In an instant classic over the weekend, Stephen Curry hit a dozen 3-pointers, including the game-winner from 32 feet, while helping lead his Golden State Warriors to a 121-118 overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those 12 3-pointers gave him 288 for the season, breaking his own record of 286 set last season. Oh, and the Warriors still have 24 games left on their schedule, plenty of time for him to build on what is already one of the greatest shooting seasons in NBA history.
A rough projection, based on how many 3-pointers he’s made through Golden State’s first 58 games, would have Curry finishing this season with about 400 3-pointers — or about a 40 percent increase over his record-setting performance from last season.
Records eventually fall, even those sacred ones that seem untouchable. But rarely, if ever, do they fall by such an enormous margin as the one Curry is building this year. Take, for example, baseball’s single-season home run record. When Roger Maris bested Babe Ruth’s record in 1961, he did so by a single home run — increasing the record by about 1.7 percent. In the summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced each other to a new historic high, the mark finally settled at 70 — increasing the record by about 14.8 percent. In 2001, Barry Bonds drove the record up to 73 — an increase of about 4.3 percent.
Scan through cumulative single-season records for other sports and athletic feats, and it is tough to find any current record that was set by such a wide margin as Curry’s new 3-point record projects to be.
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Wayne Gretzky’s dominant offensive production is the closest thing to what Curry is doing this season, but even that will fall short if Curry maintains his current pace. Venturing outside the four major team sports offers just as dramatic a set of comparisons. In the entire 106-year progression of the men’s marathon world record, from Johnny Hayes’s 2:55:18 on July 24, 1908, to Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 on September 28, 2014, the world has collectively shaved just 30 percent off the record.
Emphasizing Curry’s pace another way, if you take the 40 percent increase he is chasing this year and apply it to those records from other team sports, these are the numbers you end up with.
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These are imperfect analogues. Someone hitting 102 home runs or rushing for more than 2,900 yards in a season is an absurd proposition. There is an entirely different set of variables that determines the feasibility of scoring 129 goals or throwing for 77 touchdowns than there is for hitting 400 3-pointers. One of those variables is how much competitors value the stat in question. No one questions whether a marathon runner is trying to run the fastest marathon possible, just as no one who ever watched Adam Dunn swing a bat would tell you there aren’t players who want nothing more than to hit as many dingers as they can in their time on this earth. But if some intrepid dingus decided he was going to set the NFL record for attempted laterals, there wouldn’t be much to stop him.
In Curry’s case, his record-setting pace is both a reflection of his own individual brilliance and the changing climate of the NBA. Three-point attempts have been surging across the entire league for years and Curry has been out in front, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable offensive strategy. Larry Bird is widely regarded as one of the best 3-point shooters in history, but he also played in an era where the shot was used more sparingly. If Curry does finish the season around 400 3-pointers made, that would be more than Bird’s four most-prolific 3-point shooting seasons combined.
Evaluating the nature of Curry’s record-setting performance this season is therefore a little different than some of those other records. While he’s shooting a career-high 46.8 percent on 3-pointers, he’s also on pace to attempt nearly 200 more 3-pointers than anyone in league history. Where Bonds broke records by becoming even more efficient with a comparable number of opportunities, Curry’s feat is maintaining and even increasing efficiency with an enormous surge in opportunities. Those things are not separate — the more threes Curry attempts, the more defenses are devoting effort and attention to stopping him. But, as Oklahoma City discovered this weekend, sometimes all the effort, attention and pressure in the world just doesn’t matter very much.