OAKLAND, Calif. — Stephen Curry has been at the top of the basketball world for so long, it’s hard to picture the NBA Finals without him. Yet while his haters keep their criticism quiet, they are out there — for the moment.
As much as Curry has single-handedly changed the way basketball is played, teammate Andre Iguodala suggested Curry isn’t as appreciated by his peers as he should be — and that he’s downright disrespected in a way superstars aren’t supposed to be.
“I’ve never seen such a good person get backlash or whatever from his peers because they’re so jealous of him and what he has,” Iguodala said after Game 2 of the NBA Finals. “Kind of enjoy sticking it to them.”
The quote mostly was ignored amid concern over the Warriors’ massive injury woes, but Iguodala’s comments weren’t throwaway material. Curry didn’t want to give them life the day before Game 3 of a tied series.
"I don't know what they say behind closed doors or whatever they whisper around, what they think of my game. It's not anything I lose any sleep over,” Curry told Yahoo Sports following his news conference at Oracle Arena on Tuesday.
But he wouldn’t leave Iguodala hanging. “He's a smart dude,” Curry said. “He has a high perception around pretty much everything.”
The bond between Curry and Iguodala is real, so while Curry wouldn’t say the words himself, Iguodala’s feelings didn’t come out of thin air. Curry has elevated himself beyond his peers these past five years, from piercing shooter to multiple-time champion and two-time MVP. That’s bound to create some feelings among opposing players who didn’t see Curry coming, or those who feel he’s escaped criticism in the way most superstars haven’t during their maturation.
Even his greatest failure, coming up short in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, was relatively overshadowed by the reaction two weeks later, when Kevin Durant announced his new chapter would be in the Bay Area.
Every year there seems to be a rush to claim someone is better than Curry, a belief that while his accomplishments are real, they are aided by the franchise for which he plays and with whom he plays.
One year Kyrie Irving is the best point guard; the next it’s Damian Lillard. And yet it’s Curry playing in June, orchestrating a difficult balance between sustaining a championship environment and being the conductor when it’s needed most.
It’s almost like they believe the most impactful player in basketball is … overrated.
He’s sent the likes of Lillard and Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul — fierce competitors who don’t like losing — home for the summer multiple times. And with Curry being the showman that he is, opponents have mocked him when the rabbit had the gun, most memorably when Paul imitated Curry’s shimmy in last year’s Western finals — to which Curry chuckled in the aftermath. He knows he’s a target on the floor, but believes the results have brought about the necessary respect.
“No one comes up to my face and says anything but positive things about how I play and what I've done for the game and stuff like that,” Curry told Yahoo Sports.
He’s missing a Finals MVP on his résumé, but that could be rectified in the next two weeks should he put together a series of sterling performances to help the ailing Warriors to a third straight title.
But there is something in the air, a peer jealousy of sorts that could be derived from a number of factors. The Currys are basketball’s unofficial first family, Stephen’s mother and father the subject of more than their share of cutaways and attention during games. Even his oldest daughter, Riley, became a media sensation a few years ago when she accompanied him to the podium during the playoffs.
He’s one of the rare players who didn’t get dinged by the public on his way to the top, a wholly dissimilar basketball existence from LeBron James’ journey through the years. Look no further than his own locker room with Kevin Durant, who has been roasted for joining the Warriors, yet Curry has been insulated from criticism for opening the door as a unanimous MVP who recruited him.
Curry is billed as the ultimate underdog despite genetics that gave him a better chance than most of being a successful professional athlete. Even most of the criticism he faces is often shared with a humane perspective compared to the unfair shots his contemporaries have received.
Everybody has their theories why this is the case, but not many are willing to share.
“I understand, but I don't think I can answer because it would be a very personal thing,” Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams told Yahoo Sports. “Coming from me, I don't think it would mean anything. All I know is Steph has a genius about him that's unique, one of a kind. It could be said about other players. It's how I look at it. Who's to say why that is? He's one of the most popular players in the world. Sometimes, people are jealous, too.”
All Curry would concede is that his familiarity, his success can breed some contempt. Becoming a champion separates one from the pack, the ultimate insulator. When a fan once heckled an injured Kobe Bryant late in his career, he slowly counted his five fingers to represent the championships he’d won to end all discussions.
“People want what you have,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously, I had the same vibe before we got to the top. You work your ass off every year to try to get to this stage and every year we're there. It's like, ‘I want what they got.’ We've been there five straight times, so a lot of people have seen us on this stage.”
Count Toronto Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin as one of Curry’s admirers.
“That's new. That's a new one,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports before Raptors practice Tuesday about how Curry is viewed. “I would put Curry up there, especially in this generation as far as elite players. It's the first I've heard that players don't see him that way. As a coach, you stay up a lot of nights trying to figure out how to slow this guy down.”
Griffin played nine years in the NBA before becoming one of the league’s most respected assistants. He admitted he went against players who he believed gained more praise than their games dictated but said, “Curry doesn't even come in that category. He's as good as advertised. Championship rings solidify that.”
And should Curry’s teammates keep sliding and he leads them to a third straight title, the remaining haters will have to shut up and bow down.
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