LeBron James and Stephen Curry are the NBA's two biggest stars, but how do they compare statistically to one another?
OAKLAND, Calif. — On the eve of the NBA Finals, the series’ two headlining stars both did their best to downplay, duck and defuse the inevitable head-to-head comparisons. For Cleveland’s LeBron James and Golden State’s Stephen Curry, the goal Wednesday was the same: get through media availability without generating any bulletin board material or distractions.
“I'm not in the business of ranking or debating who is what,” said Curry, the back-to-back MVP, when asked whether he had overtaken James as the NBA’s brightest star. “It's really annoying for me. That's not what I'm playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron's throne or whatever. I'm trying to chase rings.”
James, who made headlines last month when he wondered aloud about the difference between being the “Most Valuable" player and the “Best” player, said Wednesday that addressing the issue had been a “mistake” and reiterated that Curry was a deserving winner.
“Steph was definitely the MVP of our league and is the MVP in our league,” James said. “[He’s] a great basketball player, and what he does for this league is amazing.”
Asked whether James and Curry, who together have won three of the last four titles and six of the last eight MVP awards, are now rivals, he shook his head.
“I don't know, you [media] guys make rivals,” James said. “It's great for the sport. It's great for all sports. I don't think me and Steph—when you talk about rivalries, you talk about [North] Carolina and Duke, you talk about Ohio State and Michigan. It's hard to say LeBron and Steph [unless] there's a smaller scale or another word for a rival.”
James’s point is well-taken: he and Curry play different positions, they play totally different styles, they have totally different body types and their draft classes are separated by six years. James, the child prodigy, is set to make his seventh career Finals appearance and sixth in a row after bursting onto the scene as a rookie. Curry, the lightly recruited late-bloomer, is making just his second Finals appearance after spending most of his rookie deal acclimating to the professional game.
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“LeBron's been doing it for I think 13 years now,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said, when asked to compare the two superstars. “I don't think there's just a face in the NBA. I think there are faces because it's such a star-driven league. … But I think it might be easier for the common fan to relate to Steph because it's hard to be 6'8", 260 and have a 40-inch vert and be the fastest guy on the floor.”
Although Curry finds the comparisons annoying and James was willing to crown Curry this season’s MVP rather than spark another round of arguments, the many contrasts between these two players are worthy of some exploration.
The following 10 charts offer a deeper look at how James and Curry stack up against each other. Thanks to Basketball-Reference.com for the data behind the charts.
LeBron vs. Curry: Career Threes
The chief philosophical battle between James and Curry, at present, involves the three-point line. While James turned himself into a capable three-point shooter during his time with the Heat, Curry is rightly viewed as the front man for the NBA’s three-centric future, as he’s broken seemingly every three-point record there is to break.
The following three charts show the fundamental contrast in how these two stars get their points.
In this first one, you can see each player’s cumulative three-pointers as they progressed year by year during their career. Even though James had a three-year head start, Curry has already moved past him in career three-pointers. Indeed, Curry’s career total stands at 1,593, easily surpassing James’s total of 1,343.
LeBron vs. Curry: Scoring By Type
This second chart helps reinforce just how crazy it is that Curry, in his seventh season, has surpassed James, who is in his No. 13. Take a look at how James and Curry have accumulated their points during their respective careers. While Curry has surpassed James on threes, there are monstrous gaps between the two players when it comes to two-point baskets and free throws, gaps that obviously favor James. Indeed, James has made more than triple the number of two-point baskets and free throws than Curry at this point in their careers.
LeBron vs. Curry: Career Dunks
James has dominated the Eastern Conference throughout his prime thanks to his unmatched combination of physicality, athleticism and ball-handling ability. This year has been no different: James plowed through the East by getting to the basket at will. Meanwhile, Curry has used the threat of his three-point shot to open up space behind the defense, space that he often exploits with acrobatic layups and runners.
This season, James finished 72% of his attempts from within three feet, while Curry trailed just behind him at 70%. But one humongous difference remained: James dunked 111 times, the tenth time he’s registered at least 100 dunks in a season, while Curry managed just seven dunks. As it so happens, Curry’s modest total represented a career-high.
