It feels a little ridiculous now, the Steph Curry and LeBron James debate, the arguing over offensive brilliance or all-around excellence. Up until last season, the answer was easily LeBron James, no one thought otherwise. But after Steph Curry’s MVP in 2015, punctuated by a championship, and an other-worldly season this year, he appeared ripe to rip away the King’s throne.
And then they played each other in the NBA Finals, a gift from the Gods. It was very clear who was supreme. Curry is a great individual player and scorer. But after all the talk and debate and finger pointing on who does what, LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA.
Consider Game 7 with the title on the line, the 2016 NBA Finals. LeBron James had a triple double; he asserted his will. In that same Game 7, in front of the home crowd, Steph Curry missed shots he normally makes. In the biggest game of his legacy filled career, LeBron James was exceptional. In the biggest game of his young career, Curry was mediocre.
Curry’s case as the best player in the league was driven by offensive numbers, including PER, ppg, three point percentage, and field goal percentage. LeBron’s case for the title of the NBA’s best revolved around his spectacular all-around play on offense, his ability to defend all five positions at a high level, and his overall importance to his team. Although LeBron lacks Curry’s offensive fire power, he is multi-faceted and depended on more.
In 2014-15, Curry captured his first MVP, posting a PER of 28.0, good for third in the league. He had an effective field goal percentage of 59.4%, finishing second in the league. He posted a 44.3% clip from downtown, third in the league. He was a 91.4% shooter from the line to lead the league. Not to mention, Curry canned 286 triples last season, an NBA record.
Curry outpaced LeBron in almost every major statistical category except for PPG, rebounds, and blocks. After Curry’s first MVP and sensational year, he followed up his 2014-2015 season with a historic, mind-blowing 2015-2016 regular season, culminating in his second consecutive MVP.
Curry led the league in PER at 31.5, in PPG with 30.1, and free throw percentage at 90.7%. He also finished a not too shabby second in three point percentage at 45.4%, and second in effective field goal percentage at 63.0%.
Curry also obliterated his previous record of most threes in a single season by making 406 threes!
LeBron meanwhile posted a PER of 27.5 and finished well behind Curry with 25.3 PPG. Curry made LeBron look pedestrian with LeBron’s effective field goal percentage sitting at 55.1%, and LeBron’s three point percentage at a measly 30.9%.
But this is what goes unnoticed on the stat sheet. Kyrie Irving, the Cavs point guard, is a scorer, not a pass first, I’ll get you the ball where you need it facilitator. That responsibility falls upon James. He has to get the likes of JR Smith, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye engaged in the offense. That is a burden Curry just does not have. Draymond Green is the Warriors facilitator. Curry has the luxury of roaming free and concentrating on making shots.
It was evident in the 2016 NBA Finals what LeBron has to do. He was driving the lane and finishing. He was posting up. He passed to the wing to J.R.Smith. He dished to Kyrie for a step back iso jumper in the lane. Or a three in Curry’s face. LeBron pulled boards. LeBron blocked shots. Furthermore, James is often tasked with having to defend the other teams’ best offensive player, particularly in crucial situations.
In the 2013 Finals with the Heat, Erik Spoelstra often put James on Tony Parker down the stretch of the game, and James was able to limit Parker’s effectiveness. In that same series, if James was asked to guard Tim Duncan after a switch on the pick-and-roll, he would do it flawlessly.
In this years’ Finals, James guarded Curry and stayed with him on the perimeter, contesting his shot or forcing him into difficult shots. Conversely, Curry isn’t asked to guard the opposition’s best offensive player—that is often left to Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala. In fact, Steve Kerr often hides Steph Curry on the opposition’s least effective offensive option, like he did in the Western Conference Finals, having Curry guard non-scorer Andre Roberson.
So why in the closing minutes of Game 7, in the NBA Finals, with everything on the line, did Steve Kerr put Steph Curry on Kyrie Irving? It was a disaster as Irving made the biggest shot of the series and his career, a nothing but net three to give the Cavs a three point lead and the title.
In the 2015 Finals, James had an eye-popping stat line of 35.8 PPG, 8.8 APG, and 13.3 RPG. In fact, James’ 2015 Finals was historic as he became the first player in NBA history to lead both teams in all three of those categories. Furthermore, to demonstrate just how important James was in the 2015 Finals consider this: when James was not on the floor, teammates Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 0/21 from the field. In essence, James was a one man team that nearly pulled out the improbable feat of defeating the Warriors and bringing a championship back to The Land.
In that same Finals, Steph Curry played well, but not up to the level of the best player in the NBA. He struggled to find a rhythm until finally the Warriors went small at the end of game 3. In games 4-6 Curry played much better, but it was Andre Iguodala who was the Warriors best player in that series.
In this year’s Finals, the same trend developed. Even though James had his sidekick Kyrie Irving this go around, when James struggled, the Cavs couldn’t keep up. In games 1, 2 and 4 LeBron lacked aggression and committed too many turnovers. As a result, the Cavs lost those games, and found themselves in a 1-3 series hole before storming back to win the next two games.
In the Cavs first three victories, LeBron averaged 24.6 points, 46.8% shooting, 10.3 rebounds, 8 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.3 blocks. In game 5, James outdid himself, as he scored 41 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and had 7 assists. And then he repeated his 40 point performance in Game 6. In game 7, his MVP performance was other-worldly. 27 points. 11 rebounds. 11 assists. 2 steals. 3 blocks. For the series, he led all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
The Strength In Numbers crew needed MVP Curry in games 5, 6, 7. This is who they got: 24 points. 36.6% shooting. 35.7% from three. 2.3 assists. 4 turnovers. Mediocre scoring, decent points per game but not great. Game 7, by Curry’s own admission, had to be the greatest game of his career. It wasn’t. 17 points, 31.5% field goals, 28.5% from three, 2 assists.
Previously, the Warriors skated through. In the 2015 Finals, Andre Iguodala rose to the occasion when Curry struggled. In the 2016 Finals, when Curry had a bad Game 7, Draymond Green was the only hero: 32 points. 73.3% shooting. 75% from three. 15 rebounds, 9 assists. Iguodala was a ghost: 4 points, 0% from three.
What Curry was denied, LeBron James received in spades. Kyrie Irving loves to score and in Game 7 he was his brilliant self, 26 points, 6 rebounds. It left the rest of it, the hard core defense, the timely scoring, finding open shooters, making quick decisions, defending Curry and blocking shots, on LeBron James to-do list.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between James and Curry:
James has the ability to make players better, while Curry serves himself. Great players have a knack to not only do great things for themselves, but also for their teammates. It was the for their teammates part of the equation where Curry failed.
Nevertheless, the advanced metrics would contend that Curry is better than LeBron, as Curry netted 17.9 Win Shares, compared to James’ 13.6 in the regular season. But the regular season is not the playoffs. When Curry’s shot is off, what good is he?
Sure, he’s still a decoy, but he doesn’t facilitate offense, or defend at a high level. He has Draymond Green to pick up the slack.
When LeBron’s shot is off, there are still so many other ways he can impact the game: he can defend, facilitate, and rebound. I don’t know about you, but I’d take the jack of all trades over the one trick pony any day of the week.
Who also happens to be the 2016 NBA Finals MVP. And NBA Champion. Akron native, LeBron James.
photo via llananba