The stage is set for the 2022 NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors, who have been to the Finals in six of
the last eight years, are matching up with the Boston Celtics, who
have jelled at the right time and combined stifling defense, grit
and perseverance to will themselves to an Eastern Conference
Steph Curry is closing in on his fourth NBA Championship. He has
already been crowned as arguably the greatest shooter the game
has ever seen — excluding nobody.
In fact, Steph changed the NBA as a whole and altered how the
game was played in a way that has rarely been seen. One could only
compare him to players such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan,
Allen Iverson and maybe a short list of others who have
literally single-handedly shifted the way the game was played. The
game’s current focus on three-point shooting, especially from the
point guard position, is rooted foremost in Steph.
I caught up with three point-guard legends Nick Van Exel, Rod
Strickland and Steve Francis to have them weigh in on Steph Curry
and his level of greatness. Is he being overhyped, or is he
Etan Thomas: What do you think about Steph
Curry as a player as a whole?
Nick Van Exel: "Steph has transcended the
entire game. Now, it’s an outside-in game where it used to be an
inside-out game. And that’s largely because of him in particular.
Nobody played five-out before. It’s kind of taken out big guys like
Etan: Oh yeah, I say it all the time, I’m like
the dinosaur of the NBA. (laughing)
Van Exel: "(Laughing) It’s true though. All big
guys now shoot the three, and it’s a spread-out offense. No more
guys like you, Ben Wallace, Brian Grant, those rugged players that
banged and rebounded and physical play and physical presence
inside. It’s totally different now. But now, everyone wants to
shoot threes. But Steph’s shooting is unbelievable. I’ve never seen
anyone in my life shoot like he does off the dribble, as quick as
he does. Every time he shoots the ball, you think it has a high
probability of going in.
"And to add to that, his leadership on the court is really
impressive. I played with Dirk [Nowitzki] and Tim Duncan, and they
were both superstars. But also, their teammates really loved them
and respected them and would rally behind them and elevate their
games to fall in line with them, and that’s what I see with Steph.
And you know how it is E. That doesn’t always happen on teams."
Etan: I heard a few commentators say that if
Steph wins this championship, he would move ahead of Magic Johnson
or LeBron James. Now, I usually don’t like to make comparisons like
that, but you hear the topics on First Things First or Shannon and
Skip, and they’re saying these things. What do you think?
Van Exel: "I’m like you, I don’t like to
compare. These are all different types of players. Magic was 6-8,
6-9 coming down the court full speed at you and throwing a no-look
pass. We had never seen that before. LeBron is a combination of
Magic and MJ blended into one, which we definitely haven’t seen
before. And Steph has also done things and changed the game in a
way that we haven’t seen as well. But all three in different ways.
So I’m like you, I don’t even go there with the
"I was also hearing if he didn’t get the Finals MVP, that he
doesn’t reach some level of plateau, and that’s ridiculous. We’re
gonna remember Steph for a long time regardless of what happens in
these Finals, and Steph is great, Magic is great and LeBron is
great. I’ll leave that for the sports talking heads to argue and
Etan: I agree 100%. Something else I admire
about Steph is the way he uses his voice. I actually interviewed
him for my new book: "Police Brutality
And White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions."
He spoke passionately about racism, why as a Christian he
couldn’t support Donald Trump, why he opted to not go to the White
House after they won, why he called out the CEO of Under Armor when
he voiced his support for Trump, and he didn’t hold back at all. He
broke down each particular point, and he was respected for it even
from people who may have disagreed with him.
Van Exel: "I think with the way Steph was
raised, he’s the perfect person to take these public stances. He
understands when situations are not right or fair or just, and he
was raised to have the courage, freedom and audacity to call those
things out. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, obviously.
"There are a lot of things that have happened throughout this
country, and have always been happening, and this generation of
players aren’t quiet like players were in the 80s and 90s or even
early 2000s. Besides you and Mahmoud [Abdul-Rauf] and [Craig]
Hodges and like two other people, through all those years, it was
quiet. So Steph Curry and these young athletes feel the freedom to
use their platforms, and they have their own social media, so they
can say what they want. I definitely respect that."
Etan: I definitely respect that too. And at the
same time, he is so respected on the court that he made other
guards on all levels try to play like him in particular. Do you see
that, or am I putting too much on it?
Van Exel: "He definitely transcended the game to
where people feel, 'Now, I’m going to go in the gym and just shoot
threes.' When you watch college, high school, the little cats in
AAU — everyone wants to jack up threes like Steph. It wasn’t like
that before. But of course, at the end of the day, everybody can’t
do that. (Laughing)"
Etan: (Laughing) No, they definitely can’t, no
matter if they think they can or not.
