You may have heard that the NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. You may have read some of the words we wrote about that anniversary with our own celebration of the league we cover. You may have heard that Stephen Curry, No. 15 on our The Athletic NBA75 list, recently won his fourth title and first NBA Finals MVP with the Golden State (né Philadelphia) Warriors, one of the “original” Basketball Association of America teams from the inaugural 1946-47 season.
By winning his fourth ‘chip, Curry entered an exclusive club who have won four titles and two regular-season MVPs: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Curry becomes the seventh. That’s elite company, as all of those players are in The Athletic NBA75 top 10.
All of which got us thinking: If those guys are top 10, where does that put Curry now? At No. 15 on our initial list, he’d need to clear five players to get into the top 10. Should he? We gathered some of the original panelists and other writers for a discussion about Curry’s historic importance.
Where would you rank Steph Curry now? (His cumulative ranking was 15th on our original list)
Jason Jones: Curry is certainly top 10. I’d have him behind Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Wilt, Russell and Kobe. Then I think we’re in the Steph range. I’d place him ahead of Larry Bird.
Joe Vardon: Curry was 13th on my ballot, which meant I was two spaces higher on Curry’s historic impact than the mean. Would I move him up any more? I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment. If you put Curry, who is 6-3, and considered his full game, which includes defense and rebounding, against Kevin Durant, who is about 7-feet tall and considered an excellent player in every facet, it’s tough to say Curry wins that comparison. But Curry did change how an entire sport is played. He has won four titles, two without Durant. I don’t penalize Curry for using the 3 as his ultimate weapon — it’s a pretty lethal one. He is one of the great ballhandlers of all time, and he can carve up a defense as a passer. For years, though, the Warriors had to hide him on defense. He did have that glaring weakness made up for by playing alongside Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and, yes, Durant. I don’t think he moves into the top 10.
John Hollinger: I had him 19th in our original exercise. Here’s the thing: Once you’re in the top 20, it’s pretty hard to move up. Curry didn’t need a ring to validate his career; he’s already won an MVP, and he’s already established as an all-time great. So what’s different about how we feel about him today? It’s one more counting accomplishment, but it doesn’t really redefine what already happened. Does this move him up past, say, Dirk Nowitzki and David Robinson on my list? I think he has a stronger argument now than he did a year ago, but the bulk of that argument is from 2015 to 2020 either way. Sooo … he is definitely more firmly a top-20 player with ring No. 4, but the bar to move the needle at this level is insanely high. Let’s call him No. 17 on my list now.
Or Moyal: 15th.
Damon Sayles: I’ll own it: I had Curry ranked No. 30 in my personal NBA 75 ranking, the lowest of all the other panelists. Had him ranked lower than others because I wanted to see if he could be equally great in his final years. He’s won me over. This NBA Finals has me thinking he’s easily top 20 all time. I have him at No. 17 — for now. Saying “for now” because he still has a couple of seasons to rise even more.
Jon Greenberg: I think you have to move Curry up to No. 11. It feels heretical to say a current player deserves to jump the likes of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but then you think about this fourth title, how long Curry has been doing this … and it feels right, actually. I judge players on more than stats and rings, but Curry isn’t exactly lacking in historical impact, is he? He’s changed the way people play and perceive basketball. He’s a superstar and an ambassador to the game. This is just a wild assumption, but I’d guess he’s sold more kids jerseys than any NBA player ever, especially outside of his own market. Every kid wants to be like Steph.
Jovan Buha: I’d have him 11th on our list, though I’d note that I’d have him over Wilt Chamberlain on my personal list and inside the top 10. Steph has joined this group of players that have won at least four championships, one Finals MVP and two MVPs: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Those are, based on our list and most people’s lists, the greatest five players at their respective positions. That’s quite the company. Curry is either in the top 10 or right outside of it.
Mike Prada: The conversation begins with Shaquille O’Neal at No. 8. Squint hard enough, and I think you could make a case for as high as No. 5 ahead of Magic Johnson. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. The top eight were all paradigm-shifting players who reimagined how the game could be played. That’s Steph in a nutshell.
Rob Peterson: We had Curry at No. 15 on The Athletic NBA75, and as a panelist, I had him 14th on my list.
