Although it already seems like forever ago, it has just been a few weeks since the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals – their fourth title in eight years. Stephen Curry rightfully was the Finals MVP, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Golden State may not have beaten Boston without Andrew Wiggins’ performance.
Over the course of six Finals games, Wiggins averaged 18.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists, but those stats alone don’t completely capture his impact. He was instrumental to the Warriors’ Game 5 win as Curry had a (comparatively for him) subpar performance and the outstanding defense he played in his nearly 40 minutes a game during the series clearly helped wear down Jason Tatum. In short, his performance throughout the postseason could be a harbinger of a Wiggins Renaissance – in his play as well as with his public perception. It’s a wonderful story for a Jayhawk who has been much maligned given the expectations placed upon him since being the first pick of the draft back in 2014.
From a legacy standpoint, Wiggins not only helped himself but he provided the assist needed for Curry to have his face carved on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. Now, before you (probably) blurt out that there’s no way Curry should be considered one of the top four players of all time, please know that I agree with you. If selecting the best four players is how you define your Mount Rushmore – fine, but that’s not *quite* the goal of the original sculpture. Go ahead and debate Jordan vs LeBron, whether Kareem’s lengthy career enhances or diminishes his standing as a dominant center, and weigh Chamberlain’s individual statistics against his two titles. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln weren’t selected because they were necessarily the best four US Presidents; they were chosen to represent the nation’s birth, growth, development and preservation, respectively.
When you look at identifying four players to represent the NBA using that criteria instead of simply being the four best, nuance is added to the debate given that the impact and timing of each of those areas needs to be considered. Without further ado:
- Birth: Although a case could be made for George Mikan given that he was in his championship-winning prime at the start of the NBA, the big strike against him is how team owners significantly limited the number of African-American players (once they were allowed on teams, that is) on their rosters. That’s not Mikan’s fault, but it matters. As a result, 11-time champion and centerpiece of the Boston Celtics dynasty Bill Russell gets the nod for the first slot on the NBA Mount Rushmore. His five MVP awards, 12 All-Star appearances, defensive prowess and numerous other accolades obviously translated to Russell being one of the best players of all time, but while he was with the Celtics they quite frankly were the NBA and a major, box-office draw.
- Growth: It’s Michael Jordan in a landslide and there really is no other, credible alternative. The great Dr. J may have laid the groundwork for maximizing the appeal of his style of play as well as off-the-court commercial success, but the popularity and media attention of the NBA skyrocketed with His Airness. His moves, his dunks, his posters, his shoes, his titles, his everything made everyone around the world want to be like Mike. Jordan was like a living Greek god and anything – anything – connected to him that people could watch or buy became a manifestation of their own slice of Mount Olympus.
- Preservation: Similar to the above, there really isn’t a long list of credible candidates but the carving of this face has a twist – it’s half Magic Johnson and half Larry Bird. These two not only commanded the full attention of the NBA with a rivalry on the level of Ali vs Frazier or the Hatfields vs the McCoys, but they also saved the league. In the ’70s the NBA was a broken product ravaged by drug use and racial tensions, and even the Finals were shown on tape delay (if at all) after the late, local news. Once Bird and Magic showed up, fresh off their iconic battle for the NCAA Championship in 1979 (which is still the highest rated & viewed college basketball game of all-time), all that changed. And it wasn’t just that they were great players – there were many before them in the NBA – it was the story of their duality: black vs white, smiling vs glaring, “city” vs country, gregarious vs reserved, East Coast vs West Coast. Magic and Bird were a type of a Rorschach Test through which almost all basketball fans could see what they wanted to root for. They brought not just interest and attention back to the NBA, but excitement, saving it and setting the stage for Jordan to take it to the next level.
- Development: Mikan forced the widening of the lane, a variety of rules were implemented to slow Chamberlain’s dominance, Dr. J introduced how basketball could double as an aerial ballet, but as the title of the post gives away it’s Stephen Curry who is carved on Mount Rushmore to represent the NBA’s development in the final spot. The game of basketball was already trending towards shooting more three-pointers, but Curry accelerated the (r)evolution with both his volume and accuracy. Take a look at the comparison between the average 3-point attempts per game for both Curry and the NBA:
- Now, I’m not saying it’s causational, but it can’t be a complete coincidence that in his fourth season when Stephen Curry became Steph Freakin’ Curry with his uptick in 3-point attempts and scoring average the entire NBA followed suit. And it’s not just that he shoots a lot of 3s and makes a lot of 3s – it’s where he shoots from them from, like from the half-court logo and you still expect the ball to go through the net. Curry helped revolutionize the game by normalizing the “pace and space” era of the NBA with his shooting touch, constant movement and amazing athleticism.
Curry likely would have taken the final spot on Mount Rushmore without winning the 2022 NBA championship, but four titles and a first Finals MVP on his resume sure removes a lot of counter-arguments.
And he couldn’t have done it without an assist from Andrew Wiggins…