Now that Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry has won his fourth championship and won the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Trophy for the first time, how high has he climbed in the all-time NBA point guard rankings?
The long-awaited Finals MVP award filled the only remaining hole in Curry’s resume. He had already won two regular-season MVPs, played on eight All-NBA teams (four of them first-team), and earlier this season became the NBA’s all-time 3-point leader.
When Curry ranked fourth among point guards in ESPN’s all-time NBArank in 2016, he was unanimously named MVP midseason for helping the Warriors win a record 73 games. His placement ahead of Isiah Thomas was controversial.
Given what Curry has accomplished since then, that’s no longer the case. When we recently compiled the NBA list of the top 76 players in league history, Curry ranked third among point guards behind Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
With another title run in the books, it’s time to revisit where Curry ranks in his position all along.
Curry’s rank added after championships
In conjunction with these 2016 leaderboards, I shared my added championship metric, which uses Basketball-Reference.com’s winning percentages – estimated back to the dawn of NBA history – and plots votes to determine how many championships a Players added to an otherwise average team over the course of its career, adjusted for league quality.
Since we’re looking at player performance and not specifically team results, winning another title doesn’t affect Curry’s score. The Finals MVP is also not included in the calculations.
Still, Curry’s .18 championships added this year put him at a career 1.85, good for 17th all-time. That’s about where Curry landed in our most recent ranking (16th), although he would certainly move up after that postseason run.
If that seems too low, remember that Curry is still adding to his ledger. He should overtake Dirk Nowitzki (1.9) next season and has a good chance of ending up in the top 10.
Curry is already in the top 15 for championships added in the playoffs and based on prize voting. He’s faring worse in the regular season, in part because he just didn’t play as many minutes compared to the all-time greats. Of the 16 players ahead of Curry, 14 played at least 34,500 minutes in the regular season (taking into account Julius Erving’s ABA career). Curry is at 28,361 and counting.
A clear top 3 at PG
The voters and added championship metrics unanimously agree on the top three point guards of all time, all of whom can be recognized with just a single name: Magic, Oscar, and Steph.
Aside from combo guard Jerry West, no other point guard has reached the same level as these three MVPs. All of them have maintained their success in the postseason in ways that other point guards who became MVPs (James Harden, Steve Nash and Russell Westbrook) cannot match.
At one point, supporters of Thomas, John Stockton, or Chris Paul could take action against Curry on the basis of longevity. That was undercut by Curry continuing to play at a high level through his mid-30s. While Paul and Stockton still surpass him with 11 All-NBA nods each, Curry now has more than Thomas (five) and has matched Thomas’ 1990 Finals MVP win.
The showdown between Steph and Oscar
The closest comparison for Curry’s size as a point guard is Robertson, who won a single MVP (1963-64) but almost equals Curry in terms of MVP percentages thanks to nine top-five finishes compared to just three for Curry.
Given all the attention that Curry never won Finals MVP, it’s amusing to note that without that honor, Robertson was one of just two players ahead of him in our top 76 ranking. (The other, namesake Russell, would certainly have had multiple Finals MVPs had the honor been presented before 1969, his last of 11 championships with the Celtics.)
Finals MVP was less of a focus for Robertson because his Cincinnati Royals never won a title in their prime when they often fell short against Russell’s Celtics dynasty. When Robertson won a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, he was the clear second choice to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was named Finals MVP.
Championships added draws an interesting contrast between Curry and Robertson. Oscar has a huge advantage in regular-season championships because of his long career (Robertson’s 43,886 minutes, ranked 22nd all-time), while Curry dominates the playoffs thanks to his performance in Golden State’s long playoffs.
The totals for the two players are almost identical, with Curry (1.85) beating Robertson (1.82) after this postseason. Although Robertson finished ninth in our top-76 ranking – two spots up from 2016, perhaps due to renewed attention for his triple-double average when Westbrook joined him at this two-player club – I suspect Curry on Will end up before him next time we revisit the vote.
Can Steph catch Magic?
ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins sparked controversy statement last month that Curry winning Finals MVP would lift him above Johnson as the greatest point guard in NBA history.
Added to championships, that is not yet a discussion. Although Johnson was forced to retire after his season aged 31 by a positive HIV diagnosis and only returned briefly for 32 games in 1995-96, Johnson still has a huge advantage over Curry. Johnson’s 2.43 championships added eighth all-time.
It’s possible that Curry could catch Johnson, but it’s not necessarily likely. Curry would need another four seasons like his 2021-22 to close the gap, which would mean playing at championship and All-NBA levels by age 38. More realistically, Curry would then have to put together a few more seasons like this to continue creating value at a lower level by playing into his 40s.
Aside from his health, Curry’s eventual overall win at the championships will depend in large part on how long he chooses to keep playing, as his shooting will likely retain its value even as his physical ability wanes.
Still, Johnson is the only point guard Curry might not be able to catch in terms of peak. Johnson won three MVPs and as many Finals MVPs as part of the Lakers’ five championship runs in the 1980s. That success, and perhaps a bonus for years without playing, resulted in Johnson’s 4th place in the top 76. That’s probably more than Curry will ever achieve.
On the other hand, Curry has a habit of proving us wrong – this time by leading the Warriors to another title after two years in the lottery.