As for The Athletic’s ranking, Curry had these legends in the five spots ahead of him: Jerry West, Kevin Durant, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant at No. 10. Does adding a fourth title and a Finals MVP to the resume vault him past any of those guys? I’d have to guess yes. Curry has three more titles than the Logo and the Big O, one more regular-season MVP and twice as many titles as Durant and Olajuwon. The only place he falls short is Finals MVPs. OK, fine, whatever. But adding a Finals MVP basically cleans the only stain (I can’t believe this was even a thing, really) off his stellar resume and adds another layer to his pyramid of awesome greatness.
Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history, one of the greatest players in terms of gravity and one of the few in history (George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar, Elgin Baylor, Dr. J and Magic Johnson) who can lay claim to changing how the game is played. If Curry vaults past West, KD, the Big O and Hakeem on our list, does this title and Finals MVP push him past Kobe into our top 10? That would be an interesting re-examination for our panel.
As for my list, I had Curry at No. 14, Kobe at 13, Olajuwon at No. 12 and KD at 11. I’d move Curry ahead of Kobe and Hakeem, and then I’d need to weigh the Curry-KD dynamic. I may have been irrationally exuberant in putting KD at No. 11 after last year’s gallant, quixotic charge in the Eastern Conference semis against the Bucks, but KD is a generational player and all-time scorer. So is Steph. They teamed up for two titles. KD won the two Finals MVPs for those championships. Who was better? Who is better? If I had to vote again, I’d put Curry at No. 12 and KD still at 11. But I’m sure someone, somewhere will try to change my mind.
Where would you rank the other members of the Warriors now? Have any done enough to crack the top 75?
Jason Jones: This doesn’t change anything for me with any of the other Warriors. Curry is the catalyst for this group, and he did it the season when Klay Thompson wasn’t in prime form.
Joe Vardon: I would like to put Klay on my ballot. He is the omission from our list and from the NBA’s list. That was always the most upsetting to me. This is not about reacting to another title, because I thought it was an oversight when it happened. I’d like to swap him with Damian Lillard and force Dame to re-earn his way onto the list by winning.
John Hollinger: Curry was the only current Warrior in my top 75, and that would not change based on this season. Draymond Green improved his case because longevity is the biggest thing to hold against him, but he’s not there yet.
Damon Sayles: I have Klay Thompson slightly ahead of Draymond Green in my personal rankings, but I have both of them just outside my top 75. I believe both are top-100 players all time, but both are probably closer to top 80 or top 85. I’m comfortable with my list, but there’s still time for them to change my mind.
Jon Greenberg: It’s a tough call, right? I’m thrilled that Klay Thompson was able to return and contribute, but he’s not himself yet. Draymond Green grabbing rebounds and even hitting 3s was a big reason the Warriors won Game 6, but he wasn’t at his best all series. I honestly doubt either one makes a top 75 list, and that’s OK. They’ll both be Hall of Famers, and by the time they retire, they might challenge Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for rings.
Jovan Buha: If Draymond Green or Klay Thompson were better during the postseason, especially during the NBA Finals, I’d have considered moving one or both in the top 75. I don’t think either is quite there. For what it’s worth, I have Green ahead of Thompson. Their cases are obviously stronger now, but both are still honorable mentions for me.
Mike Prada: I’d put both on there, though I don’t feel strongly about it. Draymond’s most obvious comp is Dennis Rodman, whom we had ranked No. 62. He’s not as good as Rodman but is getting close. Klay vs. Damian Lillard is one of those eternal winning-vs-numbers arguments, and I tend to value winning more than some others.
Or Moyal: Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have arguments for inclusion at the back end of the 75. I wouldn’t add them quite yet but think they’re close.
Rob Peterson: I had Klay Thompson at No. 64 on my list, so he wouldn’t fall off. He probably wouldn’t move up either, but 64 feels right for Klay, one of the greatest shooters in history and a damn good defender. As for Draymond Green, I don’t think he’s a top-75 player of all time, but his impact and influence on this Warriors dynasty is undeniable. He does so many things so well, and he’s one of the greatest defensive players of this or any generation. But for me — and yes, this is old school of me — numbers matter. Draymond just doesn’t have the production numbers that some of the all-time greats have. That said, he and Klay are headed to Springfield (but that’s another column).
Which other active members of the original 75 list would you move up based on this season Are there any you’d move down or out?
John Hollinger: Giannis Antetokounmpo had another MVP-caliber season and would probably slide up a bit, although I had him higher than most already. He was 22nd on my list; he probably should slide ahead of Jerry West and Moses Malone into my top 20. On the flip side, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory this year, but the book on Westbrook has mostly been written. Davis has a stronger case for a drop, although not all the way out of the top 75.
