It has not been the most flattering few weeks for Steph Curry. The ur-Splash Brother has seemingly alternated between foul trouble and off shooting nights for most of the playoffs. Curry is averaging only 18.3 points per game in the second round, and his postseason scoring, assists, and efficiency have all been worse compared to the regular season. That this has all happened in the shadow of Kevin Durant forcefully earning the title of “Best Player Alive” has put a bigger spotlight on Steph’s struggles. Durant is now unquestionably the best player on the Warriors, and then some. And the diverging paths between Curry and Durant have breathed new life into the debate about which player has been better all along.
That’s actually an easy debate to settle. It’s Durant. In a vacuum, Durant has always been a better player since joining Golden State. The versatility to his game, the ways he can score, and his ability to defend multiple positions all exceed Curry’s. Steph’s best skill happens to be the best skill in the league—and we’ll judge its impact very soon—but Durant is more or less the type of basketball player you would create in a lab for ultimate success—a seven-footer with the skills of a shooting guard and incredible defensive prowess.
The argument of who between Durant and Curry is a better player is a little too simple, however. It’s much more interesting to think about who is more valuable to the team. The stacked nature of the Warriors has always made that decision much more complicated. If you removed one of Curry or Durant, which resulting roster would have better title odds? Up until these playoffs, I think the answer has always been Curry. And even with Durant putting his stamp on the team right now, none of this would have been possible without Curry in the first place.
First, the on-court impact. In each of their three regular seasons as teammates, the Dubs have performed better during Curry’s solo minutes compared to Durant’s. (That is, when one was playing and the other was on the bench.) Golden State has never had a net rating greater than 0.6 over the last three regular seasons when Durant was playing and Curry was not. Last year, the Warriors actually performed better in Curry’s solo minutes compared to when Steph and KD shared the court. That was also the case during their first championship run, though KD then had the upper hand in 2018. Currently, the 2019 Warriors have a 5.2 net rating during Curry’s alone time, vs. 7.8 with KD.
Those numbers at least start to tell the story of what’s made the Warriors so unique during this run. Even as Curry’s counting stats took a hit in the wake of the Durant signing, his impact did not. Curry’s shooting ability probably changed the NBA more than any other player’s singular skill has since...the 1980s? ’70s? The beauty of Steph’s game isn’t just the absurd threes he hits, or how he’s made what used to be considered the worst shots the best ones. It’s how his talent trickles down into everything the Warriors do. Steph commands attention unlike any star before him. He can’t be given an inch of space anywhere on the court, because he’s willing to shoot from anywhere on the court. While Durant is more talented, his game is also more conventional. That doesn’t mean he’s stoppable necessary, but in a way, it makes a whole team easier to defend.
Curry has never liked to stand with the ball and isolate. He runs all over the court. He sets screens for teammates. The level of detail needed to guard Curry when he was at his best was mentally exhausting. His mere presence on the court makes basketball incredibly easier for his teammates, and his teammates just also happen to be Hall-of-Fame worthy talents. Curry’s night-to-night impact just can’t be seen in a box score. The mental fatigue and amount of space he forces a team to defend can’t ever be properly calculated. And his own commitment to that style of play, as opposed to running and endless loop of pick-and-rolls, is another aspect of his value.
Of course, that version of Curry is the one who is at his absolute best, and he hasn’t shown to be that player consistently these playoffs, or over this last season. Whether its age, health, fatigue, or focus, Steph certainly isn’t the same player who was the league’s first unanimous MVP. Curry’s zenith forced the league to change. He forced teams to have rosters with bigs who could switch. The Death Lineup forced teams to play smaller. The Warriors made every coach in the league try to solve their puzzle. Other teams haven’t quite caught up—the Dubs are still heavy favorites—but years of organizations chasing Golden State has taken away the team’s—and Curry’s—uniqueness. Which means that at the same time Steph had to figure out how to coexist with one of the few players better than him, the league en masse was plotting how to stop him.
And to some extent, it’s worked. We may never see 2016 Stephen Curry again. The days of Curry being a singular offensive force with the power of an exploding star may be done. But even if Durant is decidedly better, and even if Steph’s impact has been mitigated by league advancements, that doesn’t mean he’s not still the catalyst for the Warriors’ success. Without Curry ever becoming who he was, would Durant ever have joined this team?
All roads really do lead back to Steph. Numerous players, guys with star talent, never panned out because of injuries. Curry, an undersized guard with ankle issues, maximized every ounce of potential in his body to become a back-to-back MVP. He was the biggest factor in the transformation of a franchise that had long been relegated to laughingstock status. In the Superteam Era, Curry was the player who made the Warriors a viable target for someone of Durant’s stature. Remember when KD joined the Dubs because he wanted to have fun and play team basketball? Curry helped to create that culture in the first place, and he’s been the best embodiment of it every day of this run.
The reason this all feels important to discuss now is not only because of how this postseason has played out, but also because Durant is widely expected to leave this summer. It may be difficult to ever fully appreciate Curry’s impact during his years with KD, because the team’s collective talent muddied the waters. Steph may be on his decline once this run is over, and that will mean the last few years of his prime will have been obscured by his partnership with Durant as opposed to highlighting what made him so special.
Perhaps Curry has one more transcendent year left in him. Maybe he can manage to stay healthy and put up those MVP numbers once again if he gets a chance to go head-to-head with Durant for the first time since 2016. But focusing on numbers or what comes next would miss the point. On or off the court, the Warriors would have never been in the position they are now without Curry. For that reason alone, he’ll always mean more to the organization than Durant.