Anyone with an inkling of interest in NBA basketball will have learned by now that the Golden State Warriors are having a historic season. At the time of this writing, they are 24-1 and will very likely threaten the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10. That team was helmed by Michael Jordan and basically ruined me as a basketball fan in childhood. Anyone who remembers being a Bulls fan as a kid likely recalls the air of inevitability that hung around each of those championship teams, especially the 1996 squad.
Yet the Warriors may have a shot at being the best team of all time, and in the midst of this out-and-out steamroll, their point guard, Stephen Curry, may be having the best single player season in NBA history. FiveThirtyEight has a great piece on how novel Curry's own brand of greatness is, and I highly recommend you go read that prior to continuing this post.
Personally, I was curious to see how Curry's stacks up against the greatest seasons of all time. Watching him it seems obvious—and I don't usually fall back on intuition in basketball—that we have never seen anyone shoot the way he does. I will not be surprised in the least, provided his continued good health, if he goes down as the greatest shooter ever. It won't even be close. But is he Jordan or LeBron good?
I deliberated a bit about what to use as the primary criterion for selecting the best seasons and eventually settled on Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48). For one, I suspect PER overvalues shooters, whether or not they are efficient, and two, while Win Shares are commonly touted as one of the better metrics, I needed to use a rate statistic for comparison, because Curry has not yet played a full season and hence will not have had the opportunity to accrue enough Win Shares to put him in the top 10.
To get my final dataset, I pulled the top 9 WS/48 for point guards (PG), shooting guards (SG), and small forwards (SF) from Basketball-Reference.com (NBA/ABA combined), reasoning that power forwards and centers do not make for informative comparisons with a point guard, and then I added Curry's 2015–16 season to the list. The top 4 WS/48 spots, for the record, are split between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (ranked 1, 2, and 4) and Wilt Chamberlain (3), who were both centers. LeBron James is the first PG/SG/SF to appear on the list, taking the 5th spot. In all, four players were included in my dataset: Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.
The plots below compare standard per game statistics for each player, standard percentages, and two sets of advanced/semi-advanced statistics. For the purposes of comparison, I would concentrate less on per game statistics and more on percentages and advanced stats, which will provide a much better idea about how Curry stacks up relative to the other players. I color coded the bars by each player's team to assist a bit in looking at individual seasons across statistics, and all of Curry's stats are through the first 22 games of the 2015–16 season.
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Like I said, per game statistics can be misleading, but note here that Curry is playing fewer minutes than everyone else on the list, which depresses some of his per game averages relative to the other players. We also would not expect him to block many shots as a point guard. Even if we did, it should be mentioned that Jordan was the best shot-blocking guard of all time.
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The second plot speaks for itself. Curry is easily having the best shooting season of the bunch, as his effective field goal percentage dwarfs those of his rivals. In fact, Jordan looks a little better on this chart than he should. Never a good three-point shooter, he logged his approximately 43% mark in 1995-96 because the NBA moved the three-point line in by over a foot, a change that persisted from 1994 through 1997 before the league switched back to the previous distance.
Offensively, Curry again outshines the others—no one appears to be in his league. Likewise, though, his overall box plus-minus remains comparable to the others' due to his apparent defensive deficit.
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And finally, we get to what brought us here in the first place. Curry again dwarfs the rest as measured by WS/48, for which the league average is typically around .100. Furthermore, despite what I said about PER, it is still considered one of the better overall measures of a player's performance, and Curry's 2015-16 sits atop the greats here as well.
"Wait," you might say. "What about Value Over Replacement Player?"
Well, not so fast. Here is the equation for VORP, where BPM stands for box plus-minus:
As you can see, that last term in the equation makes the VORPs incomparable until this season is in the books. For the record, at the time of this writing, Curry leads the league this with a VORP of 3.1. Russell Westrbook is second at 2.8.
In the end, the conclusion isn't very surprising: Curry is having a truly special season. If he continues at pace, he will have dominated the league in a fashion no one has ever done, and if you're not convinced that he could ever eclipse Jordan or LeBron, even for a single season, you will have to at least put him in the same conversation.
I've been giving Kobe Bryant a hard time recently. He's a great player, but he is not in the same league as Michael Jordan
, as folks have been fond of claiming. In fact, in case you were wondering why he was absent from this post, Bryant doesn't show up until #217 on the NBA/ABA list for WS/48. I may do a similar comparison between him, Jordan, and LeBron, and I am confident that we'll all see James is the real threat to Jordan's legacy as the GOAT. If you look at their stats here, Jordan and LeBron appear to be pretty close in skill and value.