Steph Curry vs Dame Lillard: Who’s the best point guard in the NBA?

Curry and Lillard
Who is the best point guard in the NBA? Photo from Rip City Project.

We’ve seen this movie before. For the umpteenth time, NBA fans have forgotten just how good Stephen Wardell Curry is. It’s certainly not exactly undeserved this time around, of course, as the Golden State faithful had to watch the former MVP start the season 0-2 and not once score more than 20 points in either game.

And whether a case of recency bias or agenda-setting on the part of the media, Portland guard Damian Lillard sparked not only comparisons between himself and Curry, but also conversations that he may have surpassed the three-time champion after his spirited playoff performances in the NBA bubble—a debate that has endured to this day.

Here’s a brief comparison of the two.

Curry vs Lillard: Scoring

For obvious reasons, conversations surrounding either guard must always begin with their offense. Curry and Lillard have both showcased polished and well-rounded offensive packages throughout their careers so far, as either of them can score from deep, midrange, or take it inside for an acrobatic finish.

When it comes to shooting, it’s plain to see that Curry has the edge over Lillard, no contest. While the latter is obviously a very competent shooter with extended range of his own, Stephen Curry is heralded as the greatest shooter of all time for a reason.

Though Lillard is likely just as skilled as Curry in this department, the difference is in efficiency. For his career, Curry shot the three-ball on 43.5% shooting efficiency, while Lillard sports a 37.3% shooting clip from three, per Stathead Basketball. Field goal percentage tells the same story, with the former shooting 47.6% overall on 65% true shooting, while the latter scores 43.7% of his field goal attempts on 59% true shooting.

 

Per Game Table
RkPlayerFromToGGSMPFGFGAFG%3P3PA3P%2P2PA2P%eFG%FTFTAFT%ORBDRBTRBASTSTLBLKTOVPFPTS
1Stephen Curry2010202170269634.38.117.1.4763.68.2.4344.68.9.515.5803.74.1.9060.73.84.56.61.70.23.12.523.5
2Damian Lillard2013202161761736.48.018.2.4372.97.8.3725.110.5.485.5165.46.0.8890.63.64.26.51.00.32.82.024.2
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 12/29/2020.

 

Make no mistake: Damian Lillard is a prolific scorer in his own right, and when it comes to shot-creation and isolation, he’s certainly the more accomplished and celebrated player. The five-time All-Star scored at least 31 points each game for a brief stretch in the NBA’s resumption, scoring 45, 51, 61, and 42 points in that period while making difficult and contested shots look pedestrian.

There’s a reason he was granted Kia NBA Player of the Seeding Games when all was said and done. He’s also the stronger and faster slasher, able to slash into the paint with relative ease against taller defenders and even pull out monster dunks from time to time.


But what Steph lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with his efficiency, range and craftiness, which opens up more opportunities for the Golden State offense whenever he’s on the floor—a trait that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet and that ultimately contributes to a team’s success on the offensive end, as seen in the potency of Golden State’s offensive attack.

While acknowledging the benefit of Curry’s three All-Star teammates in the past, this writer has him as the better scorer.

Curry vs Lillard: Defense

Neither player has really been recognized for their defense over their career, and neither of the two makes that significant an impact on this end of the floor. Curry has averaged 1.7 steals and just a fifth of a block per game over his career. Lillard’s numbers aren’t that much better with one steal and a third of a block per contest through eight seasons in the association.

To put it plainly, their numbers on defense are equally unimpressive, which is unsurprising for score-first point guards.

In the 2019-20 season—when Curry only suited up just five times for the Warriors—he held defensive matchups to an abysmal 52.9% shooting on a 113.4 defensive rating, while Lillard held his to a competent 46.4% shooting en route to a 117.1 defensive rating.

Curry’s defensive FG% was much better the year before during his last full season in the league, when he sported an overall defensive FG% of 44.9%. That season, Curry had a defensive rating of 105.8 compared to Lillard’s 107.9.

Given the difference in strength and athleticism, Lillard can noticeably get past screens better than Curry, though the latter’s defensive IQ has been made clear within the Warriors’ team defense in years previous.

It’s a toss-up on this side of the floor, but Dame Time takes the cake for this writer solely because of his athletic edge, though not by a large margin.

Curry vs Lillard: Leadership and playmaking

How one leads a team is also difficult to gauge on numbers alone, especially when the two players in question lead their respective basketball clubs in vastly different ways. Where Steph has shown that he is the centerpiece and soul of the Warriors offense, Lillard has unquestionably exhibited his ability to carry the team on his back for longer stretches, often taking it upon himself to score when the team can’t generate any offense.

If we are to consider leadership in terms of making one’s teammates better, the most logical starting point is in playmaking. Though the two superstars remain neck-and-neck here, with Lillard boasting career averages of 6.5 assists per game, Curry has a minuscule edge on this one with 6.6 dimes.

In the 18th annual NBA.com GM Survey, it was Lillard who was voted as the NBA’s best leader after coming up with 41% of the total votes. On his heels was Curry at 37%. In the same survey, Lillard was also voted as the second-best point guard in the league right behind Curry.

It’s certainly a more admirable feat that Lillard has pulled off: leading the top-heavy but scrappy Blazers team to the playoffs. After their Game 1 victory over the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, there was even talk that Lillard could take the team past the LeBron James and Anthony Davis-led juggernaut. While an irresponsible take at best, it also says a lot about a team’s leadership to be able to inspire this kind of hope in fans.

Next in leadership is the ability to generate winning basketball. Though Lillard has the reputation of being a more seasoned contributor in the clutch, the advance stats, particularly defensive and offensive win shares, all point to Curry as the player more congruous with winning. This is, again, cognizant of the personnel backing him up throughout his career.

Advanced Table
RkPlayerFromToGMPPERTS%3PArFTrORB%DRB%TRB%AST%STL%BLK%TOV%USG%OWSDWSWSWS/48OBPMDBPMBPMVORP
1Stephen Curry201020217022409423.8.623.481.2372.311.87.231.62.50.514.227.976.626.7103.4.2066.00.46.450.7
2Damian Lillard201320216172245622.0.579.425.3311.910.66.230.01.30.711.728.567.314.681.8.1755.4-0.74.737.8
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 12/29/2020.

With all this in mind, it’s difficult to pick a clear winner between these two, who have established themselves as clear frontrunners in the league’s point guard pack. But for this writer, the better player will have to be Steph Curry, but only by a small margin. As mentioned, Curry’s all-world range coupled with his off-ball movement opens up countless opportunities for an already-lethal Golden State offense.

The season ahead will be one of uncertainty for the rebuilding Warriors and will be an opportunity for Curry to prove himself once more, this time without the aid of three All-Stars. Sans Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors won’t have many offensive options moving forward until wings Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre figure it out on that end, which means that Curry will likely be the team’s only hope to notch a playoff spot this season.

On the other hand, the Portland Trail Blazers are hoping this year will finally be their year after an inspired showing in the NBA bubble. With Jusuf Nurkic expected to return to his pre-injury form and Robert Covington now on the team to shore up its once-hapless defense, this are looking up for the Blazers.

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