Is Stephen Curry the Future of Basketball, or Just the Exception?


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The Warriors’ Stephen Curry, shooting over the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving, has redefined what kinds of shots are possible (and permissible) in today’s game.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At the outset of the N.B.A. finals, Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, paid tribute to Stephen Curry by comparing him to, of all people, Roger Bannister.

What Bannister was to track, Silver believed, Curry had become to professional basketball: a barrier crasher and culture changer who is reconfiguring the basketball court’s scoring contours.

Silver chose Bannister as his example because his running of the first sub-four-minute mile, in 1954, “wasn’t something that then nobody touched for 20 years.”

After Bannister, running a sub-four-minute mile at the high end of the sport became a common occurrence. Of Curry, as well as Klay Thompson, Silver said, “What they’re doing when it comes to 3-point shooting, they’ve overcome a psychological barrier, I think, for a lot of players who just never thought the kind of shots they would make were possible.”

The suspension of Draymond Green for Game 5 Monday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., offered hope for the Cleveland Cavaliers that they could at least delay Curry and the Warriors from clinching their second-straight N.B.A. title. But Silver left no doubt, whatever the postseason’s outcome, that he believed Curry, especially, and Thompson had already altered “the whole dynamic of our game.”

Use of the 3-point shot has been dramatically rising for years. But the question — invariably asked by basketball purists and by those wondering if Curry is a unique talent or a new paradigm in the approach to offense — is this: Is it for better, or for worse?

Is the sport enhanced or debased when the possibility of a successful layup or a dunk is skirted for a 3-point attempt by a player who might be converting roughly three in 10?

(Iman Shumpert made such a decision with LeBron James leading a fast break in Game 4 before James’s pass to him in the left corner went awry.)

In December, Mark Jackson, a network analyst and former Warriors coach, raised this issue, largely to a chorus of jeers from those who thought his takeaway comment — “He’s hurting the game” — was specious criticism of Curry.

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After Roger Bannister became the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, in 1954, others followed.

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Associated Press

It wasn’t. Jackson also said Curry was the league’s most valuable player and a champion because he was “a complete player.” He was lamenting the imitative effect: high school players everywhere pulling up from behind the 3-point line, thinking they can be him.

“You are not Steph Curry,” Jackson said. “Work on other aspects of the game.”

We took Jackson’s argument to two coaches of successful public school teams: Steve Finamore of East Lansing High School in Michigan and Ron Naclerio of Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens.

While Naclerio, after 35 years of high-level scholastic coaching, leaned old-school, Finamore nixed the notion that the game was in danger of turning into a 3-point-shooting, bricklaying circus.

“I totally disagree with that quote from Mark Jackson,” he said.

Finamore has been at East Lansing for six seasons, the most recent concluding with a 23-1 record. He formerly worked on Coach Tom Izzo’s staff at Michigan State, where he developed a working relationship with Green.

Knowing his players are watching the N.B.A. closely, Finamore admitted that the games occasionally had their wince-inducing moments — J. R. Smith’s backing up behind the 3-point line and shooting an air ball in Game 4 came immediately to mind.

“And Steph at times does take what we would consider to be bad shots,” Finamore said. “But he has actually influenced the way we play. We run a high-powered offense, look for the 3-point shot, even from way back, if they can make them. We encourage our kids to take them, practice them, and I use a lot from Steph — mostly quotes about how hard he’s worked at it — with my guys.”

The sport, Finamore argued, is not trending as much as it is evolving, de-emphasizing traditional low post play, even slashing on the break in favor of finding the 3-point line.

Pete Newell, who ran a longtime summer camp for big men, focusing on footwork and post moves, “must be rolling over in his grave,” Finamore said.

“We have a sophomore, 6-foot-8, going to be a Division I player, with the body type of a Klay Thompson. People ask why I don’t put him in the post. I tell them because that’s not his game and that’s not where the game is going.”

Like Finamore, Naclerio said he had players who were red-lighted on shooting the 3 until they put the work in to demonstrate a reasonable proficiency. Unlike Finamore, he had more reservations about predicating a high school offense on the long ball.

“I still think the high school game is won by getting layups,” he said. He sounded leery about relying too much on 3-point shots. “On good days, the best high school players make a decent amount. On bad days, they miss most of them.

“And when I see kids just flinging them up from deep in a game or just practicing, it’s scary. I tell them, the pro game shot is a lot longer than the high school game. It’s a whole different world.”

Naclerio also agreed with Jackson that Curry might be a historic exception more than the eventual rule.

“When you say that there are going to be a lot more guys like Curry, how many have ever had the handle that he has,” he said. “How many can create space off the dribble and shoot like that or come off the screen and get it up that quickly — and that’s without a high release point.”

But Naclerio ultimately applauded Curry and the Warriors, citing them as role models, as practitioners of a team-oriented style worth watching and, yes, emulating.

“They’re not just running a high screen and shooting the ball,” he said. “Curry’s not just standing in the corner. Golden State is getting their 3s in motion, with five guys working together, and that’s why it’s really hard to guard. They play the right way.”

In essence, Naclerio was saying that judgment on Curry and the Warriors’ legacy should be focused as much on how they have achieved as much as on what they’ve achieved.

Naclerio, who began coaching before there was a 3-point shot, admitted that his offense next season at Cardozo — his team just graduated three Division I players — would feature a penetrating point guard and two “really good sophomore shooters” spreading the floor, looking for the 3.

Consider the Cardozo barrier crashed.

“The game is changing,” Naclerio said. “And I’m changing with it.”

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