Unmasking the Cult of Stephen Curry and the 2016 Finals

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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.

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Finals Preview

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.

LeBron James, Underdog.

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Since bursting into the national consciousness in 2001, LeBron James has been anything but an underdog.

A teenaged phenom from Akron, Ohio with boyish looks and grown-man game, LeBron James became the obsession of American sports. With a magnitude of national interest never before witnessed or approached since, the trivial high school games of a 16-year old kid became appointment viewing. Draped in his unprecedentedly popular and recognizable wide-cut number twenty-three Saint Mary’s jersey, tattoos obstructed by white bandages, a wide-smiling explosion of swaggering confidence, adolescent James dazzled America as he blew past and jumped over his competition, displaying a physical prowess never before seen at his age. Unlike the laundry list of child stars American culture had, and continues to, whittled down with over exposure and heaps of unobtainable pressure, LeBron didn’t crack under the nation’s microscope.

No, he embraced scrutiny by weaving it into motivation.

He dealt with the trappings of being uber-famous with unmatched and matured grace. He brushed off the infamous silver Hummer controversy and the throwback jersey farce, managed to remain focused and driven despite the bidding war of shoe companies that culminated with James signing a $90M contract before bouncing a NBA ball. Finally the lottery balls were plucked, and the two-year certainty that LeBron James was to be the 2003 first-overall draft pick became a reality. His Cavaliers premiere, an irrelevant October road game, was as anticipated as a regal coronation—one befitting of his nickname, King James.

Rare is it for hype to be met, more rare is it to be exceeded.

An element that has amplified the enjoyment of experiencing LeBron’s career has been the divisive discourse examining his every sentence, shot, or non-shot. It seemed everyone found themselves entrenched in two specific and equally illogical camps. Both supporters and dissidents displayed a severe patience deficiency. Every win LeBron mounted was evidence of his greatness, each loss a nail in the he-isn’t-Jordan coffin. Both sides of the debate were wrong, as they each were measuring the accumulation of snow before the storm was over.

LeBron’s storm continues. It has spanned twelve years, eleven All-Star games, four MVP’s, two championship rings and numerous iconic performances. No matter which side of LeBron James public opinion spectrum you reside, the Chosen One’s greatness has achieved bipartisan consensus, even from the stubborn cul-de-sac’s of Kobe Bryant sycophants or the staunch corners of Jordan stalwarts. What remains of the debate is the degree of his greatness.

The 2015 Finals are already being built as a Litmus test, an opportunity for LeBron to further his greatness. Though he won’t admit it, his Cavaliers are significant underdogs entering their showdown with Golden State.

According to Vegas, if Cleveland were to win the Finals this year they would be the greatest underdog to win since the Detroit Pistons toppled the Lakers in 2004. After securing his fifth consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, while dragging a mediocre cast that featured three Zombie-Knicks, an undrafted point guard, and a one-way floor-spacer who was deemed too long-of-tooth to garner a single minute in the 2011 NBA Finals, and a head coach who doesn’t actually coach, LeBron has been receiving appropriate recognition for his already impressive and unexpected achievement.

Considering the steep odds, is it fair for the result to shift the narrative in the other direction? Would a loss detract from LeBron’s greatness?

In sports, we wrongly compartmentalize history by only preserving the surface result. We disregard the minutiae, and the wealth of commentary it provides. Fossilized in time is the push-off game-winner Jordan hit in the 1998 Finals. Deleted from record is the inefficient 15-35 Jordan shot in that pivotal game. We rarely account for the events and the circumstances that rendered the result.

Below are two accumulated stat lines from a NBA Finals series. 

Player A: 28.6 PPG; 8 RPG; 3.9 APG; 2.1 SPG; 40% FG.

Player B: 28.2 PPG; 7.8 RPG; 4.5 APG; 1.7 SPG; 57.1% FG.

Looking at the two lines, Player B is quickly discerned to be the better Finals performance considering significant advantage in efficiency. Yet, history remembers Player B as coming up short, whereas Player A’s performance is showered in roses.

Player A is Kobe Bryant during the 2010 Finals. Player B is LeBron in the 2014 Finals.

We fail to examine losing as binary the equation it is. We don’t say, “Tom Brady and the Patriots lost the 2007 Super Bowl, but….” We say Brady and the Pats lost, they’re overrated and everything else becomes tertiary. Even though the 2007 Patriots are one of the greatest teams in NFL history, we disregard them as overrated.

In real time, LeBron’s 2007 overmatched Cavs were celebrated for winning the East and securing a Title birth. Little criticism was heaped at the 22-year old LeBron when they were dismantled by the far more talented Spurs.  The time-proven doctrine that hero ball had never, and will never, succeed at the NBA’s highest pedestal was offered as LeBron’s hall pass. The failure wasn’t his, but that of his front office.

Yet, over time, the public lost perspective. They forgot that the 2007 runner-up’s second best player was Drew Gooden. They forgot what it looked like when time after time Zydrunas Ilgauskas leaped off balance after Tim Duncan pump fakes, or how easily Tony Parker drove past Boobie Gibson, and how grotesque it was to see Sasha Pavlovic guard a full-haired, quick-stepped Manu Ginobili. Time boiled down the series to its final result: LeBron got swept.

Finals Preview

The 2015 Finals will be decided by how each team assigns defensive matchups, and how they counter those assignments with subsequent strategic adjustments. The deadliest weapon in the Golden State’s armory isn’t their three-point shooting, their drop-of-a-dime runs, or even their possession of two league’s most dangerous heat-check threats. No, Golden State’s power punch is their defensive flexibility.

