Watching the Oscars helped explain Oscar.
Why would Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson be so dismissive of Stephen Curry's spectacular season? It's because Curry's game is so far removed from Robertson's style that the reigning MVP's success sends The Big O to the shadows and diminishes his relevance to the modern NBA.
And if the Academy Awards reminded us of anything, it's that tributes matter a lot. A whole lot.
Why were journalists rejoicing after "Spotlight" won best picture? The Boston Globe's reporting on the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal already had led to dramatic changes in church policy, millions of dollars in legal settlements and a high-level resignation. The series received a Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor. Impact and recognition within the industry ought to be ample enough payoff, yet journalists saw vindication in a condensed, dramatized account of the Globe team's work beating out stories about a stranded astronaut and a bear-attack survivor to get the Oscar.
It's because we all crave validation, from the earliest approval of our parents and teachers to credit from our professional peers. We all want our stories to be heard. It's why the exclusion of African-American actors and filmmakers from this year's nominations felt so painful, like a message that their contributions are irrelevant.
Robertson rarely has his story told to the masses. The triumph of his all-black Crispus Attucks 1950s high school state championship team in racially divided Indiana didn't make it to the big screen the way that tiny Milan's miracle did via "Hoosiers." We always hear about the "Larry Bird exception" that allows teams to pay higher salaries to their own free agents, but we rarely hear reference to the Oscar Robertson rule that led to NBA free agency in the first place. Any time a player changes teams of his own free will he should thank Robertson for filing the class-action lawsuit that eliminated the league's binding reserve clause.
Magic Johnson's versatility and eventual breaking of Robertson's assists record kept Oscar in the news, though. More recently, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook's stat lines harkened back to Robertson's numbers. Now Curry is taking the game to previously unoccupied territory, away from Robertson and everyone else who came before him.
Instead of controlling the game in the paint, Curry is darting around the hashmarks and half-court logos. And his statistical efficiency is so high that he blows away previous dominant smaller guards such as Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson, leaving them out of the narrative as well. (Another reason Thomas is criminally underrated is that his back-to-back championships were sandwiched between the end of Magic's Showtime and Jordan's first three-peat. They had eras; Thomas had an interlude.)
Curry shouldn't be a menace to any of the all-time greats, of course. His accomplishments don't erase what they did. The reason they feel threatened is that Curry doesn't reflect them. He isn't a continuation of the story they established. As Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said before the first time his Mavericks faced Curry this season: "He's rewriting the history of the game."
Yes, the limits on physical play are different from Robertson's day, and the introduction of and reliance on the 3-point shot have fundamentally altered the sport. But when Robertson went on "Mike and Mike" and attributed Curry's success to coaching and defensive shortcomings, saying, "He's shot well because of what's going on in basketball today," it neglected the core truth: Curry has shot well because he has shot well.
You see, the same yearning for attention that brings criticism from Robertson and other past greats also brings out the best in Curry. He wants things to be said about him that can be said of no one else in the history of the game. That's why he was so adamant about getting the Warriors off to the best start to a season; that's why he is pushing for them to win an unprecedented 73 games. It's why he wants both Ray Allen's record for career 3-pointers made and Steve Kerr's mark for career 3-point percentage.
And it's the only explanation for how he has improved so much from last season. He won 67 games, the MVP and the championship last year, and yet this should go down as his breakout year. His player efficiency rating has gone from 28.06 last season to 32.95 this season, an increase that represents the largest jump for a reigning MVP since the introduction of the 3-point shot in 1979-80.
"Curry shouldn't be a menace to any of the all-time greats, of course. His accomplishments don't erase what they did. The reason they feel threatened is that Curry doesn't reflect them. He isn't a continuation of the story they established."
Actually, the stat holds up going back even further than that, but I'm reluctant to get into statistical comparisons for Curry with players who did not have the 3-point shot because it's such an integral part of his game. I'm even hesitant to compare him to players in the first decade or so of the NBA's 3-point era because it was so rarely used back then. Put it this way: Curry shoots 11 3-pointers a game this season; the average team didn't shoot more than 10 per game until 1994-95. With a record of 288 3s already made, Curry is on track to make more this season than Magic did in his entire career (325).
Magic revolutionized the point guard position with height. Curry is revolutionizing it with distance. His shooting range warps defenses by commanding double-teams and even triple-teams beyond the 3-point line. He changes games in ways you might not even notice, such as the way he set up Andre Iguodala's game-tying free throws in Oklahoma City on Saturday night by drawing the defensive attention of Westbrook and Dion Waiters, which left Iguodala open.
Two defenders were worried about a guy standing at half court without the ball.
That's how dangerous Curry is viewed by opponents. Robertson's words indicate that he feels threatened by Curry as well. It's a concern about being overshadowed, a fear of missing out, a reminder that even cynical reporters and accomplished athletes dream of walking the red carpet and standing onstage, basking in the adulation.