In the summer of 2014, LeBron James was on the precipice of ruling the basketball world. He returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, four years and two rings after The Decision, positioned to rip off multiple titles. But in the Bay Area, a braintrust was converging around Stephen Curry’s bullseye 3-pointer. He finally stopped being too young and too hurt, the NBA stopped being too old fashioned, and freshly minted head coach Steve Kerr decided he wanted to push the envelope. Curry, the best shooter in NBA history, stepped into the space and range that analytics pioneers like the Houston Rockets shed a light on, creating a multiplying effect that led to three titles, two MVPs (one unanimous), and the making of a cultural icon.
In the middle of the decade that just came to pass, Curry stopped James’ inevitability right in its tracks.
Curry, the easygoing son of a former NBA player, and James, the teenage phenom who rose from poverty and clasped every opportunity with an iron grip and wrung everything he could from it, have spent the latter half of the decade since encroaching on each other’s dominance.
Curry turned a question that should have been locked up — Who was the most influential player of the decade? — into a debate. And that’s fitting because the decade we’re entering now was built not only by their visions but how their visions collided into each other and veered off in new directions, creating the modern NBA, filled with 3-point-shooting superstars who never stay in one place for too long.
They’re both bold, unrelenting change agents, uncompromising in their conviction, with self-belief that powered them through the slights until one day, the way they did things simply became the way things were done.
The NBA world resisted LeBron’s desire to capitalize on every bit of the power he created, and it despised how Curry shimmied and shot his way into altering the game’s geometry. But instead of changing themselves, they changed the NBA world. In the age of mass player movement and auto-cannibalistic branding tendencies, The Decision looks quaint. In the 2009-2010 season, the Orlando Magic led the NBA with 27.3 3-point attempts per game. That figure would be second to last in the league today. Curry and LeBron redefined the scope of acceptable — no, expedient — behavior for their peers.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. LeBron and Curry, despite playing in opposite conferences, were constantly building off each other.
Before the Warriors played Iguodala at center, going small and stumbling into the Death Lineup that clawed the 2014-15 Finals out of the Cavaliers’ grasp, James’ Heat won the Finals by playing small ball. Back in those days, 7-foot rim protectors like Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert were a thorn in James’ side. Within four years, the revolution Curry accelerated kicked Hibbert out of the league.
In the 2015-16 Finals, the Cavs went even smaller to counteract the Death Lineup, and through the course of the playoffs, almost equaled the Warriors in threes en route to Cleveland’s first title.
A few weeks after Game 7, the Warriors plucked Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency.
In 2018, James took more deep threes than Curry did in his unanimous MVP season, when Curry redefined what it meant to be an unselfish superstar. Curry’s ability to let go of the throttle somehow cast James, who recently dished out his 9,000th career assist, in a new light: controlling to the point of flattening out the more dynamic traits of his teammates. At the beginning of this season with the Los Angeles Lakers, James made it clear that he wanted the offense to run through Anthony Davis.
Things never change unless they have to. James and Curry pushed each other closer to the future, and both necessarily had to evolve as a result. Time and time again, they turned their innovations against each other. They both changed the game, but they couldn’t control what those changes would mean.
The modern NBA, on that note, could lead to so many different futures.
On the one hand, there’s Luka Doncic, one of the league’s most creative minds, dribbling through the playground Curry and James built for him, with the former’s shooting range and the latter’s playmaking.
On the other hand, ratings are slipping, and players copycatting 3-point shooting and general player movement could be among the contributing forces.
Paint a through line from today to 2050, and the NBA could feature a 4-point shot and a series of position-shifting, 6-foot-7 snipers with one-year contracts. Change is inevitable, but it’s rarely that formulaic. Someday, somebody new will come along and end the world Curry and James made. Until then, it’ll be impossible to say whose legacy will endure. In each passing decade, we’ll view them in a different light. For now, the NBA is defined as much by what LeBron and Curry did as what they did to each other.
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