Jason Jones: James Harden didn’t help his case with another lackluster postseason. Anthony Davis didn’t help his case either with an injury-plagued season. Damian Lillard was hurt much of the season too. I’m not dropping them out of the top 75, but there’s some consideration to reshuffling their spots.
Joe Vardon: The player closest to a demotion would be Russell Westbrook, but if we’re being honest, we didn’t place him on our 75 because we expected big things from him on the Lakers. He was there because he’d already given us an amazing MVP career.
Damon Sayles: I had Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty low. I had him at No. 51 on my original list. He’s a top-25, top-30 player. Maybe even a top-20 player. And he has a few good years still left, assuming he remains healthy. Giannis is a freakish athlete, and he continues to hone his skills. The future is bright for him and scary for those who play against him.
Jon Greenberg: Man, it wasn’t a great season for a lot of the active members of the top 75 list, was it? LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard were all on one team that didn’t make the playoffs! Did you hear about that? Kind of went under the radar. James Harden isn’t exactly looking like an all-time player anymore. Giannis Antetokounmpo had an incredible season and tried his damndest to carry the Bucks to another NBA Finals. He was No. 24 originally, so he’s going to move up on the list. It’s kind of comical to see him listed just above John Stockton. At this point, Giannis might be just behind Curry. Chris Paul, who just turned 37, was having a great season before the playoffs, where his old rep caught up to him. Kevin Durant was Kevin Durant, undone by his own bad decision to join the wildly talented but unreliable Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Damian Lillard only played 29 games because of injury. I think, especially with the non-LeBron Lakers and Harden, there’s a case for moving some of those guys down.
Jovan Buha: I’d keep Kevin Durant at 13, which would require moving him ahead of Oscar Robertson (because I moved Curry up from 15 to be ahead of both of them). I’d move Giannis Antetokounmpo up to No. 23, past Elgin Baylor. I think Chris Paul (30) and James Harden (33) take minor hits for me after the postseason. And Russell Westbrook (46) and Anthony Davis (53) suffer slightly bigger drops, as Westbrook’s post-MVP run has been disappointing, and Davis’ post-title run has been injury-riddled. I would take Damian Lillard off the list entirely.
Mike Prada: Others have covered the players who should drop. I’d love to place Giannis Antetokounmpo higher, but it’s really hard to jump him above Elgin Baylor considering the way the latter was the original version of many of the future high-flyers on the list – Giannis included. I’d jump Chris Paul up a couple spots despite yet another postseason flameout. I think he’s passed John Stockton at this point.
Or Moyal: Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid move up. I’d move James Harden and Anthony Davis down a few spots.
Rob Peterson: Let’s see: LeBron stays at No. 2. KD at 13 seems right. We talked about Curry above. I had Giannis Antetokounmpo in my top 20 (at No. 20), and he’s No. 24 on our list. I could see the panel re-evaluating Giannis and putting him top 20, but he’d need to leapfrog Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki and David Robinson. The only thing that would prevent Giannis from doing that is that he’s still only 27 and has a lot of career ahead of him. By the end, I could see him pushing the top 10. Chris Paul at No. 30 seems right. So does Hames Harden at No. 33 and Kawhi Leonard at No. 34. I’d ding Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis for their not-so-great seasons, but only because I would move a current two-time MVP ahead of them (See: the next question). Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Damian Lillard are interesting cases. Howard and Anthony are fine where they are because they were on the back end of their careers as it was when we voted. Dame’s injury-plagued season could be used as a detriment against him, maybe sliding him down a few spots from No. 66. But if he returns at full Dame Time strength, I think only a few (“Where are the ringz?!?! Where’s his MVP?!?!) will question his spot on the list.
Have any active players whom we identified as candidates for a future top 100 list done enough to jump into the top 75?
Damon Sayles: Nikola Jokić should be the correct answer across the board. A two-time NBA MVP, four-time NBA All-Star and four-time all-NBA player should be processed and accepted. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Jokić is the real deal as an elite basketball player.
Jason Jones: Nikola Jokić has the best case to move into the top 75 based on his two MVPs, but that’s still not enough for me. Things could change for me in a few years.
Joe Vardon: As a two-time MVP, Jokić moves into the top 75. Take Lillard or Carmelo Anthony or one of the players who played in the 1950s or 1960s off it.
