As much as James Harden and Kevin Durant would like to say otherwise, LeBron James and Stephen Curry have ascended above the rest of the league and have become both the most popular stars in the sport, along with being ambassadors for the league. But each players rise to superstardom could not have been more different. LeBron James was the most highly touted/recruited prospect in the history of sports. He has been nationally hyped since he was 16 years old when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was universally viewed as a can’t miss player.
Stephen Curry, however, never got any national recognition until his sophomore year in college at Davidson, and it took until 3/4 years ago until the general public took him seriously at the NBA level. As a prospect, Curry was seen as a one dimensional player, and many thought he could never succeed at the professional level. His frame was too slight, he was a gimmicky player, and could never be the best player on a relevant team, Curry heard it all when it came to criticism.
Below are each players’ high school scouting report (Courtesy of NBADraft.net):
Curry faced adversity and doubters at every level. He was not recruited by any Division 1 programs, and wanted to attend his fathers alma mater, Virginia Tech, but ended up at a small school near his hometown, in Davidson, North Carolina. During his tenure at Davison College, the nation got a little taste of the magic that was to come:
In 2002, college coaches nationwide gushed over LeBron James’ potential, hoping they would be the one to convince him to wait at least 1 year before jumping into the NBA, but the allure of turning pro was too much, and after the Nike contract controversy, LBJ had lost his eligibility as an amateur athlete.
LeBron would have gone number one overall in nearly any NBA draft, even in retrospect, his upside and ceiling were seen as limitless. With his frame and skill set, there was absolutely no reason that LBJ wouldn’t succeed at the NBA level. He was viewed as a grand slam prospect and the 2003 draft lottery was nothing more than the LBJ sweepstakes.
Curry was viewed as a potential top 10 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, but still 4 guards were taken ahead of him, including the T’Wolves taking both Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio directly before him. There were questions about whether he could defend/stay on the floor in the NBA because of his slight frame, but to their credit, most GM’s knew his floor wouldn’t be atrocious because his shooting would immediately translate. At the very least, he could be a pretty solid spot up shooter.
Upon turning pro, all the pressure was on LeBron to live up to the lofty expectation set by pundits nationwide. To his credit, he essentially single handedly brought the 2007 Cavaliers to the Finals, a team which consisted of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao, and Sasha Pavlovic. This early Finals trip, however, may have not beneficial to the ultimate trajectory of his career because of how early it came. Going into that Finals, the pundits were going INSANE with the Michael Jordan comparisons because of how much earlier LBJ was, potentially, carrying a team to the promised land than Jordan did. If he won, especially with this roster, then went on to win 5 more Finals (which seemed plausible at the time) there was no doubt we would be witnessing the greatest basketball player of all time. Of course, the Cavs ended up getting swept by the Spurs, so that quieted the comparisons for the time being. The point is that while it was impressive that LBJ carried a C+ roster to the Finals, it might have been the worst thing to happen to him 4 years into his illustrious career because it set the bar so high that any following season that didn’t end up with a Finals victory was widely viewed as a failure.
This idea would plague him until summer 2010, when he decided he was fed up with the lackluster rosters surrounding him in Cleveland, and took his talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh under the tutelage of Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra. While the superficial reading of the move was to get away from the incomplete rosters in Cleveland for the insane super-roster in Miami, the faults of the Cavs construction can greatly be attributed to LBJ himself.
There is an epidemic in the NBA, especially when superstars are nearing free agency, that owners and GM’s will give their star player too much front office power in player personnel decisions. Never has there been a player this more applied to than LBJ. Between the Cavs ’07 Finals run and his departure in 2010, James had more influence on personnel decisions than any other player in the history of the league. Not Magic, not Jordan, not Bird, not West, not Chamberlain ever got to wield the type of power that LBJ held over ‘Comic Sans’ Dan Gilbert. James continued to hold the franchise hostage, subtly showing his displeasure with the roster, and behind closed doors threatening to leave the team unless he was given the players he desired to play with.
This is the biggest difference between LeBron and Stephen Curry. Not their physical attributes, not their styles of play, not their public personas, but their attitude towards their respective front offices.
