The Cult of Steph Curry is a ferocious horde—a Twitter-dwelling echo chamber, armed with crying-Jordan memes and next-gen stats, as passionately intent on spreading the myths of their prophet as Beyonce’s social-media army. The platitudes they spit out about Curry, and the record setting 73-win juggernaut he plays for, are easy to rally behind. Home grown. Underdog. Organic. Skill based. The right way. Do those sound familiar? They should.
Steph Curry broke onto the consciousness as a scrawny guard wearing a loose-fitting scarlet jersey repping a team you’ve never heard of. Call it fearless, call it reckless, Curry was launching twenty-five footers at a rare and disorienting rate. Before the analytic-driven revolution that led to the NBA spreading the floor and shooting more threes in the past three seasons than it did the previous eight combined, Steph Curry was throwing up ten threes a game. His collegiate star was brightest his sophomore year as he led his tenth-seeded Davidson Wildcats on an improbable Elite-Eight run, tallying 33 points per game and firing off 51 threes in four games. But the Steph Curry Cult wasn’t much more than a clamoring minority then. A legion of fans who loved showcasing him in March Madness 2009 (RIP to that terrific franchise) and a handful of others seduced by his boyish looks and limitless range. When he left Davidson and entered the NBA draft in 2009, he fell to seventh overall. Shoe companies didn’t line up to make him the face of their brand. ESPN didn’t play Warrior games, despite it’s large market. After his rookie season, his jersey wasn’t among the top 15 in sales. A top 15 that featured Nate Robinson and David Lee. No, he wouldn’t find himself on that list until 2014-15.
Curry got plenty of playing time during his rookie season, notching 36 minutes per game, but he seemed different from the energetic spark plug we saw in college. Was the physicality of the NBA overwealming? Did the Warriors coaching staff install a Governor on his shot selection? (He shot only four threes a game his first three seasons.) Then came the injuries. A bum ankle restricted him to only 26 games in the 2011-12 season. Due to the injury concerns, at the start of the 2012 season Curry signed a tepid four-year contract for $44 million. Where was his cult?
The answer resided in the sunny beaches of Miami.
Even before LeBron James infamously left Cleveland, a team that history often forgets was co-piloted by Mo-fucking Williams, a gang of idolatry Michael-Jordan worshippers snuffed out a threat and seized. Protecting their precious nostalgia, they tried to undermine LeBron’s every accomplishment and condemned his move to Miami. All of his achievements were qualified with a yeah but—he took the easy route, he needed Wade and Bosh to win, the East sucks. Yadda Yadda. Skip Bayless and the executives of ESPN seized on the fervor and built a race-baiting daytime empire around it. They did whatever they had to in order to protect the myth of Michael Jordan.
When attacking LeBron they ignored the seven-year Finals drought that Jordan suffered to begin his career, that he didn’t win until the Bulls drafted Pippen. When that tired, the LeBron dissenters elevated false champions. They clamored for Derrick Rose. So much so that the media, party to the LeBron nit-picking, flagrantly awarded Rose an MVP. When LeBron, and flimsy knees, set fire to the Rose effigy, they moved to Durant. But the lanky sharp-shooting seven-footer lost to LeBron in 5 and then couldn’t get back, despite having an supremely-talented alien for a sidekick in Russell Westbrook. The salt-ridden mass of LeBron haters had nothing to cling to.
Then a life raft emerged in the form of wide-grinned, shot-chucking Steph Curry.
Starting last year, people began propping up Curry over LeBron. It was bewildering and sudden and only intensified this season. Soon after, the Horde hopped over LeBron and started comparing Curry to Michael Jordan. Which is fine. Except none of the LeBron qualifiers existed. LeBron, who throughout his Heat run guarded the opposing team’s best player, in one Finals run guarding Paul George, Derrick Rose and Tim Duncan in successive series, would get ripped to shreds for a missed free throw and for missing half a Finals game with severe cramps. Whereas Curry, who was being hidden on opposing team’s worst offensive player, isn’t knocked for similar feats. Not for getting inarguably outplayed by Russell Westbrook, for getting injured, for relying on Klay Thompson’s heroic Game 6 performance to save their season. When has LeBron ever needed that? Don’t give me the Ray Allen shot unless you’re willing to strip away Jordan’s ring that Steve Kerr’s game winner secured. The one time LeBron was outplayed, by Kawhi Leonard in the 2014 finals, he was torn apart. And even that is arguable when you review the stats. While Curry was the fourth, maybe fifth, best player in the OKC Series, having two MVP-level games. 2-5.
