Who’s better? Spend a few minutes scrolling through NBA Twitter and some variation of the question will find you. LeBron James or Michael Jordan, who’s the greatest of all-time? Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson, who’s the better Lakers legend? Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson, who’s best to build a franchise around from scratch right now?
They’re deceivingly simple. On the surface it’s an either-or, James is the GOAT or Jordan is, but coursing beneath that surface are the complexities that make those questions compelling to think about — a blend of historical facts, narratives and nostalgia that obscures the answers, if the answers even really exist at all to begin with.
Who’s better? The question appeared once more on Friday’s airing of Basketball Central, with Sportsnet’s Michael Grange and Alvin Williams debating all-time great point guards. Isiah Thomas vs. Johnson, Jason Kidd vs. Oscar Robertson, Chris Paul vs. John Stockton, Steve Nash vs. Stephen Curry.
The back-and-forth settled on answers each of those times, even if consensus wasn’t found. Their fourth and final discussion, though, comparing Nash and Curry, wrapped itself around an idea that’s often lost in the online discourse.
“I’m going to go with Steph Curry,” Grange said. “And that’s no disrespect to Nash, because I don’t know if you get Curry without Nash. But when you look at Steph Curry’s ability to change defences, put up 30 [points], we’re talking one of the three or five best players of all-time, let alone one of the three or four best point guards.”
Who’s better? By the numbers, it’s simple. Apart from assist totals, Curry is either already ahead of Nash in career counting stats or likely will pass him over the next few years.
Who’s better? By their game-to-game impact, it’s foggier but an answer can still be seen. Nash could score 30 points during his time at the helm of the Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns teams. And when he had the ball in his hands, there was always the chance the defence could be carved seemingly at a whim — by an unthinkable pass, or an improbable crossover, or an unbelievable layup — that’s why Nash was a magnetic player, the kind your eyes were drawn to whenever he was on the floor.
But Curry took that magnetism and added a different electricity to it, pushing the boundaries of Nash’s boundary-pushing offensive blueprint to levels that no one would have envisioned when Nash won his back-to-back MVPs. Entire teams contort around him being on the court.
Who’s better? By how they changed the game, well, that might be where it’s murkiest. Off the court, Nash’s MVP wins gave a generation of Canadians tangible proof that someone north of the border could be the league’s best player. With the rise in talent the country has produced, the Nash-effect counts for something, at least. Curry himself has said Nash was an influence on him. But Curry’s willingness to shoot from anywhere — and his ability to make it look fun, too — is molding how a generation of players is growing up thinking about offence.
And somewhere between Nash’s MVPs and Curry’s, the league shifted as a whole as well. Despite the Suns’ league-leading pace during their best years, Nash’s usage rate never topped 30 per cent and his career-high average for three-pointers attempted was 4.7 per game. In 2018-19, his most recent full season, Curry made 5.1 threes per game and attempted 11.7 on a 30.4 per cent usage rate.
There’s more to a point guard’s role than three-pointers and usage rate, of course. But they’re also useful single-stat benchmarks for thinking about just how different the game is now, six years after Nash’s retirement.
It’s not definitive the precise moment that all changed — was it the San Antonio Spurs’ 2014 NBA Finals masterpiece against James and the Miami Heat? Or was it Curry’s Golden State Warriors proving jump shots can win championships? Or maybe Mike D’Antoni taking the pace-and-space strategy he designed with Nash’s Suns and steering right into its core principals with the Houston Rockets?
What can be said safely is that Nash inched the game in its current direction just as Curry is inching it closer to where it’s headed next. And in that way, players are not just better or worse than one another at playing basketball, they’re continuations of who came before.
Which is how history itself works, too. It’s a set of individual moments that exist along a continuum, moments that can’t be understood and appreciated fully without that wider-reaching context.
So, who’s better? It doesn’t have to be an either-or at all, really. The question — like any debate of all-time standing — is several questions rolled into one: Whose absolute apex was more dominant; which career narrative was more captivating; how much weight do you put on being the first to do something?
As Grange noted on Basketball Central, there may be no Curry to rank on the list of all-time greats — at least the way fans have come to know Curry — if Nash’s blueprint didn’t exist to follow.