Whether You Like It or Not, Steph Gets Preferential Treatment

As a sports fan who earned my stripes in the 1990s, I've been instinctively taught to scoff at any comparisons to Michael Jordan. It's in my DNA.

That's why I scoffed at LeBron James, the freakish man-child from Ohio who was all but guaranteed by the media at age 18 to surpass Jordan's accolades. And for years I rooted against him just because.

But then something occurred to me: apart from the awful "Decision" and amazing-in-retrospect-for-all-the-wrong-reasons pep rally with Miami, James really hadn't done anything to make me dislike him. He played the game hard, almost always with dignity, and — despite 24 hour scrutiny from social media outlets — never really embarrassed his team or himself. That's hard to do when all eyes are on you.

Yet, much like how the big kid in the middle school class is treated as more of an "adult" by his teachers, fans and referees continued to hold James to an impossible set of ideals.

Then came Steph Curry. Smaller and less expected to dominate, I never scoffed at Steph Curry because nobody ever thought he'd be compared to Jordan. Nobody saw the 6'2", 180-pound guard winning MVPs, titles, and out-dueling the rest of the NBA.

Then came a 67-win, MVP, title season in 2014-15, followed by 73, yet another MVP, and, after the first two games in Oakland, what looks likely to be another title this year. People have started to suggest that Curry is, in fact, better than LeBron James.

Suddenly, all attention is on him. He's got the top-selling jersey in the league and wins popularity polls left and right. Why? Because he's so exciting to watch!

Yet, despite his obvious offensive prowess, I'm now left scoffing once more. Only this time, it's not Curry's fault. It's the culture around the NBA.

Let me begin by saying I have never seen a shooter quite as remarkable as Curry. I do not want this to sound like a rant about his skills, suggesting he's somehow "overrated." That is not my intention. However, from an objective standpoint, I'm left wondering why people in and out of the league like him so much more than they like LeBron — who is, by nearly every measure of a complete basketball player, simply more valuable to his team.

So let's take a look first at why people like Curry more.

It begins with the league rules. Much like the NFL, the NBA has had a surge in scoring over the past few seasons. Between LeBron's rookie season and this season, the average points scored per game has ballooned. The worst team in the NBA in 2003-2004 averaged 85 points per game (Toronto), while the best averaged 105 (Dallas). In today's NBA? The lowest scoring team averaged 97 points per game (Los Angeles Lakers) and the vaunted Warriors led NBA scoring with a 115 clip.

In short, over the past 15 years, an NBA game is likely to feature an extra 20 points. This is largely due to a shift in philosophy. More scoring equals more viewers equals more revenue. It makes total sense that, as a business interested in profit, the league would try to achieve this goal. After all, to the casual fan, a deep three-pointer is far more exciting than a well-defended drive to the basket. So how did the league get more scoring?

I contend that the main issue that has helped offenses score more in the NBA today is the new blurred definition of what is and what is not a "moving screen." It has revolutionized the way offensive systems can run.

For many years, this was a black-and-white issue: the screener had to be still when setting a pick. He could not even move his upper body once his feet were set, he could not turn or shift, and he had to give the defensive player at least a full step to change direction. However, somewhere along the line, the NBA began granting much more leeway in this definition. There are scores and scores of articles, blogs, and YouTube videos devoted to unmasking the epidemic of questionable screens in the modern NBA (most addressing Golden State, who only really benefit from this new interpretation because they make more shots), but one fact remains unquestionably true: if your team is allowed to block a defensive player akin to a left tackle in the NFL, you are going to get open more. Getting open more equals more points.

This, of course, will lead to more swish shots. More of these beautiful long-range jumpers will turn the heads of casual fans. Curry makes a record-setting amount.

Ipso facto, fans love Curry.

But the second, and more confusing, reason that Curry gets favored is because he is small and, to use the words of Dan LeBatard, "cute." People like to root for the little guy. I have no proof, you say. But I do have anecdotes and evidence that suggests there may be something to this theory.

From an anecdotal standpoint, take Curry's antics after making big shots. After Curry stole the OT game from Portland, he beat his chest like Tarzan and screamed "I'm back!" When his Warriors staved off elimination in Game 5 against Oklahoma City, he did a similar routine of chest-beating, shouting, and carrying on. In his most arrogant moments, he fires up a three and does not even watch it go in before trotting back down court.

Can you imagine if LeBron did any of this? He'd be torn apart. Why? Maybe it's that he's been here longer, or that his hairline is worse. I don't know. But fans are allowing Curry to be more arrogant than the biggest player in the league simply because we expect someone that size to be more of a "man," whatever that means.

But here's the thing: it's not just the fans. It's the referees, as well.

In 2015-16, LeBron James took 53.7% of his shots from inside the paint. Steph Curry took 30% of his from the same area. League averages indicate 27% of all shots result in free throws. That number should be higher when players are driving to the basket, but for the sake of this piece let's assume that average is for the paint. James took 491 free throws this season, Curry 400. Seems fair-ish, right?

Not even close. If we assume that James should have been fouled, on average, 27% of the time within the paint, he should have attempted 405 free throws. Add in his jump shooting, which we'll assume gets fouled at a much smaller rate (15%), and James should have attempted 505 total free throws this year. Not too far off.

Curry, on the other hand, should have attempted only 129 free throws as a result of shots in the paint. Add in his extra 1,100 shots at the same 15% foul rate and that makes for 165 more, or a total of 294.

Now look at the math: LeBron is shooting 14 free throws fewer than you would expect while Curry is taking 106 more. In short, referees are simply calling fouls a greater amount of time to benefit Curry, which gives him more points, which — as we discussed above — gives him greater likability. Perhaps it's a big coincidence, but I tend to think a shooting foul against a small player simply looks worse, so referees are more likely to blow the whistle.

Listen, I'm not 100% sure that my theories are correct, but there is a lot of compelling evidence suggesting fans — and even referees — are somehow more sensitive to the plight of the diminutive Curry. He can shoot out of this world, to be sure, but his all-around game isn't anywhere near the completeness of James ... and no one really seems to see the hypocrisy in his treatment.

Maybe James is just old hat. Maybe people want a change in the guard. Fine.

Either way, from an objective standpoint, it's impossible to deny that Curry is getting benefits on nearly all levels that James no longer receives.

When it comes to winning this year's title? The door is being held wide open for Golden State, the better all around team (a supporting cast, by the way, James has never had) and the team catching more breaks. Let's see if LeBron James and Co. have it in them to rewrite the narrative. I doubt it, but I know what I'm rooting for.

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