Maybe you enjoy the horde. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe you dismiss the unbalanced math, 11.2 3PA’s per game this season, and raise up Curry’s numbers as evidence of his superiority to LeBron. Maybe it’s easier not to account for defense. Maybe you dismiss Klay Thompson the way you dismissed Scottie Pippen and the way you didn’t to Dwyane Wade—as a superstar and vital element of the myth-building. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s just easier to give Curry all the credit. Maybe he’s less threatening to your Jordan nostalgia than LeBron is. Maybe it’s easier to pretend that Curry isn’t your anti-LeBron life raft.
That Andre Iguodala wasn’t awarded the MVP for holding LeBron James to an astronomic 36-13-9 Finals line a year ago.
It doesn’t matter how intently the Cavaliers staff breaks down the Thunder-Warriors game tape, they won’t be able to replicate the success that the Thunder had. At least not in the same way. Cleveland lacks the length and athleticism to do so. In one of the more surprising twists in the playoffs, the Thunder found success by playing at the high-flying pace of the Warriors. The Cavs can’t play like that.
On paper the matchup is lopsided. The Cavs have only one two-way player, LeBron, maybe two when Shumpert is hitting shots, where the Warriors have three—Thompson, Iggy and Draymond. Golden State can rotate Iggy, Barnes and Green on LeBron as they did last year and have Klay take Kyrie. Conversely, the Cavs will stagger Shumpert and Delly, neither of whom offer much offensively, on Curry and then pray that J.R. Smith can contain Klay. The latter is potentially the most troublesome matchup. Maybe they throw LeBron on him and rely on Love and Kyrie to carry the load offensively.
Much is being made about how the Cavs will hide Kyrie and Love on defense. Some say stagger them, some say play Frye over Love and Delly over Kyrie. Those suggestions seem to neglect that we saw a similar build last year and the Cavs fell in 6—against a Warriors team who is drastically improved this year. Though it will lead to frustrating Warrior runs, the Cavs can’t overly concern themselves with the defensive output of Love and Irving. If they revert to their turnstile selves, the Cavs have no chance of stopping Golden State. No matter what they do, Golden State will use pindowns to get Love isolated on Steph and Klay. Where it could get really ugly is if they can get Curry and Green pick and roll being guarded by Love and Irving. However, if they play Delly and Frye thirty minutes a game they have no chance at outscoring Golden State. So you have to play Love and Kyrie.
Lue will have to be creative with how he manages his rotation, but look for the Cavs to close games with Irving, Smith, Lebron, Love and Frye. That lineup has scorched the East during these playoffs, and, in terms of length, conceivably can guard the Curry, Iggy, Klay, Barnes, Green lineup the Warriors are likely to close with. Kyrie has demonstrated in fleeting moments throughout his career an ability to play average defense. Last year in Game 1, before blowing out his knee in overtime, he played Curry to a draw.
Can Kyrie play Curry to a draw a few times this series? Certainly. We just saw Russell Westbrook outplay Curry for an entire series and Damian Lillard come close before that. LeBron can match the Klay production, and Love and J.R. can match the output by Iggy, Draymond and Barnes—especially if Barnes looks the way he has. Remember that Cleveland had a 2-1 lead a year ago, then Iggy and Klay got hot and the rest was history.
The Cavs can pull off what would be the greatest Finals upset since the Dallas Mavericks beat LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2011. A result that the current occupants of the Steph Curry Life Raft love to throw. The annoying horde will be excited to fling 2-5 in LeBron’s face if the Cavs fall. They won’t remember that his team’s were underdogs in all but three of them—of which he’s 2-1. They won’t remember that Jordan’s teams were never an underdog. Or that if Steph and the Warriors repeat, they’ll do so as two-to-one favorites each time.
But go ahead, Curry Cult. Keep saying that your team, with two second-generation NBA players, came from the bottom and are underdogs. Whatever best feeds your myth.
Cleveland take game one, and wins in 6.