This chart shows just how much more often James has dunked during his career than Curry. Through 13 years, James has 1,472 slams, good for an average of 113 per year. Curry has totaled 21 dunks in his seven-year career, giving him an average of three per season.
LeBron vs. Curry: 402 Three-Pointers
Curry might not be a match for James when it comes to dunking, but no one is a match for Curry when it comes to three-pointers. This season, he hit an NBA record 402 three-pointers on an NBA record 886 attempts, giving him a blistering 45.4% from deep. James, on the other hand, endured his worst three-point shooting season since his rookie year, hitting just 87 threes and connecting at a 30.9% rate.
Curry’s total of 402 three-pointers actually surpasses James’s total for three-pointers over the last three seasons combined. In fact, the following chart illustrates that James needed 282 games dating back to the 2012-13 season to hit 402 threes, the same number Curry hit in 79 games this season.
LeBron vs. Curry: Scoring Average
There’s another key defining contrast between these two players: James quickly achieved and then consistently maintained elite statistical contributions while Curry has risen like a comet after a relatively slow start to his career (by a superstar’s standard, anyway).
The following chart compares their scoring numbers by age. This season marks the first time that Curry posted a higher scoring average than James at the same age. Note that James’s peak scoring year—31.4 PPG in 2005-06—still edges Curry’s 30.1 PPG in 2015-16.
LeBron vs. Curry: Overall Efficiency
There’s a similar story to be told about the two players’ overall efficiency. Throughout the first five years of his career, Curry trailed James at a similar age when it came to his Player Efficiency Rating. However, over the last two seasons, Curry has eked past James at the same age. This year, Curry posted a career-best and league-leading 31.5 PER; James has topped that mark twice in his career with a 31.7 PER in 2008-09 and a 31.6 PER in 2012-13.
LeBron vs. Curry: Plus-Minus
While James has bragging rights when it comes to scoring and efficiency, Curry has enjoyed a big advantage in impact, as measured by plus-minus. As the Warriors reeled off 67 wins in 2014-15 and 73 wins in 2015-16, Curry posted some of the largest individual plus-minus numbers of the past two decades.
The following chart compares the two players by plus-minus year by year through their careers. Curry’s two most recent efforts (+1,022 in 2015-16 and +920 in 2014-15) both beat James’ best effort (+870 in 2008-09).
James vs. Curry: Popularity
There has been another changing of the guard over the last two years: Curry has overtaken James, by some measures, in popularity. This year, Curry topped James in both jersey sales and All-Star votes, which are determined by a fan voting process.
The following chart shows the All-Star voting results from the past four years. Note that James has received at least 1,000,000 votes in 12 straight years. Curry, by contrast, received less than 200,000 votes as recently as 2012-13, only to take off in popularity in the last three years. In 2016, Curry’s vote total topped James’s by more than 500,000.
LeBron vs. Curry: Durability
James’s tank-like physique sets up an easy “David vs. Goliath” comparison against Curry, who is often the shortest and lightest player on the court at any given time. When it comes to postseason durability, James is in a league of his own, having never missed a playoff game for any reason during a career that has seen him log an average of 42.1 MPG over 192 postseason contests. Curry, meanwhile, has missed time twice in this postseason with ankle and knee injuries.
However, the two players actually enjoy surprisingly similar durability during their careers. James has appeared in 94% of his teams’ regular season games (987 out of 1,050), while Curry has suited up in 88.7% of the Warriors’ games (495 out of 558) since he entered the NBA.
LeBron vs. Curry: Postseason Minutes
By the end of the Finals, James will have moved into the NBA’s top 10 all time when it comes to playoff games. At 31, with no end to his career in sight, he’s already appeared in more postseason contests than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and John Stockton. As the following chart shows, his postseason odometer has four times more miles on it than Curry’s.
Remarkably, though, Curry is just four wins away from equaling James’s ring count at two. Think: all those minutes, all those battles with the Celtics and Spurs, and James could soon be 2-5 in the Finals with Curry potentially improving to 2-0.
If that’s how it plays out, their Finals records might wind up standing as the biggest, most obvious contrast of all.