I’m not gonna pretend like I know the intricacies of player interactions in basketball. It would be ignorant of me to pretend like I am some NBA Nostradamus because of my ability to understand numbers and follow basic basketball strategy on televised games.
However, the latest wave of criticism that has hit reigning MVP Stephen Curry from Oscar Robertson is so stupid that his views, along with similar ones, need to be statistically smacked down. Today, I am going to debunk a few myths that face Curry as he continues his reign of terror over the league - or a literal rain considering how many threes he seems to make per game.
Defenses/the competition today are easier to score on
Robertson told ESPN on the “Mike & Mike Show” that he didn’t “think coaches today in basketball [understood] the game of basketball,” mentioning that “they don’t know what people are doing on the court” and how said coaches were too analytical in their understanding of basketball.
Forget the numbers and just use common sense for a moment. Robertson is arguing - more than 40 years after the end of his career, when the global talent pool of basketball players is eons higher than it has ever been and there is more money invested in basketball resources than ever in the - that coaches are too stupid.
I know I’ve criticized coaches before in other sports, but even I wouldn’t go this far.
In 2016, NBA players weigh more, are faster, stronger and more efficient than in Robertson’s era, where undersized and unathletic guards often jacked up contested 20 footers in transition. I would argue that Robertson should have been talking about his own era when talking about an easier league to coast and score in.
Back in the 1962 season, when Robertson gained his vaunted triple-double season, the average pace of an NBA team was a blistering 126.2 possessions per game, compared to the 95.7 possessions per game an average team today gets. For reference, the league’s fastest paced team this season is the Sacramento Kings at 100.2. Those fast breaks didn’t even result in good offenses.
While the emphasis on transition certainly allowed for teams to get higher scoring games than today, this made for extremely inefficient offenses by today’s standards. The Cincinnati Royals back then, ironically led by Robertson, were the highest rated offense in the league in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) with 98.3. Only the Philadelphia 76ers today rank worse - both a testament to how bad the 76ers are and how much the league has evolved.
Rules like the restrictions on hand-checking do not play a factor in Curry’s success either. Are we really going to believe that an increase in scoring efficiency comes from simple rule changes and more athletic players somehow being more feeble-minded? It’s such an over-generalized dismissal of a player’s greatness.
Besides, if you think players today are coddled, watch the Warriors series against the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs, when both Matthew Dellavedova and Mike Conley practically tried to suffocate Curry on the perimeter. This is not an indictment on any of those teams either, as the Warriors got away with their own share of hacks and physical play on the other end too, Curry included. Players obviously still try to play rough on the perimeter and nothing is going to change that.
Either way, this conversation is pointless. When we measure a player’s legacy, we measure it relative to competition of their era. It’s not totally fair to compare players across completely different eras because there are advantages and disadvantages to each one. Simultaneously, players have no control over how good the rest of the league is, so criticizing a player by diminishing his competition makes little sense when looking at a legacy in the same league.
My points above weren’t meant to diminish Robertson’s legacy or state that Curry has it “harder,” even if that may be true. It’s to demonstrate the meaninglessness, hypocrisy and falsity of the whole “weak era” argument.
Just play Curry tight and he can’t score
This is one that particularly irks me because it insinuates that Curry is somehow just a glorified Kyle Korver. Let’s start off with the qualitative arguments against this bizarre line of reasoning.
Curry has absolutely ridiculous handles. If you try to play him tight, you’re almost always going to be made into the subject of a humiliating Vine. He is quick enough on his feet that he can fake out opposing players on the ball, but also is a strong enough passer that if you try doubling him near the perimeter, he can almost always find an open shooter.
It’s not as if players haven’t tried to guard him one on one. His video game-esque shooting ability from three (over a 46 percent three point percent) is accompanied by his 68.5 field goal percentage at the rim. He is clearly not a one-dimensional scorer and is elite at scoring from nearly every area on the court.
But let’s assume “playing him tight,” as utterly and simplistically moronic as it sounds as a solution, works for a moment on the ball. Does this even begin to somehow stop what a force of nature Curry is if you have to chase him without the ball? Here, Curry currently averages 1.44 points per possession on spot-up plays (good for second in the NBA) and 1.24 off screens: the highest out of any player with at least 150 possessions on these play types.
NBA teams basically have to pray that Curry hits a cold shooting night or double him during every single offensive possession. In essence, when you play the Warriors, you have to choose between having to play four-on-five against them when defending them or watching Curry embarrass your defenders for 40. Sometimes you’ll get both.
Curry is bad on defense
So now you’re willing to admit Curry’s unstoppable qualities on offense. Along with his all-time record 32.4 Player Efficiency Rating for this season and league-leading offense, Curry is also the league’s leading scorer and leader in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (10.35). I know what you’re thinking - he might be the best player in the league, but he’s got to be weak on defense, right?
Not exactly. Curry, who is targeted on spot-up players the second most out of all Warriors players, allows a serviceable 0.89 PPP on these plays, while his 0.82 PPP on 44 percent of defending a pick and roll handler actually shows him as a net positive on that end. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus has Curry at a 1.94 grade, which is impressive considering how the statistic actually favors taller players on defense more.
I don’t buy Curry the same way his player tracking stats seem to indicate. By virtue of being on a team with Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, Curry has a good amount of the opposing team’s biggest threats already locked down, so his matchups aren’t the same thing as having to defend LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Conversely this also means that teams are willing to target him more on that end.
Look - I get it. We tend to criticize players today, look favorably on the past and over-react to bad nights from current stars (see the Portland game). For older fans of basketball and even former figures, it can be scary seeing the sport you love change into one where a guy like Curry can just light up the league at will. Even I’m reluctant to call this season the greatest season I’ve seen in my 16 or so years of watching basketball, as I already think that about LeBron’s 2013 season.
That said, when you see greatness, there’s no need to deny it. To Robertson and all of Curry’s haters: do us all a favor and please shut up if you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Anokh Palakurthi is associate life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @DC_Anokh.