John Hollinger: Nikola Jokić! Clearly, obviously; I had him in my top 50, and he’d only move up based on this year. He should have been on our original list. I had Luka Doncić and Joel Embiid in my top 75 even before this season as well and would put them in there too. Guys like Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant and Devin Booker still have a bit more work to do.
Jon Greenberg: Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncić are the ones who have a case right now, but in this exercise, have they done enough yet to merit inclusion? They could easily slot in near the bottom, but I think this list should still recognize the history of the game (Dolph Schayes, etc.) and there’s only so much room. But they will be on the next such list. Plus, they represent the present and future globalization of the game.
Jovan Buha: Nikola Jokic should be on the list, especially after his second MVP. Joel Embiid and Luka Doncić look like they’ll crack the list within the next couple of years, but I’m not there yet. Green and Thompson went from weak honorable mentions to strong honorable mentions.
Mike Prada: Jokić for sure, and possibly Embiid as well.
Or Moyal: Not quite yet. But Luka Doncić and Jayson Tatum may join the group soon.
Rob Peterson: Yes, and I offer my sincerest apologies to Nikola Jokić, who was on my list at No. 74 but didn’t make our master list. The thing about Jokić at the time of our voting last year was that he had played just 453 games. Was that enough for all-time greatness? Well, he answered that question this season with his second consecutive MVP.
He’s a top-50 player. You can argue with me, but you’d be wrong and you’d only be arguing to hear yourself say something. The list of multiple MVP winners is short (15 total) and back-to-back is shorter (13). He’s the best or second-best passing big of all time (Hi, Arvydas Sabonis!). He can score, rebound and distribute. His no-look passing is art. To deny his greatness is foolish. He’s on the list, and now, deep into it … or at least he should be. (And as I look at my list, there are other things I’d like to change, such as James Worthy being ahead of George Mikan. But that’s for another day.)
Also, I think Luka Doncić should probably be in the 75 based on talent alone and his ability to affect games. He’ll be there eventually. So will Joel Embiid if he stays healthy.
Is there anyone else who played their way into top-75 consideration this season?
John Hollinger: It gets harder and harder to dismiss Jimmy Butler when he keeps doing such amazing stuff in the playoffs.
Mike Prada: Udonis Haslem for maintaining Heat Culture for the 700th consecutive year. Just kidding. Jimmy Butler is a good call. Paul George might’ve merited more of a look if he played more games this season.
Jason Jones: Draymond has a compelling argument, but part of this is numbers, and his will never jump out.
Jon Greenberg: See No. 4. You have other guys on the watch list like Ja Morant and Devin Booker, for example, but they have to accomplish a lot more before we get into top 75 territory. But that’s the beauty of the sport, right? New talent keeps coming. The game evolves.
Damon Sayles: See No. 4. Can’t say enough about Jokić. Joel Embiid may be one of those guys too.
Jovan Buha: I think Doncić showed that it’s only a matter of time until he’s in the top third of this list. I can envision him retiring a top-15 player ever, with the potential to be considered even higher, depending on how many championships and MVPs he ultimately racks up. Jimmy Butler is a dark-horse candidate who’s rarely mentioned. I think him leading the Heat to another conference finals bumps him up the honorable mention list. He’s another deep playoff run or two from earning serious consideration from me.
Or Moyal: Jokić and Embiid. I had them on my initial list but would push harder for them to make the overall group now.
Rob Peterson: The 75 not in the 100? Hmm … no one yet besides the three above — Jokić, Doncić and Embiid — for me are on the 75 list. But the future — Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell — is in good hands. I’d also be remiss not to point out how good Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have been during the Bucks’ recent run of success. If they had gone back-to-back, they’d be Hall of Famers (yes, another column) and could make an argument for top 75 inclusion (production plus titles = greatness).
What more must Stephen Curry do to get into the GOAT conversation?
John Hollinger: Realistically, he’s not in it and never will be. He’s 34 years old and has yet to have a season that would match the peak efforts of LeBron James and Michael Jordan. He didn’t make first-team All-NBA this year and was 23rd in regular-season PER. I’m not saying this to dunk on him, but greatest ever is a pretty freaking high bar to clear. He ain’t it. Greatest small player ever? Now that is a more interesting conversation. Among players 6-5 or smaller, his main competition is West, Oscar Robertson and Chris Paul, and I think he’s moved past them.
