much the same way NFL passing records being surpassed should with that league limiting contact on receivers and quarterbacks.
“It was never ‘could I make a shot’ but ‘how many times could I get open,’” Mullin said. “For me, I wish I’d played now. We spent a lot of time probing and a shot closer to the basket almost always was a better shot. They come off curls and down screens now just like we did, but now it’s to shoot a 3. We didn’t have any plays to get a 3. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different.”
Hornacek has his private corner of the league’s great-shooter domain, being the only one to ever finish a season among the top two in both three-point shooting percentage and free-throw shooting. At 6’3” and 190 pounds, he had a similar build to Curry and wasn’t particularly big or quick or strong. He, too, relied on reading defenders and a quick release to get his shot off. His advantage, he said, is that he served as Plan B if Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone attracted too much attention with their vaunted pick-and-roll. The disadvantage? He never was Plan A.
Where Curry is different as a point guard from Stockton is that he doesn’t come down the floor looking to set up someone else as the first priority. If he gets an open look, no matter how far from the basket or early in the shot clock, he’s launching it.
“Steph is looking around as if he’s trying to find something else, but the whole time you have to be aware he’s looking for his shot,” Hornacek said.
Mullin, Hornacek and Porter all expressed tremendous respect for Curry. “You could make the case that he’s the best pure shooter in the game today,” Porter said.
The important distinction being: today’s game. Extend the parameter beyond that and beware of the aliens.