The top-ranked defensive unit in terms of efficiency this season has numerous options to defend the League’s best player. They will likely start Harrison Barnes on LeBron, with the instruction to drop below screens and to give LeBron the perimeter jumpers he has struggled with this postseason—he is just 33% on long 2’s and 17.6% on 3’s this postseason. If he finds his jumper, they will throw Draymond at him and live with the consequences of Tristan Thompson snagging offensive boards over the smaller Barnes or the slower Bogut. All the while, they blanket Klay on Kyrie, if he’s playing effectively. If he’s hobbled and forced into a Mike Miller stand-in-the-corner role, they have Klay chase J.R. Smith around.

On the other end of the court, Cleveland will likely throw Shumpert on Curry, who has the length and quickness to contain the MVP. Golden State will employ a flurry of Thompson, Green and Bogut picks at Shumpert, hoping for a switch that leaves Curry on an island with Irving, Thompson or Mosgov guarding him. Each of those scenarios are grim for Cleveland. When healthy Irving is a liability on defense, when slowed by injury he becomes as abhorrent defensively as Steve Nash.

I see only two roads to victory for Cleveland, and both are as claustrophobic as the alleyways of Sarajevo.

The first and most unlikely road is that LeBron disproves the time-proven doctrine that hero ball can’t win a title by offering four game-six-in-Boston performances. He does what Allen Iverson did in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, only four times over. To do this he would need to find his lost jumper, return to his Miami Heat efficiency, and erase either Klay or Steph’s offensive output on the other end. And that still might not be enough.

The second and more travel-friendly road is to get Draymond Green in foul trouble. Largely consequence of limited exposure from playing in the Pacific Time Zone, the debate on whether Draymond Green would get a max contract this coming offseason was a fun conversation to entertain. Traditionally he would be a role player, but his skill-set is tailor made for the style of basketball being played today. If he hadn’t already asserted himself as a top-15 player, these playoffs have cemented Green as such, and eliminated the conversation of warranting a max contract. That is now a point of fact. The secret is out on Steve Kerr’s Swiss Army knife, and calling him underrated has become an erroneous statement. Green is the V-8 engine which drives the daunting Golden State defense. His ability to stymie bigs and guards alike is as valuable to the Warriors as Steph Curry’s lighting-quick release.

To get Green in foul trouble, Cleveland will have to employ the staple of the their opponents offense: movement and on-ball pick and rolls. LeBron’s band of misfit toys have rarely utilized P&R’s this season. Their primary offensive action is for LeBron to absorb defenders and kick out to open shooters, which as far as stretching a definition goes, is analogous to calling Rick Perry a liable presidential candidate or Iggy Azaela a musician. 

If Cleveland trots out this archaic offensive approach, Golden State will make quick work of the series. They will simply sag off LeBron, drape Cleveland’s perimeter shooters, and dare LeBron to beat them by shooting 35 times a game. The most effective way to minimize LeBron is to take away his assists.

However, if Cleveland evolves and deploys LeBron-Thompson P&R’s and collects early fouls on Green, they stand a chance. If Cleveland can dispatch Green to wave towels with David Lee on the Warriors bench, they force the Golden State to play Bogut-Barnes-Iggy/Livingston-Klay-Curry units, which allows for Cleveland to stash the hobbled and defensively-adverse Kyrie Irving on Iggy/Livingston. Offensively, it forces Barnes and/or Klay Thompson to attempt to fight over Mosgov pick-and-dives, in fear that LeBron will have Bogut switched onto him.

If Cleveland can couple a few games of Green in foul trouble with LeBron super-stud games, they shorten the talent gulf between the two teams. If they can’t, we’ll see the impossibly-adorable Riley Curry Schmoney dancing onstage as Commissioner Silver awards the Warriors the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Aftermath

No matter how well LeBron plays in the 2015 Finals, if Cleveland loses, the immediate response will be negative. Twitter will overdose on memes of Kermit drinking tea, only with Wade and Pat Riley and Michael Jordan’s heads photoshopped in place of the Muppets character. Analysts will be quick to remind audiences that Jordan never lost in the finals. Skip Bayless will arrive to the First Take set fully erect, ready to shout 2-and-4 from the vaulted and, unfortunately, persuasive  ESPN mountaintops. The defunct LeBron-isn’t-clutch narrative will be dredged back up, despite the litany of evidence dismissing its merits. 

History will not remember the insurmountable odds that beset them.  We won’t remember that LeBron wasn’t supposed to reach the the Finals this soon. History will likely forget that J.R. Smith was his second best player and will almost certainly misremember how hobbled Kyrie was—that three of the Cavs four highest paid players were injured. We won’t credit Golden State as the juggernaut that they rightfully are.

We might even forget that the 2015 season was the first time in NBA history that a player commanded full control of a NBA franchise, dictating coaching and front offices decisions alike.

Hopefully my fears will be unfounded. Perhaps history will act outside of its nature and the surface result won’t cannibalize the narrative. Perhaps it will honor LeBron’s 2015 campaign the way it has honored Allen Iverson’s 2001 march to the Finals. Not a title, but as impressive a defeat as there is. But more than likely, history will treat it like it did Dwight Howard in 2009, LeBron in 2007, Dirk in 2006, Reggie Miller in 2000, and Shaq and Penny in 1995: as nothing more than a failure.

What a shame that would be.