By Ross Benes
Stephen Curry has been so ridiculous this season, it's difficult to use hyperbole to describe his performance. Best player in the NBA? Likely. Greatest and most efficient scorer of the modern era? Possibly. Best dribbler on the planet? You tell me.
But out of all the crazy things Curry is doing on the court, his most freakish outlier is his ability to drain threes at a higher rate than anyone in NBA history, as FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris pointed out for us in a terrific piece last week. Curry already holds the NBA record for 3-pointers made in a season, which he set last year with 286, which broke a record he had already held with his 272 threes in 2012-13. This season he's on pace to once again break his own record. But given that Curry already has 119 threes through just 23 games, he might do much more than merely break the record. The way Curry is making 3-pointers, he just may well obliterate the record and destroy any evidence that any other record ever previously existed at all.
To get a scope of how absurd Curry's ability from beyond the arc is, we decided to compare Curry's 3-pointer rate to some of the most impressive individual records in pro sports, using data from various Sports Reference websites. We projected Curry's current 3-pointer rate, 5.17 threes per game, through the rest of the season to give Curry a statistic to compare to other records. Although it's quite possible Curry will regress, get injured or play fewer minutes later in the season if (when) the Warriors secure playoff home-court advantage and decide to rest their starters, projecting Curry's current 3-pointer rate at least tells us how impressive his performance has been so far this season.
Below are the sports records that we compared Curry's threes to. (For MLB records, we used players who played after 1903, when the first World Series was played.)
• Many people think Barry Bonds' most impressive accomplishment is his 73 homers in 2001. But his most impressive stats actually came in 2004, when he posted numbers fit for an alien God. In 2004, Bonds set Major League records for on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging and walks. Out of all of his accomplishments, Bonds' ability to get base through walks sticks out most, as no other player comes anywhere close to his 232 walks in 2004 (Babe Ruth is closest with 170 in 1923).
• In 2000, Pedro Martinez posted an MLB-record 0.737 WHIP. What's most impressive about Martinez's record is that he put these numbers up in a high-run environment, where people were constantly mashing home runs.
• Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982. To give you an idea of how absurd that is in the context of the time Henderson played, Tim Raines came in second with 78 steals. Aside from Henderson, there were only five players who broke 50 steals in 82.
• For 75 years, Sammy Baugh has held the NFL record for yards per punt. Baugh's record, 51.4 yards per punt, was set in 1940 when punts traveled only 39.7 yards on average. Over time, punters have gotten better and kicked the ball farther. Punts this season have traveled 45.3 yards on average. Although punters have gotten significantly better, no one has been able to surpass Baugh.
• Eric Dickerson has held the NFL single-season rushing mark for more than 30 years. Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis got close to breaking Dickerson's 2,105-yard record (set in 1984), but Dickerson's record has held up during a time when most NFL offensive records have been broken.
• In the 1961-62 season, Wilt Chamberlain put up more than 4,000 points. The only other player to break 3,000 points in a season was Michael Jordan, and he only did that once (in 1986-87).
• John Stockton holds the top four (and seven of the top 10) spots for assists in a single season. He certainly benefited from playing with Karl Malone, but Stockton's ability to rack up assists is unprecedented given that he has nearly 4,000 more career assists than the NBA's No. 2 assist leader, Jason Kidd.
• Only one player has ever had more than 300 steals in a season, and that was Alvin Robertson in 1985-86. He may hold onto this record for a while given that only two players (Allen Iverson had 225 in 2002-03, and Chris Paul had 217 in 2007-08 and 216 in 2008-09) have broken 200 steals since 2000.
• When it comes to NHL scoring records, Wayne Gretzky pretty much has a monopoly. He put up eight of the top 10 scoring seasons in NHL history. His 215 points in 1985-86 will stand as a record for a very long time.
When examining sports records, it's important to include the context of the era the record was set in. Sure, Peyton Manning set the single-season passing record in 2013 with 5,477 yards. However, Manning plays in an era where passing yards are inflated. Throwing for 5,000 yards used to be a big deal, since it took until 1984 for someone to hit that mark. After Dan Marino put up 5,084 yards in 1984, it took more than 20 years for another player to surpass 5,000 yards. But since 2008, 5,000 passing yards has been accomplished seven times. Manning may hold the record, but Dan Marino was more impressive for his era.
Similar to how Manning plays in an era of high passing yards, Curry is playing in an era where players shoot lots of threes, and the number of threes teams attempt continues to increase. FiveThirtyEight's Morris notes that last season there was a significant correlation between the number of threes teams attempted and winning percentage and that "the top 3-point-shooting teams made up the entirety of the conference finals."
To control for a player's era, we compared record-holders to other statistical leaders throughout their league's history and to other statistical leaders during the season in which they set the record. In each category (all-time and season leaders), we compared record-holders to the average mark of the next ten statistical leaders.
For example, we compared Barry Bonds' 232 walks in 2004 to the average of the next 10 walk leaders of that season. Since the No. 2 to No. 11 2004 walk leaders racked up 110.9 bases-on-balls on average, we conclude that Bonds was 109.2 percent greater than other leaders during the season he set the record. To get a sense of how great Bonds' walks record is relative to all-time marks, we compared his 232 walks to the 10 highest walk marks in MLB history not set by Bonds. Since the other all-time walk leaders had 155.9 walks on average, we conclude that Bonds was 48.8 percent greater than other all-time leaders. The results of this exercise are seen in the chart below. An accompanying table displays the exact results.
As seen in the chart, if Curry maintains his current 3-pointer rate, he will set a record that so significantly outpaces other all-time greats it will blow other famous sports milestones out of the water. Even if Curry regresses or misses some playing time, it appears he still has a decent shot at beating alien God Bonds when it comes to exceeding other all-time leaders.
Although the idea of so drastically beating previous record holders can be difficult to comprehend, it's worth pointing out that Curry is also partially part of his era where NBA teams have become more reliant upon 3-pointers. He has no peer when it comes to overshooting all-time leaders, but Curry is less exceptional when it comes to outpacing other players of his era. Both Henderson and Bonds outpaced their contemporaries at a greater rate than Curry currently is. However, that may say more about Henderson and Bonds than it does about Curry, given that Curry is still outpacing his contemporaries at a greater rate than Chamberlain or Gretzky did.
Through just 23 games, Curry has almost half as many threes this season as he did all of last season when he set the NBA record. Barring a catastrophe, he will once again break his own record and further entrench himself as the greatest 3-point shooter of all time. Even relative to an era when teams are chucking up more threes than ever, Curry is on track to set one of the most impressive records in pro sports history.
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Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. He is also working on a book about indirect relationships between sex and society. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.