Why Stephen Curry (Not LeBron) Is the N.B.A. Player of the Decade

The New York Times is reflecting on the past decade in the N.B.A., which has evolved perhaps more than any other major sports league.

The choice for the N.B.A.’s player of the decade came down to just two superstars — Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

After all, if it wasn’t Curry holding a championship trophy in recent years, the expectation was that it would be James instead. Nine of the decade’s N.B.A. finals featured at least one of them, and their teams claimed six of the championships. They won half of the past decade’s Most Valuable Player Awards. If one of them wasn’t on national television on a given night, then the other one was. With the previous generation’s biggest stars fading, they boldly staked their claim to the spotlight.

But when it came to picking the player of the decade, our writers’ decisions were pretty clear.

Victor Mather

Senior staff editor and reporter

Let’s see: the most points in the decade, the most field goals, the top rating in most advanced stats, the most Most Valuable Player awards (three), the most finals M.V.P. awards (three). LeBron James even led the decade in minutes played.

Or you could be a contrarian and choose, maybe, the blocks-per-minute leader, JaVale McGee. Probably not the right pick, though.

Scott Cacciola

Sports reporter

Three N.B.A. championships, including the first for the city of Cleveland. Three more M.V.P.s to go with the one he won last decade. More highlight-reel dunks and chase-down blocks and signature moments than any of his peers (no offense, Steph).

But beyond merely being the most dominant player of the decade, James was the figure around whom the rest of the league orbited. For potential title contenders, his presence — in Miami, in Cleveland, in Los Angeles — figured into every calculation other teams made. Which players could they acquire to help vanquish the King? Which picks could they package to trade for more depth, more star power, more scoring and defense?

Now in his 17th season, and on the cusp of a new decade, James is still going strong, positioning the Lakers for their first deep playoff run since the days of Kobe Bryant. Staggering but true: James’s greatest feat may still be ahead of him.

Harvey Araton

Hall of Fame sportswriter

Stephen Curry. Heresy, right? Maybe not. Curry’s impact on the way N.B.A. games are played now — from deep and deeper — has been more profound than James’s impact, though the King was unquestionably the decade’s best overall player and biggest newsmaker.

Just for the record, Curry was a two-time M.V.P., won as many titles (three) as James — all against James’s team — and was the most dynamic talent for a Warriors team that set the record (73) for most games won in a season. He was the most breathtaking long-distance dialer of a far-out decade.

Marc Stein

Hall of Fame sports reporter

This one is impossible. LeBron took his Miami and Cleveland teams to eight consecutive N.B.A. finals and ushered in the player-empowerment era with “The Decision” in 2010 — followed by two more landscape-altering free agencies — when he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014 and then bolted to the Lakers in 2018. Stephen Curry rewrote the boundaries of acceptable shooting distance as the 3-pointer became this sport’s weapon of prominence, and he served as the face of a team that went to five consecutive finals and won three championships.

A tie is the fairest result here, but I grudgingly concede that ties aren’t allowed. So I’m going with Steph, as the starriest force most synonymous with the Team of the Decade, by the narrowest of margins.

Kevin Draper

Sports business reporter

LeBron James was undoubtedly the best player of the decade, but Stephen Curry defined it. Writing about the 3-point revolution has become stale and trite, but Curry really did change the game. It was not all that long ago that shooting pull-up 3s, or shooting from more than a foot or two behind the arc, was verboten. But Curry and the Warriors redefined what needed to be defended, warping and breaking defensive schemes in the process.

Oh, and he also won three championships, two M.V.P.’s and led the Warriors to the best regular-season ever in 2015-16. Let’s not talk about what happened next.

Shauntel Lowe

N.B.A. editor

It feels weird not to pick LeBron James here, what with him being the best player in the world and all, but Stephen Curry was the defining player of this decade. No one changed basketball the way he did, and no one captivated the world as he did. Suddenly, here was a player for whom there was no such thing as a bad shot. That’s not true for anyone besides Curry. He’s the one.

Benjamin Hoffman

Senior staff editor

Try to imagine Stephen Curry playing in any other decade.

The record for 3-pointers in a season when Curry joined the N.B.A. in the 2009-10 season was 269 by Ray Allen, and only 21 players had ever topped 200. In the 11 seasons since, Curry has topped Allen’s record five times, setting a potentially unbreakable record of 402 in 2015-16.

But Curry didn’t benefit from this era — he created it. Before him, it was unheard of to ignore the shot clock and hoist 30-footers off the dribble with ease. And even though he has his share of imitators (Damian Lillard, Trae Young, etc.), no one has mastered the art nearly as well.

Curry was at the heart of the decade’s best team, winning three titles in a five-year period of total dominance, and his size and smile helped him become the face of the N.B.A. for a new generation of fans.