Curry is in the midst of a career year that saw him break the league's record for most three-pointers made in a single season. He's by far the most lethal shooter in the NBA (sorry, Ray Allen) and generated plenty of "snub alerts" when he was left off the Western Conference All-Star team.
Widely considered the best point guard in the Association, Paul is of a different breed than Curry. He can score when he wants to, but is more of a distributor. He finished second behind Rajon Rondo in assists per game during the regular season (9.7) and garnered plenty of MVP support before LeBron James left everyone sporting a jersey (including Kevin Durant) behind.
I'll even admit that it could seem a bit unfair to compare these two at this stage of their career. Curry is in just his fourth season and only beginning to make a name for himself as a superstar while Paul is in his eighth and been selected to six All-Star games. Still, they're both stars, and it's not about pitting them against one another per se.
Paul is the better point guard in the conventional sense. Floor generals are expected to serve as an offensive catalyst and few in the league can direct their teammates as well as him. And Curry isn't one of them. He's not a bad passer (you have to love one-handed dishes off a single foot), but he's not Paul.
You could also say that Paul isn't Curry. Steph is one of the best hybrid point guards in the game, someone who can dominate both on and off the ball. He's also now the first player in NBA history to finish the regular season averaging at least 22 points and six assists while shooting 45 percent or better from both the field overall and beyond the arc.
Curry isn't better overall, he's just different. And he's found similar success to that of Paul's through the first four seasons of his career.
Take a look at the duo's per game averages during their first four years in the league:
Paul has the clear edge in every category except three-point shooting. The only numbers of his that absolutely trounce Curry's is win shares. He more than doubled the Golden State Warriors' initial total.
Despite these clear advantages, Paul still made the playoffs just twice in his first four seasons compared to Curry's one. Even now, as he embarks on his fifth playoff appearance, he's led his team past the first round merely twice.
The absence of extensive playoff success hasn't damaged Paul's reputation. Think of him like Steve Nash. Ringless, but loved by all. Void of a championship trophy, the playing field between Paul and others (Curry included) is leveled slightly.
Could Curry realistically win a title before Paul?
Those are the types of questions that can be posed without fear of humiliation or fanatical retribution. Because it's a fair question. One that does have a tentative answer.
To draw a conclusion there, we must first ask: Who's closer to winning a championship now?
Really think about this one, now. The smarter than smart money says Paul, and that's correct. But we also must take into consideration that both Curry and Paul aren't in the most favorable of positions at the moment.
Golden State finished the 2012-13 regular season sixth in the west, earning them a first-round date with the Denver Nuggets. Even if the Warriors make it into second round, the San Antonio Spurs or (by some miracle) the Los Angeles Lakers await. Golden State is a combined 3-5 against the two.
Say the Warriors make it to the Western Conference Finals, though? What then?
The Oklahoma City Thunder could await against whom they're 1-3. Or the Memphis Grizzlies, who they are 0-3 against. Or, there's the Paul-led Los Angeles Clippers. They were 3-1 against them during the regular season.
In terms of immediacy, it doesn't look promising for the Warriors. Of the teams most likely to come out of the west, they only match up well against Paul and the Clippers. There's also David Lee's absence to consider. So no, Golden State doesn't appear to be NBA Finals-bound this season.
Is this to say the Clippers do? They struggled against the sixth place Warriors during the regular season, are we to believe they could get past the Thunder and then potentially the Spurs or Nuggets as well en route to the finals?
I don't believe they can. Not right now. They were a combined 3-6 against the top three teams in the west on the year, and I can't envision them beating two of those three teams in separate matchups. And even if they did, the Miami Heat may be waiting for them. It's just a mess.
But that little tangent of mine doesn't make this a stalemate. Though neither are in a strong position to win a title this season—if I had to pick, I'd say the Clippers were closer—it's not just about this season. It's about the next one. And the one after. And the one after that. Until one of these point guards wins a title (should either of them win).
In the here and now, Paul is closer. But that could change. We'd like to believe his impending free agency is a non-issue, but if the Clippers get ousted in an earlier round, it is.
What if he decides to go elsewhere and start from scratch? Or what if he returns and changes need to be made? Once the Clippers re-sign Paul to a contract worth nearly $20 million annually, they'll have no cap room to play with. Should they opt to tinker with the roster (buh-bye DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe?), there's no telling how long the transition period would last.
Curry, on the other hand, plays for a Warriors team that will have a ton of financial flexibility after next season. Like $35 million or more annually to play around with. Even if you don't like their chances at legitimately contending as long as Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins are in the fold, and Andrew Bogut remains fragile, you have to be intrigued by their prospects to build a powerhouse in the near future.
All of these factors will come in to play when determining where both these players and their teams are headed. They're in even more complicated a situation because they play in a conference brimming with talent. The east has the Heat, but the west has everyone else.
Which leaves us here, wondering which player is in a better position to take down the Thunder and Spurs and Nuggets and any other dominant factions moving onward (assuming Paul doesn't switch conferences).
Knowing this, it really comes down to deciding who you would rather build around, Curry or Paul? Who has the better chance at leading their team past the best in the league?
That would be Paul. It has to be.
Paul can impact the game in so many different ways. His Clippers are 12.2 points better per 100 possessions on offense with him on the floor, and he doesn't receive enough credit for what he's capable of doing on defense.
Curry can carry a team with his shooting—Golden State is 8.4 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor—but can he carry them with his passing? Or set the tone on defense?
Not like Paul can. Perhaps one day, but the separation in win shares (55.3 to 24.7) through their first four seasons is most efficient barometers when it comes to measuring their impact.
Paul carried a mediocre Hornets team for more than half a decade. He didn't bring them far, but they made the playoffs, and were consistently relevant. Curry has played for some pretty bad Warriors teams as well, but he was never able to have that kind of impact.
Where would the Warriors be without Jarrett Jack? Or David Lee? Could Curry lead them to the playoffs on his own? Doubtful.
The same can be asked of Paul when it comes to Blake Griffin. While the Clippers wouldn't be anywhere near as prominent a fixture as they are now, you still have to believe Paul could get them to the playoffs on his own.
Curry will perhaps have the luxury of playing at a time when Durant and LeBron aren't as dominant, and the league is more open, but we can't conclude that the NBA will ever be that much weaker. Curry will continue to improve and he is younger, but that doesn't mean his path to a championship will be easier than Paul's just because the latter spent all of his prime playing in the shadows of LeBron, Durant and even Kobe.
Neither Curry nor Paul is guaranteed to win a title. That's how competitive this league is. But if it's one of them who can do it under the current circumstances (no matter what team they play for) or even should the league's hierarchy suddenly prove up for grabs, it's Paul.
This isn't a knock on Curry either. He's a star, an elite player in his own right. Paul is just better. What he can do on the court combined with the impact he can have on a team is just more profound.
And so, if you bet on either of these players at all, put your still smarter than smart money on Paul.
If there's a championship in their futures, it will be him that strikes first.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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