In 2015, Steph Curry torched the league to the tune of 23 ppg on 48% shooting overall and 44% from three and winning his first MVP. The next year, he somehow leveled up and won the MVP again, leading the league in scoring at 30 per game and becoming history's first member of the 50-45-90 club for shooting percentages despite a frankly silly 32.6% usage rate. After an injury in 2020, he was back at it in 2021; it was fashionable to forget about Steph, but he doesn't appear to have lost anything, and there's no denying him now after he dragged the Warriors to a title with Andrew Wiggins as his best and most consistent teammate. He's widely regarded as the greatest shooter who's ever lived -- and it's extremely difficult to argue with that comparison.
Why do I bring up Steph Curry? Because of Pete Maravich.
Pistol Pete Invented Sharpshooting
"Pistol" Pete Maravich never won an NBA title or an MVP award. He made five All-Star teams and only played 11 seasons. He was, by all accounts, a defensive liability. He never even won a single playoff series as a starter. But it's impossible to leave him off any list of the most memorable players in NBA history -- a sentiment shared by everyone who ever watched him play.
Sometimes, you have to dig deep to project pre-modern guys to the modern era; to make the case for dudes like Larry Nance, Bob Dandridge, and Dave DeBusschere, you have to get down into a nitty-gritty analysis of their game. Not so with Maravich, because there's never been an NBA player more obviously and tragically born into the wrong era. It's also hard to find comparisons to those other guys because each had a weird game -- but with Maravich, the answer is right in front of us. It took 40 years and a dramatic shift in the NBA meta for him to appear, but we found him.
Pistol's signature strength -- the ability to suddenly take and make a shot from anywhere, including the front counter of the deli across the street from the arena -- did him no good in an era where the three point line did not yet exist. The long bomb came into the league in 1979-80, Maravich's final season. By that point, his knees were gone and he was a shell of what he'd been. He only took 15 threes that year. He made 10 of them.
Plain and simple, Maravich was unlucky. His knees going before their time was bad enough, but it gets so much worse when you look at his teammates. I had long considered Hakeem Olajuwon to be the all-time great with the worst teammates; in terms of effective seasons, Dream had Ralph Sampson for two years at the start of his career, then Clyde Drexler for two and a half years at the end of it. Maravich had Lou Hudson -- a gifted scorer who wasn't good enough to make the Hall of Fame -- for four years at the start of his career, a single All-Star season from Truck Robinson just before his knees fully gave out, and...that was it. That's the whole list. If you squint, you can find a semi-effective late-career resurgence year from Walt Bellamy, I guess, and a version of Gail Goodrich who was so washed-up he was practically painting a face on a volleyball and talking to it on the bench during timeouts.
Pistol's 5.4 assists per game career mark doesn't look outstanding...but among 1970s players with 500 or more games, here's who ranks ahead of him: Tiny Archibald, Rick Barry, Dave Bing, Walt Frazier, Norm Van Lier, and John Havlicek. So, five Hall of Famers and a guy (Van Lier) who really should be. Oh, and every single one of those other guys had at least one Hall of Fame teammate while both were in their primes -- Maravich never had a single one. For a three year period from 1974-77, Pete didn't play with a single teammate who averaged 15 points per game. I want you to read that sentence again, because it isn't a typo. I legitimately can't imagine that happening in today's NBA, even if the Hornets were involved.
When you watch Pistol's highlights, there's another similarity to Curry: the two of them are the only guys I've ever seen who -- without even being particularly fast -- make other players look like they're moving in slow motion. With Curry, it's because teams are justifiably terrified he'll take a three at any moment, but with Maravich, it's because they're constantly living in fear of his hands. No part of Pistol's body moves quickly except those hands, which look like they've been sped up with CGI. I can't stress this enough: the highlights look like they've been digitally altered. It doesn't look like a human being should be able to do that. Leave aside the shooting, those hands were what gave him the ability to make passing and ballhandling moves I've never seen another player even attempt.
Do we really have to get into how Maravich's game would translate to the modern era? Of any guy in NBA history, his use to the current era is the most screamingly obvious. "Steph Curry but with more creative ballhandling and passing" is something literally every team in the league would kill for. Maravich's career 44.1% field goal mark may not look great, but for a primary ballhandler in an era with no three point line, terrible spacing, atrocious teammates, and no hand check rules, it's much better than it looks. A point guard with a lightning release who can't be pickpocketed and can create his own shot from anywhere in the arena is a bit of a desirable commodity in today's game.
What were his weaknesses to the modern game? Well...there's the one real rub: defense. He was widely regarded as a bad defensive player even for his own era, when there was no shortage of competition. He wasn't quite as bad as his rep (16.1 career Defensive Win Shares is not a Kiki Vandeweghe number), but I can't argue it was good -- and he'd get absolutely smoked by more athletic guys today. Every Kyrie Irving-Maravich game would be a dueling 50-point night, for example. You can only include him on a winning team now if you find a way to hide him as much as possible on D by including as many other top flight defenders as you can. Basically, you have to live with his defense because there's nobody who can bring what he does on offense.
But you can get away with that - after all, Kyrie won a title. And while Kyrie is certainly unique in that nobody else in basketball history has ever been dumb enough to think lizard people controlled the moon, he's nothing like the singular marvel that was Pistol. No matter how long you look, you will never find a player more robbed of greatness by his era than Pete Maravich.
MORE: Pete Maravich's 68-Points vs. the Knicks Was His Greatest NBA Performance
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