Every season, Stephen Curry draws himself closer to being considered a consensus superstar in the NBA. Long gone are his days as an unproven three-point marksman at Davidson. Prior to entering the league, NBA scouts questioned whether the sharpshooter could play near the level he did collegiality. At 6’3″ 185 lbs with a pure shooting stroke, Curry initially played a lot more like an undersized two guard than a point guard. Few people predicted that he would be able to score enough and efficiently at his size. Without elite level quickness, speed, or athleticism, scouts feared Curry would be a defensive liability and incapable or running an NBA offense. Now he his considered amongst the best point guards in the NBA. In fact, Curry recently stated that he believes he is a better offensive player than LeBron James.
At first glance, this may seem like a ridiculous assertion by Curry. Defensively, James is by far the superior player. The four-time MVP is amongst the best perimeter and help defenders in the NBA. With five consecutive NBA All-Defensive First Team selections and last season’s second team nod, James’s resume easily backs that up. While Curry does not necessarily lack in defensive effort, he certainly has had his fair share of difficulty slowing down quicker guards. However, Curry was anything but shy when responding to Dan Patrick’s question of which player was better offensively between he and LeBron. Perhaps it was a matter of ego for the southpaw slinger. Given Curry’s improvement and production last season, a case can be made that the discussion is certainly relevant in its potential to, at the very least, spark a great debate. One can look at Curry and LeBron’s offensive skills, statistics, and productivity to determine who is the better player on that side of the court for the sake of argument.
Scoring Edge: LeBron – James is known for his passing ability, combination of size, strength, speed, quickness, and athleticism. However, he can be a cold-blooded assassin when he needs to score. One can not be fooled by King James’ often pass first and unselfish nature. In 2008, he won the NBA scoring title while with the Cleveland Cavaliers and he has averaged 30.0 plus ppg twice during his career. With the Miami Heat, LeBron James joined forces with Dwayne Wade, another former scoring champion, fellow perennial All-Star Chris Bosh and still managed to post high scoring numbers. Currently, LeBron holds a career average of 27.5 ppg. That scoring average places him third all time in NBA history behind Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlin.
Even Kevin Durant, who has now won four NBA scoring titles, trails LeBron in career scoring average by a tenth of a point. To further illustrate the model of consistency with which LeBron has scored throughout his career, one must consider the fact that James has not averaged less than 26.7 ppg since his second season in the league in 2004. If anyone doubts LBJ’s scoring ability, a simple glance at his 61 point performance versus the Charlotte Bobcats should serve as a reminder.
Stephen Curry may not have the offensive accolades of LeBron James, but he is definitely no slouch when it comes to scoring the basketball. On paper, Curry may not appear to be a better offensive player than LeBron James. However, that gap may be a lot closer than one would think. After being what many people would describe as snubbed from the All-Star team in the Western Conference filled with dynamic point guards, Curry was finally selected to play in his first NBA All-Star game last season. The 2013-14 season was a breakout year for Curry. The point guard averaged 24.0 ppg and lead the Warriors to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Curry was also rewarded with a selection to the All NBA Second Team. These accomplishments officially placed Curry alongside more publicized star point guards such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker and Kyrie Irving. Nonetheless, James has established himself as the more dominant scorer over the course of his career and last year was no exception.
Shooting Edge: Curry – Stephen Curry is not just the best shooter in the NBA, he is one of the best shooter’s in NBA history. Considering Curry just finished his sixth season in the league that is quite a statement. Yet, a quick view of footage should reveal all one needs to see about the lefty’s shooting prowess. The son of former NBA three-point specialist, Dale Curry, has helped revolutionize shooting in the most prevalent era of the three-point shot. In 2012-13 season, Curry set the NBA record for three pointers in a season with 272. The total eclipsed that of legendary shooter Ray Allen’s total with the Seattle Supersonics in the 2005-06 season.
Even more astonishing was the fact that Curry attempted less three pointers than Allen did and he still managed to shoot 45 percent from distance, good enough for third in the NBA. Last season Curry drained 261 three pointers and shot 42 percent from three-point range, 38 more than the second highest total. The runner-up was none other than Curry’s sniper shooting backcourt mate, Klay Thompson. Thompson and Curry are nicknamed the “Splash Brothers” for their propensity to swish threes. Warriors coach Mark Jackson referred to the duo as the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history. No duo has made more threes together. Curry’s prolific shooting and distributing is a big reason for that.
LeBron James excels in many offensive facets in the game of basketball. Shooting has never been his forte, but he has managed to become a fairly reliable shooter over the years. James has refined his shooting stroke to increase his accuracy. Once a streaky mid range shooter and average three-point shooter, the four-time MVP shot just under 38 percent from three-point range last season and 40 percent the year prior. Surprisingly, James hit the same number of three pointers as his Miami Heat teammate, Ray Allen (116), and shot percentage points higher. For a player who earns most of his money by attacking and finishing in the paint, James has certainly come a long way.
Efficiency Edge: LeBron – If there is one staple of consistency which LeBron deserves the utmost praise for, it lies in his efficiency. No superstar in the NBA can state that they have played at a higher level of efficiency in the last decade than LeBron James. Last season, Kevin Durant snagged the MVP trophy away from LeBron. The way Durant was able to do this was by becoming the first player in six seasons to surpass LeBron in PER or Player Efficiency Rating. PER measures all of a player’s statistical contributions based on a per minutes basis. The formulas not only take into account points, free throws, field goals, rebounds, assist, steals, and blocks, but also take into account a players faults. For example, turnovers and missed shots are calculated within PER. After six straight years on top. LeBron still managed to come in second in the NBA with a PER of 29.4. His career PER of 27.79 ranks him second all time behind Michael Jordan in NBA history and tops among all active players. Another aspect of LeBron’s efficiency is the forwards incredibly high field goal percentage. James has increased his field goal percentage in each of his last seven seasons. Last year he shot a blistering 56 percent from the field.
