Steph Curry, MJ, and What the Numbers Say

originally published April 14, 2016

History was anointed last night but it didn’t start last night. It started when the Warriors were 10-0 and then 15-0 and a breathless 24-0. It fed off itself when the Warriors were 33-2. At 40-4 they were shattering records, all of it culminating in last night and the best regular season team in NBA history.

Steph Curry pulled his team into greatness as he slid into his own, having the best year of his still young career and undoubtedly the Michael Jordan comparisons come up.

Jordan’s best overall statistical season was in 1988-89 when he was 25 years old. He had a PER of 31.1, his second highest PER. Curry’s PER this year is 31.5, a 3.5 jump over last season. It falls short of Wilt’s 31.8 PER and Jordan’s 31.7 (1987-88).

In a lot of areas, Curry didn’t just match Jordan, he left him in the dust. Curry’s 3-point shooting of 45% was exponentially better than Jordan’s 27.6%.  Curry’s True Shooting Percentage of 66.9% eclipses Jordan’s 61.4%. Surprisingly, Curry had a higher usage rate than Jordan but not by much, 32.6% for Curry, and 32.1% for Jordan. Curry was a member of the 50-40-90 club joining Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Shooting 50%, making 40% of threes and 90% of free throws is the crowning glory of an elite shooter.

In 1988-89, Michael Jordan played more minutes than Curry played this year. He played more games, scored more points, had a higher field goal percentage, had more assists than Curry, had significantly more rebounds and fewer turnovers, he had more Win Shares than Curry. Jordan had 8 more 30 point games than Curry and two more 50 point games. Jordan had 8 consecutive games of 30 points or more. He did that twice. He had 5 consecutive games of 30 points or more. He did that once. He had a back-to-back-to back 40 point game. He did that once. What is more impressive is that Jordan did it in an era that parameterized the physical take-down of players. It never hindered Jordan’s production.

This year, Curry had five consecutive games of 30 points or more. He did that once. He had back to back 40 point outputs. He did that twice. Curry had better teammates and was the defending champion so he had to do less and Jordan had to carry his team night in and night out. Jordan’s team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Pistons in 1989. What Curry does in the playoffs is still undetermined.

Player Minutes Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3-pt% PER Win Shares
Stephen Curry, 2015-16 34.2 30.1 5.4 6.7 50.4% 45.4% 31.5 17.9
Michael Jordan, 1988-89 40.2 32.5 8.0 8.0 53.8% 27.6% 31.1 19.8

Why else would I be playing? You want to be the best you can be. And if the best you can be is better than him, then why not? That’s good motivation.” (Steph Curry on Michael Jordan comparison)

Michael Jordan never self-identified as a shooter. He was a scorer. He could dribble and finish with a dunk, post you up, then annihilate you with pull up after pull up after pull up, all when fatigued and after playing two rounds of golf. He was physically stronger than everyone who was guarding him, and consistently one of the best defenders in the league.

Curry is a scorer who has outwitted defenses all year long. Playing six minutes less than Jordan, you’d think his PER would be higher than Jordan’s by more than a .4, margin but Jordan on the court was Curry and Draymond Green wrapped into one. He did everything. It’s why he is the greatest player in NBA history.

To be in the conversation with Jordan long term, Curry has to win the title and then win another to finish off a 3-peat. The Bulls won 6 titles in 8 years. To be considered Jordan like, Curry has to have success over time.

It’s been a great 82 game run. What’s coming next will add one more chapter in the Steph Curry legacy. Can he match Jordan and win a title after a 30 point per game year? Jordan did that particular feat four times. One year domination makes a brilliant year. Over time, though? That is the Steph Curry question.