Mike Prada: I think he’s already there. Statistically, he’s nowhere close to MJ, Bron, Kareem, or many of the guys in the top 15. But no number, even within our ever-growing analytics toolbox, properly conveys the impact Curry has made on the sport. The obvious example is with his long-range shooting, and that, of course, has been revolutionary. (So revolutionary, in fact, that I wrote a whole book about the effects of the revolution he personifies! Preorder now, available Nov. 1!). Beyond that, though, nobody in NBA history has done more to turn the warp the concept of value. For generations, NBA greats enforced their will on the game directly. Curry, on the other hand, found a way to do so indirectly, leveraging his superpower as a decoy to turn entire games into Warriors power plays. He was the cheese and defenders became the mice that foolishly chased him while someone else capitalized. That capability, to me, adds so many layers of impact on top of his accomplishments. Beyond that, Curry showed that it’s possible to be ruthless, exceedingly confident, petty, even arrogant while also being supremely unselfish. He’s shown how staying loose is actually the way to reach unshakeable mental toughness, not a pitfall. I suspect we will come to appreciate these transcendent qualities even more with time.
Damon Sayles: Michael Jordan is the GOAT, in my opinion, and it will take a TON for me to change my mind. For Curry, winning another championship definitely supports his argument, particularly if it’s done the way he won this one. He put this Golden State team on his back for six games, and it feels like if the series went to a seventh game, we would have seen something epic from him.
Joe Vardon: Curry is not going to be in the GOAT discussion because, in a barbershop, patrons and barbers are going to immediately compare Curry’s physicality to that of MJ, LeBron, Kareem, et. al, and disqualify him. There were also a number of seasons when Curry was arguably not even the best player on his own team. I suppose if the Warriors win multiple titles at the end of Curry’s career, and he is the top player on all or most of those teams, he could slide into the discussion. But it is unlikely.
Jon Greenberg: I think Curry’s legacy is established as the best shooter of all time. Is that a pejorative? It depends on the context, I guess. But this is still a big man’s game and a big guard’s game, and Curry’s size will always be looked at a minor slight, even if it shouldn’t be. It’s a waste of time to compare him, or anyone, to Jordan. I wrote about why here and even quoted Curry’s coach, Steve Kerr. But Curry has done the sports-talk industrial complex a massive favor because now they can use him to slander LeBron James, which is the fifth-most popular sport in the U.S. (Sorry, soccer.) Where do you rank Curry against the late Kobe Bryant? Curry will keep scoring and maybe he wins another title or two to keep these meaningless (but irresistible) conversations going.
Jovan Buha: I’m not sure. I think it’d be difficult for him to fully enter the GOAT conversation with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Realistically, I see Curry’s ceiling as fourth all time, which is still, obviously, great. This is where not winning as many MVPs and Finals MVPs hurts him. For those that think that’s unfair, that’s just the standard for the greatest players of all time. If Curry can only hold his own in championships, and not with MVPs, Finals MVPs, All-Star selections and All-NBA sections (and he has a sizable deficit with the three aforementioned names in those categories), then I can’t put him ahead of them. Optimistically, I think another championship and Finals MVP moves him into the top six. Two more titles puts him fourth. If he continues to win more beyond that, I’m willing to change my stance. Ad things stand, I expect him to finish inside the top eight.
Or Moyal: Maintaining his greatness for as long as possible. He’s aged very well and his game and conditioning should allow him to continue that trend, but if he plays at an All-Star level for a few more years, it’ll be tough to contest that he’s the greatest point guard of all time.
Jason Jones: If Curry wins a fifth ring or even a sixth, he’s in the GOAT discussion. But as a top-10 player (in my opinion) all time, he’s already in the discussion. He’s the greatest shooter we’ve ever seen.
Rob Peterson: If you’re close to the top 10 or in some people’s top 10, I think you’re already in the GOAT convo. Curry is unquestionably the greatest shooter of all time, and as I noted above, he can lay claim to changing how the game is played, which automatically vaults one into the Greatest discussion. But if you’re asking what tangible thing he could do to put him in the GOAT convo, any one of these three, individual or combined, would do it: regular-season MVP, NBA title, Finals MVP. One of those three could be enough, especially considering if the Warriors repeat, Steph would be in rare, ahem, air.
And one last thing…
Damon Sayles: Let’s keep an eye on Andrew Wiggins for the next five to seven years. Not saying he should be considered in this conversation now, but if he plays the rest of his career anywhere close to how he played in these NBA Finals, he can earn his stripes as someone we should be discussing among the greats.
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(Top photo of Stephen Curry: David Butler II / USA Today)