Van Exel: "Steph’s dad was a bona fide shooter
and kept him around pros, and he was watching and learning and
practicing until he was able to leave the nest. He has a basketball
sense and feel that’s out of this world. A lot of guys wanna shoot
threes, but the way he moves off the ball to get to the three...
that’s the special part. When you double team him and take the ball
out of his hands and he is still just as much of a threat as he was
when he had the ball, that’s special."
Etan: Who would you say are your favorite point
guards of all time? Not the best, just your favorite.
Van Exel: "So for me, the guys I loved watching
growing up were Magic, Isiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald. But my real
favorite point guard growing up was your 'Cuse guy, 31, Pearl
Washington. That’s why I wear 31 was because of him. That’s when I
was a teenager and starting to play ball and trying to see who I
could play like. And back then, college was probably more fun for
me to watch than pro basketball. Coming up, it was like, 'I gotta
get to the NCAA Tournament, I gotta go D-I.' That’s what we were
all saying. And Pearl Washington — oooh weee, the things he did on
the basketball court. That was my guy."
Etan: Definitely. Rest in Peace, Pearl. So now,
when you see young players, young point guards — especially shorter
young point guards — and you ask them who their favorite player is,
they all almost unanimously say Steph Curry.
Van Exel: "At the end of the day, Steph has
that A.I. effect. Remember everyone wanted to cross someone over
like A.I. did, especially after he crossed up MJ? He would fill
arenas with people just wanting to see him play. Well, Steph has
that level of appeal."
Etan: Okay, last question. Is it good to see
the success Steph and the Warriors are having after struggling a
little bit a few years ago, when they were missing Klay Thompson
and everyone was taking turns whipping them basically?
Van Exel: "(Laughing) It’s funny you say that.
A couple of years ago, when Klay went down the second time, this is
what I said. The NBA is gonna be in trouble when these cats get
healthy, because all of these young players are getting a chance to
play. Draymond [Green] was playing and teaching them how to play
and showing them the ropes and whatnot, so these young players had
a chance to really grow. So you add young players with confidence
to surround Steph, Klay and Draymond — what is this, 6 Finals in 8
years for them or something like that — yeah, they may run off a
few more championships."
Etan: You’re a legend yourself, and that’s not
just because of the Washington Wizards/Bullets thing we got. You’re
a real point guard legend, so I want to get a legend weighing in on
Steph’s game. What do you think of his game as a whole?
Rod Strickland: "The first thing I would say is
that his greatness shows because of how he changed the game. Other
point guards had to improve their shooting ability and range
because of Steph Curry in particular. Steph puts so much pressure
on the defense because of the distance and the accuracy of his
shot. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone like him. A player that
not only shoots it off the dribble, but coming off screens, his
ability to move without the ball, his I.Q., his craftiness — he’s
changed the game in a way that only few have."
Etan: So we can add context, who are some
people who have changed the game?
Strickland: "When I grew up, Dr. J (Julius
Erving) was my idol, and of course he was influenced by others
before him. But the way he dunked and [did] under-the-basket finger
rolls, he changed how the game was played, at least in the NBA.
Then, you got Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The game was
struggling, they both got championships and the viewers were coming
in. Then, you go from there and you have Michael Jordan, who
elevates the entire game himself to a whole different level.
"I would love to say Kobe [Bryant], who was definitely great,
but he kind of mirrored Jordan. Tim Duncan comes in and you had
that team-oriented type of style. KD (Kevin Durant) comes in —
7-foot, can play every position and shoot from anywhere on the
court. And of course I am skipping over a few people, of course you
have LeBron James. But my point is, you have moments in time where
a player comes in and makes the entire game look different, and
Steph Curry definitely has done that."
Etan: I remember when he was coming out in the
draft and Doug Gottileb, who was considered a major draft analyst
at the time, said that there were six other point guards in his
class with higher upside than him. And other so-called experts said
he’s “not a finisher," “undersized," “has poor shot selection,”
etc. And I remember Steph later discussing how much comments like
that bothered him.
Strickland: "That should tell all young ball
players that it doesn’t matter what critics and so-called experts
say about you. All you have to do is block out all of that noise
and keep working and getting better, and you can catch people who
were ranked or considered to be a higher caliber of player than
you. A lot of times, those young guys who are getting all of the
accolades in the beginning, sometimes it’s a hindrance because they
don’t know what’s left or that there’s more. They think that they
"And then, you get other younger guys who are hungry and feel
slighted, so they come along and they have that grind and chip on
their shoulder to push to get better and better. They have like a
burning passion and sense of urgency. So I’ll say Steph’s cloth I’m
sure comes from something to prove, especially if he has expressed
how those comments have stuck in his mind and he uses them for
motivation. That’s how a player should react to negative
Etan: When you talk about people who have
changed the game and started something that wasn’t seen before,
it’s interesting. I remember Mark Jackson while he was coaching at
Golden State saying something to the effect that Steph Curry ruined
AAU basketball, and a lot of people took it as a slight to Steph.
