During a crazed Twitter rant wherein he promoted his upcoming album while begging Mark Zuckerberg for money, basketball authority Kanye West tweeted, "I am the Jordan and Steph Curry of music, meaning I'm the best of 2 generations."
While it's easy to dismiss the messenger as grandiose, ill-informed and otherwise, the message itself has a subversive ring of verisimilitude. Although his arrival at this echelon has been sudden and unexpected, it's increasingly hard to deny that Stephen Curry is approaching a historic level of greatness.
Kanye's sacrilege was less in comparing himself to Michael Jordan and more in mentioning Curry and Jordan in the same sentence. We're still adjusting to a world in which Curry can be referenced in the same sentence as the GOAT. At this point, as Golden State chases 73 wins, it's common to compare the 2015-16 Warriors season to that of Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls. That connection has become more or less accepted, helped along by Steve Kerr's participation in both squads. What's less accepted is a focus on Curry's individual feats as Jordan-esque, even though he's delivering a historically unprecedented season.
"Unprecedented" might even be selling it short. It could stand as the greatest we've seen since the advent of the 3-point line.
Of course, this does not mean that Curry has come anywhere close to approaching the totality of Jordan's career. It will be hard for anyone to touch what Jordan accomplished en route to six titles in two, wondrous three-peat crescendos. It simply means that -- statistically, and otherwise -- Curry is building a case for the best individual season in modern NBA history. That much is significant even if you reflexively side with MJ and other all-timers.
If Curry keeps this up, his statistical case will be easy to make. Using the greatest player of all time as a comparison point, that much is clear. Curry is scoring far more efficiently (67.6 percent true shooting) than Jordan in MJ's most efficient scoring season (61.4 percent true shooting). Curry is posting a slightly better PER than Jordan ever did (32.1 to Jordan's career-best 31.7), and he is currently edging any MJ season out in win share rate and offensive rating.
Obviously, Curry has accomplished much of this with unprecedented 3-point shooting. Again, "unprecedented" might be an undersell. After an MVP season in which Curry broke his own record for made 3s last season with 286, he has 245 3-pointers as the Warriors resume play in Portland on Friday after the All-Star break. We've never seen this, and we've never seen anything like this. The range itself is also without precedent. Buzzer heaves excluded, Curry is shooting 68.1 percent on 3s beyond 28 feet, having drained 32 such tries. This is an efficiency that exceeds making 100 percent on 2-point shots.
We don't have a clear picture of Jordan's likely impressive on/off numbers, but Curry's current numbers speak to a staggering impact, an influence on the game that might be even greater than his incredible individual stats suggest. As the only player who can efficiently score off the dribble from beyond 30 feet, Curry commands defensive strategies no one else does.
He's claiming his fewest assists in three seasons, but that can be ascribed to double-teams 40 feet from the hoop. In these situations, Curry will often swing the ball out to an open Draymond Green, who then drives and finds an open man (Curry leads the NBA in secondary "hockey assists" this season, averaging 2.4). Per 48 minutes, Golden State outscores opponents by 21.8 with Curry on the floor. Though muddled by garbage-time minutes, it's notable that the Warriors have been outscored by 6.8 points per 48 when Curry is off the floor.
Speaking of garbage time, Curry's bench rest might be obscuring his counting stats. His 29.8 points per game is impressive on its face, but especially so given that Curry sat the entirety of 15 fourth quarters and averages 33.8 minutes per game. Although Curry certainly benefits from the rest, his counting stats will read as less impressive in comparison to seasons when Jordan averaged over 40 minutes, which he did three times.
It's reasonable to give Jordan credit for playing extra minutes, and it's reasonable to cite Jordan's hard-to-quantify defensive impact as a tiebreaker in a comparison of seasons. Other arguments might not be so reasonable.
During an appearance on Colin Cowherd's radio show earlier this season, basketball elder Charles Barkley said of the Warriors, "We would have just mauled them. You're not gonna let guys come off those picks. The defense is at a disadvantage, all these cornerbacks in the NFL are really at a disadvantage. And a guy like [Curry], who is amazing, you can't put your hands on him, you can't hand-check him. It's a totally different game."
"Defense was tougher back then," is a classic way to dismiss modern basketball accomplishments while celebrating the vaunted 1980s and 1990s. The idea that defense was tougher in that era just isn't supported by the numbers. To be sure, certain defenses from those times were indeed great. It's just that not every game was against Chuck Daly's Pistons or Pat Riley's Knicks.
Although NBA play was billed as a more rugged, "physical" game in which anything went on defense, teams scored more easily in the 1980s and 1990s and were rewarded with more free throws. For example, in the 1988-89 season, quite possibly Jordan's best statistically -- he averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists -- the average offensive rating was 108. Today, this season, it stands at 105.6.
Our collective love of 1980s and 1990s basketball was likely informed by how well the offenses did (note: Fans like scoring). Defenses actually thrived in the early to mid-2000s, and it's widely looked at as a relatively forgettable NBA nadir. Ironically, offensive success in the 1980s and 1990s might inform how we've come to romanticize defenses of that era.
Specifically addressing the "hand check" as a Curry-stopping deterrent, its primary function was to thwart drives. There's only so much a hand check can do about a guy who's leaping backward and draining 30-footers.
Despite the points above, Barkley and other basketball nostalgists will cling to the notion that the unprecedented present has nothing on the past, that Jordan comparisons qualify as grand heresy. Maybe they're right, as it's difficult to disprove "would have." It speaks to the season he's having that Steph Curry is taking L's only in hypothetical times and places.