With Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons ever, it’s understandable that his performance has brought about a myriad of historical comparisons.
Perhaps the last player to illicit such collective ooh’s and aah’s was Kobe Bryant in the 2005-06 season, in which Bryant averaged an astounding 35.4 points per game (the most points per game since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87).
Though Curry and Bryant are clearly different players, with different skill sets, it’s fun to compare and theorize which player was more effective and tougher to defend at his peak (under the assumption that this is or close to Curry’s peak).
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It’s certainly an interesting debate. But according to one of Bryant’s former teammates, Robert Horry, there’s a clear-cut winner — and it’s not necessarily who you think he would pick.
Horry actually believes Curry, not ’05-06 Bryant, is the more dangerous offensive weapon, as he admitted on SiriusXM NBA Radio last week (via HoopsHype):
“Kobe in his prime really wasn’t that great of a three-point shooter,” Horry said. “He was a drive, get-to-the-hole, dunk-on-you type of guy. Steph can drive and float you. He can shoot it from half court. You have to guard him at all times.”
Take a look at the per-36 numbers (Bryant averaged almost eight more minutes 10 seasons ago than Curry is now):
Curry is undoubtedly the more efficient scorer and passer, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is surprising is that Curry and Bryant basically shoot and score at the same volume with their minutes equalized.
Essentially, Curry is giving this season’s Warriors the same per-minute production Bryant gave the 2005-06 Lakers, only more efficiently.
Of course, Bryant’s ability to play more minutes and shoulder a larger load (he had a much higher usage rate) has to be taken into consideration. He was simply a monster that season, and we’ll never know how other players (including Curry) would fare with that burden and those teammates (e.g. Kwame Brown and Smush Parker).
On the flip side, the fact that defenses are so zeroed in on Curry — perhaps not as much as Bryant because the Warriors have an array of weapons, but close — and he’s still scoring so efficiently just proves how historically great his shooting and decision-making are.
Curry’s "bad shots" aren’t really bad shots — they’re shots he’s practiced thousands of times. He’s the rare player who’s mastered the art of making impossible shots at a high rate (Bryant has done so, too, albeit much less efficiently).
And, as Horry said, Curry’s attack is a bit more varied — he’s essentially unguardable anywhere within 30 feet — since he can get a reasonable shot off against anyone at any time. Bryant’s arsenal in his prime was a bit more predictable, though still virtually unstoppable.
There’s an argument to be made for either player, but the argument for Curry might be a little stronger. Horry is right in his proclamation — Curry’s 2015-16 season is probably better than any season Bryant ever had. With that said, however, there’s no denying that Bryant’s longevity and five championships make the better player in a historical context. Curry has to do this for another half-decade or so to even enter the conversation.
Dwyane Wade (2008-09) and Tracy McGrady (2002-03) were statistically better than Bryant at their respective peaks, as well, but their careers turned out much differently, obviously.
Injuries derailed McGrady’s prime, and he never enjoyed much team success as a go-to player. Wade has won three championships, but two of those came as the clear-cut sidekick to LeBron James, and injuries and a lack of 3-point shooting have changed the trajectory of his prime.
Curry isn’t likely to fall into the same pitfalls as either player — and in Wade’s defense, he’s still a top-50, if not top-40, player of all-time — and will likely enjoy a long career with multiple championships.
Nothing is guaranteed, though, and we can only base any comparison on the data currently available. Bryant’s durability, consistency and ever-evolving skill set separate him from almost every player in NBA history, and Curry will be hard-pressed to match or surpass that.
In their respective offensive primes, though, Curry does almost everything about as well as Bryant on offense, and some things considerably better. Bryant was the better slasher and post-up player, but Curry has greater gravity and forces defenses into tougher decisions on a nightly basis.
Defenses doubled Bryant and tried to force him to be a distributor (which somtimes worked) — defenses can’t even catch Curry most nights. When factoring in defense, the conversation of who was better at their peak may shift toward Bryant, but Horry was only commenting about the offense end.
Hopefully the fact that there can even be a debate about Bryant and Curry’s peaks helps put Curry’s historical season into proper perspective, and quiets any of his remaining doubters.
Listen to Horry’s comments below:
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @jovanbuha.