But what he was saying was now you have all these teenagers do what
Steph does, so they only pay attention to the finished product, but
they don’t see all the work he put in to be able to shoot like he
Strickland: "Exactly, and that’s why he is
phenomenal, and it's a part of his greatness. And people have to
understand, he couldn’t always shoot like that. It’s not like he
came out the womb shooting threes from one step in front of
half-court. He had to work to be able to do that. He’s put so much
work in, that he can shoot now from the bleachers and the alley
way. That takes hours and hours of practice to be able to shoot
like that. But he put the time in, and that’s why he’s great."
Etan: It’s interesting, I’m listening to all of
these talk shows this morning, Skip Bayless and First Things First,
and they’re all saying that Steph has something to prove in these
Finals and the pressure is on him. And I’m thinking, he has already
cemented himself, and he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.
Do you think he has something to prove?
Steve Francis: "(Laughing) No, his legacy began
a long time ago when he changed the game. He doesn’t have anything
to prove to anyone. But you know, he has the ability to
continuously prove people wrong who count him out over and over
again. So let them talk and say what they say. But Steph is just a
special player. When you watch him, you can tell how much work he
has put in and how much he has studied the game. And he’s
unselfish. He could probably easily score 40 points every single
game. I’ll say this: Steph Curry is one of the most fun-to-watch
players that I have seen in the last 30 years."
Etan: So what is it specifically that you like
about him? What impresses you the most of how he plays on the
Francis: "No. 1, he has zero fear. No matter
who he is up against. And he’s always had that. He runs his routes
and comes off screens, and he has put in so much work that, when he
puts the ball up — no matter where he puts it up from on the court
— he has the ultimate confidence that it’s going in. That’s why he
can turn around while the ball is in mid-air, because he has put
the work in and knows how he shot the ball. So everything about his
game impresses me.
"I’m also impressed with how he carries himself off the court,
how down to earth he is. I remember my son wanted to meet him in
Houston, and he was so engaging with him and showed me the most
respect; you can tell his dad raised him well. When you have
someone leading a franchise who conducts themselves off the court
like that, it makes you appreciate them even more. My son was a fan
of his since meeting him. And you know how it is, when your son
meets someone, has a good experience with them and becomes a fan,
it makes you respect them even more."
Etan: I definitely feel you on that one. And
going back to the commentators, you listen to them criticize him
and scrutinize him the way they were this morning — and I know with
Skip Bayless, you have to take everything he said with a grain of
salt and a lot of it is performative — but it's not just him but
other commentators as well that do it.
Francis: "Sometimes, they’re going to criticize
you regardless. I remember sometimes when I would get criticized on
TV, I would take it personal. It would bother me. I always say I’m
so glad I didn’t grow up in the Social Media Era, I don’t see how
these young players do it."
Etan: Man! I used to get offended by one
reporter saying something. I couldn’t imagine thousands of people
on social media and all of these talking heads every single day
criticizing the way they do.
Francis: "But also, it’s a different
generation. It’s almost like they’re numb to it and they just go
about their business and keep it pushing and stay focused, so
that’s what it seems like Steph is doing. He hasn’t lashed out at
reporters, which honestly is what they want him to do sometimes. It
hasn’t affected his game, so who cares what they say."
Etan: Great point. So who do you like in the
Francis: "I respect the heart and the defense
that Boston has been displaying. I’ve really been impressed by
that. But Steph and Klay and Draymond, they’re on a mission this
year, almost like a revenge tour. A lot of people were ready to
write them off. They were definitely ready to write Klay off after
he got injured, especially the second time. And Steph is in a
groove right now where he may go for 50 one game.
"And what I love about this team is, if one person is hot,
they’ll keep feeding him. If Klay is hot, Steph will look for him
every time down the court until he cools off. That’s just
championship basketball. Unselfish and playing as a team."
Etan: It’s interesting seeing how Steph and
Klay and Draymond have really supported and wrapped their arms
around the young players. And if they’re hot, they keep going to
them too, but you don’t always see that. Sometimes when there’s a
gap in age, the vets play better with the vets and the young
players play better with each other.
Francis: "Absolutely, you hit the nail on the
head. And you can see it on the court. You can see them encouraging
the younger players, supporting them, hyping them up. Whether it’s
Andrew Wiggins picking up Luka [Doncic] full court and wearing him
out, or Jordan Poole with the hot hand, or Kevon Looney getting it
done around the basket. Their leadership is what’s going to push
them to a championship. You can have all the fantastic shooting
ability you want, but without leadership, it won’t get you over the
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