Wilt Chamberlain: 100. Kobe Bryant: 81.
Steph Curry: ??
The reigning MVP is at it again, this time better than ever, having an all-time great season for an all-time great team. He might already be a lock for the Hall of Fame, and his performance through 20 games so far this year has him arguably rocketing toward all-time top 20 player status at the tender age of 27. Curry averages 32 points and five three-pointers a game, while shooting more than 52 percent on field goals and 94 percent on free throws. He adds six assists, five rebounds, 2.4 steals and at least one instance of an opponent just giving up and straight watching per game.
His Player Efficiency Rating (35.18) is on track to blow the best seasons of Chamberlain (31.82) and Michael Jordan (31.71) out of the water.
So, yeah, Curry is really good. So good, in fact, old heads and new schoolers alike widely regard him as the greatest shooter in the game’s history.
But can he become the game’s greatest scorer?
That one’s more open to debate. Because historically the greatest scorers of all time not only put up the most total points, but they also deliver history’s most iconic games. The case for Chamberlain as greatest scorer is stronger because he once delivered an otherworldly, record-shattering 100-point game. Same goes for Jordan, with his 63-point playoff game, still a record, against a Boston team which featured five Hall of Famers and went 40-1 at home. The same applies to Kobe’s 81-point magnum opus, by far the greatest scoring performance by a guard in 70 years of NBA history.
Anybody who wants to compete with that trio for the title of greatest all-time scorer doesn’t just compete with their records. They have to compete with their most transcendent moments, and what those moments represent to millions of fans, as well.
Here, Curry is in trouble on both fronts. Before this season, he’d never averaged more than 24 points a game, while Jordan/Chamberlain/Bryant all averaged more than 30 points a game in multiple seasons before age 27. Given this relatively late start on scoring supremacy, the Lakers have higher odds of winning the 2016 NBA Championship than Curry has of catching any of those “Big Three” in total career points.
Same goes for single-game scoring records. The Golden State Warriors are so good and deep they are far more unlikely than The Big Three’s less talented squads to need a 70 or 80-point effort from a single player. Plus, since the Warriors often win by such wide margins, Curry plays only 34 minutes a game and often sits in fourth quarters.
Curry’s greatest strengths are his efficiency as a shooter (his 70 percent true shooting percentage would shatter the single-season record for guards) and his unselfishness. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is a great thing. But in terms of delivering a signature, iconic game, this has actually been a bad thing.
Curry typically doesn’t shoot enough over the course of an entire game to threaten any of The Big Three’s records, and in the occasional situations he is on pace to potentially threaten, he shreds net so well through the first three quarters he’s usually not needed at the end. So, paradoxically, he is shooting himself out of contention for these all-time total point benchmarks.
This unique context sits up a situation where fans should not expect Curry’s signature game to come in the same form that the Big Three’s did. Those players overwhelmed their competition with combinations of superior size, athleticism and skill to varying degrees. Because Curry has become more technically skilled than any of them, but far less gifted with size, strength and athleticism, his dominance looks very different.
For instance, while young Jordan “attacked the rim and defied gravity, Curry seems to exist in a dimension without it,” writes Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, “He just calmly places himself and the basketball wherever he wants while all other players whirl and tumble haphazardly around him.”
No offense to Shawn Marion, but it’s Curry who truly attacks the game with Matrix-like precision. That precision, in turn, should be the basis of what could be Curry’s defining NBA game.
Curry can deliver his own transcendent game to rival Jordan, Bryant and Chamberlain’s by breaking the 50-point mark without a single miss. We’re talking pure, unfiltered perfection from the three-point line, two-point range and free-throw line. Such a game would propel Curry to a place alone in history.
Imagine it: the arena crowd would murmur with increasingly more excitement with every shot he takes and makes as the game—presumably a close one—wears on. Social media would catch fire, sending tens of millions of more people to their TV sets to watch history unfold. The next morning, people who care nothing about pro sports would hear about the deed on their daily work commute. In the coming months and years, oral histories and books would be penned, 30 for 30 docs filmed.
This is the game Curry needs to grab the imagination of fans in a long-term way that no cute GIFs or 28-point quarter bursts can. Sure, hardcore NBA fans love the shake-and-bake Vines spreading throughout Curry’s emerging legacy, but those things have shallow roots. Their importance is day-to-day. Tomorrow we’ll be clicking on some other latest and greatest.
The significance of truly historic games, meanwhile, never fades. The decades don’t dull their impact.
A perfect 50-point game isn’t impossible. Right?
If Gary Payton can deliver a perfect 30-point game, and Cedric Ceballos nearly landed a perfect 40-point game, Curry should be able to do this. Or at least he has a better chance than anybody else. Especially since his performance is on a seemingly never-ending upward trend as Green Eyes gets an ever-bigger green light. Somehow, the more he shoots, the higher percentage of shots he makes.
Jordan, Bryant and Chamberlain, though, represent a higher goal. Curry has no shot at them without a signature game all his own.
Curry’s Comp: Notable Accurate Point Detonations Of Last 30 Years
Charles Barkley and Gary Payton are the only Hall of Famers to break the 30-point barrier with a perfect game since 1985, according to basketball-reference.com. A few other stars have flirted with the 40-point barrier, as you can see below.
Curry’s masterpiece, of course, will likely include lots of three-pointers.
For insight on the greatest high volume three-point games in NBA history, visit Evin Demirel’s SportsSeer.com. Images via Getty