By the end of the 2015-16 regular season, just after Stephen Curry was named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, it seemed like we had a legitimate, and pertinent, question on our hands: If we were to start an NBA team from scratch, with the sole aim of winning immediately, who would we rather have, Curry or LeBron James?
Some were inclined to roll with Curry, the two-time reigning MVP who set the league record for three-pointers made in a single season, with 402, while reinventing everything we thought we knew about the relationship between volume (31.7 points per game) and efficiency (45.4 percent shooting from three on 11.2 attempts per game).
But then the 2016 NBA Finals happened, where the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead, in large part because LeBron James went supernova.
Now, almost a year later, there is no doubt as to what the answer to our question is: LeBron James.
Indeed, Curry’s 2015-16 campaign still counts as the best individual offensive season in NBA history. And yes, he has established himself as so much more than a shooter. He is a great driver, phenomenal passer and has some of the best handles the game has ever seen. Shooting is merely one of the vessels through which he communicates his greatness.
At the same time, Curry, as we’ve seen on so many occasions before, in both the regular season and playoffs, isn’t the same player if he’s not hitting threes.
Part of what makes him so great is that he’s unguardable. If he isn’t allowed to play like he’s unguardable, if he isn’t making shots like he’s unguardable, he isn’t able to impact the game in the same vein—not even if he’s passing and defending his butt off.
LeBron, on the other hand, is a different beast. He needn’t be making threes or scoring to leave an indelible imprint. He is versatile and able to pile up stats in every area. The Association has never played seen a more versatile player—Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan included.
Consider this: Currently, LeBron is eclipsing 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and one steal per game for the seventh time in his career.
Know how many times everyone else in NBA history has replicated those benchmarks?
A combined five times.
There have now been 12 seasons through which someone has averaged at least 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and one steal per game. And LeBron owns seven of them.
Curry, on his best nights, can match LeBron’s offensive value. That’s not up for debate. But he doesn’t have the body or raw physical tools to rival his defensive presence. LeBron’s chasedown block, which clinched a victory for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, is a perfect example. He is the only player in the league, perhaps in NBA history, who could have made that play, in that game, under those circumstances, without committing a foul:
Last season, it wasn’t irrational to make an argument for Curry. In the grand scheme of things, though, the only thing he really has going for him is that he’s younger and a better shooter.
LeBron, so long as he remains in his prime, is the more transcendent player.