Steph Curry is far from inefficient. Despite being an undersized guard who makes his living on the perimeter, he still shot 47 percent from the field last season. Although his three-point percentages were down slightly, Curry still finished tenth in the NBA in that category. Some people may be quick to place Curry in the box of volume shooter, but his ability to get quality looks and shots over his opponents has is more complex. Curry has an innate abilities such as a cat quick release, text-book stoke, and craftiness. Defenders who assume Curry is just a shooter find out quite often that he has an array of floaters, lay ups, up and unders, and crossovers in his arsenal. The 24.13 PER Curry posted was good enough for tenth in the league, but both Paul and Westbrook posted higher ratings at the point guard position. Despite having a very good PER, Curry’s efficiency was impressive for his game, but nowhere near as dominating as LeBron’s.
Passing Edge: LeBron – LeBron James had what some would describe as a down year passing the ball. That is not to say his 6.3 apg were anything to laugh at. However, “The King” simply was not nearly as dominate statistically in that category as we have seen in recent years. That does not mean his passing skills have left him. The 6.3 apg were good enough for eleventh in the NBA. Assists are just one measurable stat when it comes to distributing the basketball. James has excellent court vision and passes the ball as good as anyone in the league, especially considering his size and position. LeBron’s basketball IQ and ability to anticipate the next play seconds before it is happening is an intangible skill that few players have possessed. While there have been players who could score and rebound at the level of LeBron, there are far few that could pass like he can.
Steph Curry finished fifth in the NBA last season in apg at 8.5. The three-point assassin should be proud of that figure. For a player known for his shooting prowess few people recognize the hard work Curry has put into honing his point guard skills. Curry is actually a very good passer. He has exceptional court vision, he is dangerous in transition whether he is passing or shooting the ball, and he can make difficult passes accurately with both hands. However, late in games, probably due to exhaustion, Curry can get a little sloppy with his passes, which is why he was tied for first in the NBA with 3.8 turnovers per game. However, James did have a lower assist to turnover ratio than Curry at just 1.81 last season. Nonetheless, LeBron is not actually a point guard and was often forced to be the primary ball handler for the Heat last season. Curry definitely outpaced LeBron statistically but overall skill wise LeBron would be considered a better passer. Considering the fact that he sees a lot more double teams and multiplayer rotations than Curry makes his passing a more valuable asset.
Creativity/Ballhandling Edge: Curry – Curry is not just your run of the mill spot up shooter. What makes him most dangerous is his ability to not only shoot but to create his own shot off the dribble. Not only does Curry create shots out of nowhere for himself with relative ease but he can also create easy baskets for others. Although technically a southpaw, the All Star is practically ambidextrous and equipped with a wide array of spin moves, hesitations, stutter steps, step backs, head fakes and jukes that leave his defenders off-balance. Curry is one of best ball handlers in the NBA, but his individual creativity is what keeps defenders honest. This is simply because they are unable to guess what move Curry will attempt to pull off in an isolation situation. If a defender runs him off the three-point line, the possession is far from over. Despite not being a dominate finisher. he is a master of improvisation off the dribble. Being automatic at 88 percent from the charity stripe also leaves defenders unlikely to foul him. When defenders fall for Curry’s trickery, the price is often two points. Off the ball, the Warriors star can be clever as well, running off screens with precision timing and cutting to the basket for easy lay ins when his man overplays him or falls asleep.
James is not quite Magic Johnson with the basketball, but he may be as close to him as we have seen in the modern-day era. Neither Curry nor James are strangers to posting triple doubles, but LeBron’s ball handling and the speed at which he can push the ball efficiently make him a one man fast break. Analysts still marvel at the ability of a basketball player that is 6’8″ 260 pounds (prior to his recent weight loss this offseason), sprint down the court faster than most guards, avoid smaller and quicker players with compact dribbling moves and finish or make incredible passes. James certainly has good control of the basketball and footwork for a player his size but he is not quite as graceful as Curry. His individual moves are much more fundamental and less flashy, which is a good thing but the overall creativity that LeBron shows during his game and in isolation is inferior to Curry. Part of this is probably due to the fact that James can simply blow by most defenders and for those he can not, he manages to bulldoze his way by like a freight train. As a master of efficiency James does not get unnecessarily creative.
Winner: LeBron – LeBron James edges out Curry by a virtue of three categories to two. There are many areas and assessments that can be made between these two players to analyze their individual games and strengths. Both players are great scorers, but off of shear consistency and reputation of dominance, it would be difficult to give Curry the nod over LeBron. James has very little weaknesses in what is now one of the most overall balanced skill sets in the history of the league. His repertoire greatly differs from Curry’s offensively, but his lacks significant weaknesses are his greatest head to head strength. James scores efficiently from nearly everywhere on the floor and can pass with the best of them.
Curry is an efficient shooter and creator who is continuing to hone his offensive skills outside of the perimeter. However, his disparity in his ability to deliver dominantly in the paint, lack of a post game and strength, negate his clear perimeter skill advantage over LeBron. James is the leagues most dominant wing player on the interior. He is also a much improved shooter and can pass with the best of them. This makes LeBron James the better offensive player than Stephen Curry overall. Although on a particular possession late in a game a coach may be more worried about Curry’s hot shooting in favor of LeBron’s overall skillet. However, that is no slap at NBA’s best player. it is only a testament to the league’s best shooter.
Commentary by Brandon Wright