If you have somehow missed watching the Golden State Warriors this season, you might have a quaint notion of how basketball is played.
You might believe, for instance, that 3-point shots are difficult. Or that players should generally avoid hoisting jumpers 35 feet from the basket. Or that, in the N.B.A., a team cannot clinch a playoff berth in February, with six weeks left in the season.
None of that is true anymore, thanks to one player: Stephen Curry, a butterfly with a jump shot who is reshaping people’s understanding of the game.
Jargon usually found on airport bookstore display racks has come to the hardwood, thanks to Curry. He is an outlier. He has caused a tipping point in basketball. The biggest disrupter in sports is on display in — where else? — the Bay Area.
In recent days, Curry has broken the league record for 3-pointers in a season — which he did for the first time two seasons ago — and the Warriors (53-5) still have 24 games left to play, starting Tuesday night at home against the Atlanta Hawks. He has made 288 3-pointers this season, eclipsing the 286 he made last season. (So he is now No. 1, No. 2 and, you guessed it, No. 3 on the single-season list, with 272 during 2012-13.)
The Stephen Curry game winner vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder Video by Golden State Warriors
The Warriors could lose the rest of their games and still make the playoffs. They will not lose them all, of course, because they tend to beat nearly all of their opponents, and usually by large margins. The Warriors experienced a rare close call Saturday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder took them to overtime. Curry won the game with a looping shot from a few feet inside the halfcourt line — once considered remarkable, now considered well within his comfort zone.
As everyone, from players to coaches to fans, tries to make sense of Curry’s breakout performances, some context is desperately needed. To whom can we compare this shooting master?
Basketball has had other captivating stars like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who all streaked to lasting fame. But the Curry phenomenon is different because of his size — he is a sinewy 6 feet 3 inches, 190 pounds — and because of the way in which he dominates games by scoring far from the basket, somehow stretching the court beyond its conceivable limits.
It may be more useful to look beyond basketball, to two athletes who redefined their respective sports: Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s goal-scoring wizard, and Babe Ruth, the legendary home-run hitter.
Long before Curry began smashing records for 3-point proficiency, Gretzky was elevating statistical anomalies to an art form with the Edmonton Oilers. During the 1980-81 season, Gretzky set the N.H.L. record for points in a season, with 164, which included 55 goals and 109 assists. It was a remarkable feat — and one he quickly overshadowed by posting 212 points the following season.
“It was one of those oh-my-God kind of breakout moments,” said Eric Zweig, an author and hockey historian. “Nobody had done anything close to that kind of thing before.”
Curry and Gretzky are kindred spirits: quick, explosive and capable of controlling play despite relatively small frames for their sport. (Gretzky was listed at 6 feet, 185 pounds.)
“Curry can find spaces where it’s almost impossible for defenders to cover him,” Zweig said.
From one record-setting season to the next, Gretzky managed to increase his production by 29.3 percent.
By way of comparison, consider that if Curry continues to make 3-pointers for the remainder of the season at his current rate, he would finish with 407, which would be a 42.3 percent increase from his record-setting total last season.
Yet in the department of athletic outliers, Curry and Gretzky were both preceded by Ruth, who broke the single-season record for home runs in 1919 by slugging 29 during his final season with the Boston Red Sox. The next year, in his first season with the Yankees, Ruth outdid himself by smashing 54 — an 86 percent increase from his previous record total.
Just as Babe Ruth inspired changes to ballparks, Curry could prompt a longer 3-point arc. Credit Left, Associated Press; Right, Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, noted that the numbers are actually deceiving. In 1919, Ruth hit 20 home runs on the road but just 9 at home, where he had to deal with Fenway Park’s then-cavernous dimensions, which included a distance of 510 feet straightaway to center field. Ruth clearly benefited from the cozier confines of the Polo Grounds the next season.
Given those ballpark variables, Thorn said, a more useful metric to study is slugging percentage — and those, too, were off the charts for Ruth compared to the rest of the league. In 1920, his slugging percentage was .847, also a record. George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns was a distant second, with a slugging percentage of .632. (He was also second in home runs, with 19.)
Ruth had a profound effect on the way other hitters began to approach their at-bats, Thorn said. Where the goal was once to slap base hits through the infield during the so-called dead-ball era of the early 20th century, Ruth showed that hitting for power was possible — and highly productive.
Above all, Thorn said, Ruth was great at a time when most players simply were not. In sports, players tend to improve, on average, with each passing decade. As a result, Thorn said, it becomes more and more difficult for one player to emerge as some sort of outlier. The margin between average and great diminishes over time.
So it was noteworthy when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants came along in 2001 and not only set the single-season home-run record, with 73, but also broke Ruth’s 81-year-old record for single-season slugging percentage (.863). Bonds, of course, later became known as one of the more notorious figures of baseball’s steroid era, which may have helped explain his hitting prowess.
“But to have a slugging percentage and an on-base percentage so far beyond the league norm — well, that’s what Curry is doing now,” Thorn said.
Thorn said that Curry’s emergence was partly the result of N.B.A. teams’ paying more attention to analytics — and, in particular, to the simple fact that a 3-pointer is worth more than a 2-point field goal.
“The math is with them,” Thorn said, “and that’s why low-post play is kind of disappearing, too.”
When Ruth began to hit all his home runs back in the 1920s, baseball officials recognized the excitement he had created. Many teams drew their fences in, Thorn said, and future ballparks were built with smaller dimensions to enable more hitters to slug homers.
Stephen Curry’s Most Unbelievable 3-Pointers of the Past 12 Months Video by XimoPierto2
Thorn said he could see Curry having the opposite effect on the N.B.A. He has made shooting 3-pointers look so easy, and so effectively revealed to other teams the shot’s potency, that league officials might have no choice but to push the line back a few feet, Thorn said. It would be a real crusher for most players — most everyone, that is, except Curry.
“He appears to be on another planet at this moment,” Thorn said.