Steph Curry is the man at the center of all active basketball discourse. He is the best best player on the best NBA team in two decades, and maybe the best ever. He creates and shoots three-pointers at such a high level that it turns the area behind the line into a second, far less convenient to guard, defensive hot zone. He is the Seven-Headed Fiery Dragon of the points-per-possessions approach to basketball, one of the final harbingers of the end of inefficiency in the NBA.
Aesthetically, as you're surely aware, Steph is a marvel. His handle is impeccable, his wrist action unparalleled in history, he has giant steel coated testicles etc. and etc. There are only two problems: he is completely unremarkable in still photographs, and he carries a faint inhumanity in motion. Curry is such a freak on a basketball court that he begins to transcend our concept of watching a human body play sports and so becomes impossible to regard as anything but something of an alien. He even plays in the fucking Silicon Valley, the builders and makers of our increasingly static, codified, progressively less-human future. He's great, in short, but he's also unsettling for a bunch of very reasonable reasons.
Curry, more and more, is a simulacra, and to watch him play is to experience an unnerving confrontation with an increasingly unreal future built on technology and soft order. Look at the actual computer program in his head turn on after he gets water poured on him:
Efficient, unfeeling brand management on the fly, from the thought leader of Silicon Valley's foremost basketball disruptors. But last Friday, one man, playing for the still-wild wastes of Portland, Oregon, a city known for its artisanal woodworking, struck back.
Damian Lillard, Dame Dollar, The Big Chill, Young Artisan, Kid Oswego, of God's own Portland Trail Blazers mercilessly threw down on Steph Curry and his small army of murderous, lithium battery-powered robots. The Warriors were coming off the All-Star break, fresh legs beneath them and fresh venom inside, ready to start the second half of a season with actual fucking historic implications, ready to rock. But DAMIAN LILLARD, Notable All-Star Snub and the last goddamn human being left in this shit, is a player who, even if he's not perfect, always seems to rise to the occasion. And dude just picked up the computer with two hands, tore it in half and flippantly dropped it on the ground, fueled by the pure defiance that has marked his entire underdog career. The result was a victory for Portland, and a defeat for the Warriors' NBA-wide hegemony. More symbolic than anything else, but nevertheless a wonderful day for all.
Damian Lillard is, arch-superficially, something of a scaled-back version of Curry. Observe their shot charts, side by side. He brings shit-tons of self-made three-pointers above the break and a healthy but not bank-breaking number of mid-range jumpers; he's less active from the corners and has lower percentages altogether, but will mix in a few extra takes at the rim to balance it out a little bit. They both play in systems that involve a lot of ball movement—Portland is one of the most tactically distinct teams in the NBA on the low—and tend to fill a lot of possessions that can't, or don't, get taken up by those actions. Lillard's only clear advantages over Curry are a superior free throw rate—.276 to .290, meaning that Lillard is quantifiably .14 grittier—and a little extra tick up in assist rate, although, in fairness, Lillard doesn't play with the best playmaking forward in the NBA.
Damian even indulges in one of Curry's vices: the so-very-thirsty heaving of Arenas-style long bombers:
But, aesthetically and thematically, Lillard's small differences place him in a totally different world. If, in a hastily constructed metaphor I've used in this space before, Chris Paul is Salieri—a try-harding establishment point guard stuck in the past's idiotic concept of the future—and Curry is a basketball Mozart blessed with a touch of divine presence and alive in the future, Lillard is more like a progressive, wildly energetic folk musician. He is not writing anything down, and instead works on remaking the sounds of the past and the rural present, focused on crowd and community rather than otherworldly philosophical or religious concerns. (Portland eats this shit up, which makes one wonder which end is the tail and which is the head, but I suspect that they're both necessary to build a spine, so to speak.)
Lillard's work is less ethereal, for certain, but is just barely infused with a small dab of the syrup of the Gods. This touch of the divine elevates Lillard's natural, earthier state and creates a player who points at both the future and the present of the NBA, with one foot somehow in the greazy grime of an NBA long since passed from this world.
I have, on occasion, alluded to the skills of NBA players are seeming Worked or Unworked. A worked player— Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard, or Dwight Howard when he posts up—appears to have put hours and hours of frustrating, repetitive time, attention and submission to coaching into breaking themselves of small bad habits and creating a game that is NBA-useful. They're good, or great, or not good—Nick Young, for instance, is pretty Worked—but they always look like they're pressing against the outer limits of their abilities
One notably unworked player is Steph Curry, and most notably so of late. He and other Unworked players—a group diverse enough to include Jamal Crawford, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kyle Korver, and JR Smith—seem so natural that their skills, effectiveness aside, play like a gift straight from nature and its Gods. They are conduits of pure, unvarnished, spiritual basketball. Most players sit somewhere between these two mythical poles: LeBron, for instance, looks like a cruel, beautiful wind when he drives and a hard-working honor student trying to briefly tame calculus homework whenever he takes a jumper.
Lillard's game has some worked edges, too, but they're not a deep or as idiosyncratic as some. But, especially squared against robo-organism Steph Curry, those edges makes him seem defiantly human, a struggler and a striver putting together a fabulous career, of the type that makes you either an All-Star or an unfortunate snub on an annual basis.
Watch our man, with Harden-esque flourish, creating contact with a straggling Curry, who would find himself in foul trouble in the third quarter, followed by a knowing look transitioning into an extremely fake pain yell to really close the deal with the refs. Classic tradecraft shit, here, classic unfair-leveraging shit, but performed with a subtlety and tastefulness that shields it from cynicism. Watching Lillard kick his leg back to create a little bit of extra momentum through the contact...
...and then watch him do the same thing from beyond the three point line to acquire a two-for-one. This is Lillard in a nutshell: not physically dominant, not extraordinary in a fundamental sense, but marked by a subtle, makeshift improvisational can-do and an understated astuteness. He is always so present.
The primary operating feeling here isn't always supposed to be awe. Sports are, fundamentally, about the human body and its limits, and the struggle to exceed those. Sometimes players breeze past those limits like it's nothing, and it's amazing. But we also need, just as vitally and maybe more so, players who adopt unconventional and imperfect tactics and tendencies to juice themselves up to compete with those Goliaths of Ease.
We need players who can pass as human, in other words—players who are flawed and limited, but inspired enough by a drive and an intellect that gives them the juice to fucking take it to the demigods. We need Damian Lillard busting Steph's ass in a regular season game in the middle of February. Wow, do we really need it.
Thank you for reading. I hope you have a wonderful week, and all of you dreams come true.