The only time Curry has ever expressed any distaste for a front office decision was after the Mark Jackson firing, because of how tightly knit of a group Jackson had created and nurtured within the 2013 Warriors. Of course the ownership consulted their star player when deciding who to hire as their next head coach, but unlike LBJ, Curry didn’t have final say on who would become the Warriors head coach.
In an effort to retain King James prior to losing him in free agency, Pat Riley (the man who gives in to no superstar) even drafted Shabazz Napier because LeBron tweeted about him a few months prior. LeBron keeps himself in such a position of power that traditionally staunch teams bend over backwards just to try and please him.
Currently, James is in the first year of a two year deal, with a second year player option. He is expected to opt out of that second year come next summer, and continually hold the Cavs front office hostage/accountable until he see’s fit to sign a long term deal. There are multiple reasons he would do this. The salary cap is expected to jump up to over $100 million after next season, so there’s no financial incetive to sign a max (5 year) deal at this time, but he also wants the Cavs to actively feel the threat of him potentially leaving every offseason, so the front office does their best to construct a championship caliber roster (or one that James sees fit, because sometimes, as we’ve seen in the past, those ideas aren’t mutually exclusive). It’s difficult to say whether LeBron’s contract hardball is helping or hurting the Cavs overall, because it does keep the FO on their toes and never allows them to feel complacent with their roster, but then again, as we’ve seen over the last 16 months, there is so much roster turnover, that it’s hard for the core group to find any kind of rhythm on the court because of how much the roster is constantly changing.
This overuse of power has never been more apparent than during the David Blatt era for the Cavaliers. From Day 1 the relationship between James and Blatt had been rocky, and James’ distaste for this coach was never more apparent than when James called an audible in the playoffs against the Bulls.
That is not the play that Blatt drew up. James pulled the authority card and elected for an iso fadeaway in the corner, putting all the pressure on himself, instead of an actual drawn up play by his head coach. It was at this exact moment that the general public learned how toxic the relationship was between star and coach. Had the jump shot not fallen, and the Cavs ended up losing in OT, this would have been a much bigger story, but because James hit the shot, Blatt had to keep his head down and not make a fuss that he didn’t even have final say on play-calling on his own team.
The Blatt tenured lasted longer than it ever should have. It was doomed from the start purely due to timing. Dan Gilbert acquired David Blatt weeks before LeBron announced his decision to return to the Cavaliers, and Blatt was seen as a developmental type coach. GM David Griffin expected Blatt to help Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins foster their talent and potentially develop into superstars down the line. The LeBron thing was thrust upon them and they couldn’t back out of the Blatt deal, so for him to last more than a full season was a miracle.
Curry, on the other hand, has never actively threatened the Warriors front office to make moves to please him, the team has been allowed to flourish with the same core group for the last 3 years now. The only vague threat that Curry has held over the Warriors is him potentially signing with his hometown Charlotte Hornets come free agency. While Curry has assured Warriors fans that he plans on playing in the Bay Area for his whole career, the allure of playing in the city he grew up, where his father played much of his NBA career and is the color commentator for Hornets games, continues to haunt the Warriors front office.
It is difficult to say why LeBron feels the need to pull the strings of his franchise from behind the scenes, but it is likely because of the immense pressure that’d been placed on him by the Cleveland, Heat and NBA fans in general. It took him 8 years to win his first title, and it took creating a superteam for that to occur. Before leaving Cleveland for warmer pastures, LeBron was already having the critics breathing heavily down his neck, and he must feel like if all the pressure is on him, he ought to be the one to call the shots as to who he gets to play with.
LeBron has publicly stated that going to Miami for four seasons was akin to a college experience for him, He got to leave his home state, and was finally not fully in control of his own destiny, he was trusting Bosh, Wade and Riley to educate him and enlighten him in how to trust his teammates, but upon moving back to Cleveland, he has seemingly fallen back into his old habits of running the franchise from the inside. And what can Dan Gilbert do about it? As recently as this week rumors have leaked that LeBron will evaluate if leaving the Cavaliers again will make for the best business decision of his career, so what is Gilbert to do but constantly give into the demands of the greatest superstar of his generation?
Stephen Curry and LeBron James have had polar opposite journeys to NBA dominance. One has been humbled at every level of play, while the other had the world handed to him on a silver platter. Expectations have been vastly different, but now that Curry has caught up to James in skill and popularity, any result outside of a title will be viewed as a failure.