“You have to see this kid from Davidson,” said my friends who had brought me to a small college gym in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2008, as I watched a midseason college basketball game of little importance. And sure enough, just a few minutes in, this painfully skinny sophomore comes flying off a screen several feet behind the three-point line, still dogged by a defender, and then somehow sets his feet and still moving laterally lets an improbable shot fly. Only it wasn’t improbable. Swish. My jaw dropped. A huge basketball fan, I had never seen anything like it. I had just seen Stephen Curry for the first time.
A few months later, as Curry led his underdog Davidson team deep into the NCAA tournament, newly-minted NBA MVP LeBron James watched Curry play. “I saw a kid who didn’t care how big someone was, how fast someone else was, how strong someone else was,” said James afterwards.
James is a dominant player in the NBA precisely because he is, indeed, bigger, faster, and stronger than people he is playing against. However, LeBron James and Steph Curry today sit atop the NBA hierarchy together. They account for six of the past eight MVP awards and the last four championships. While LeBron got the better of Curry during this year’s NBA finals, Steph’s miraculous 73-win season and unanimous MVP nod were both historic firsts. And yet the pair couldn’t be more different. LeBron James looks like a four-time MVP, while Steph is 6’3 and can barely dunk. Steph was largely unrecruited out of high school, while LeBron was identified as a potential phenomenon in the eighth grade. James and Curry have come to dominate the NBA in two very different ways, and in doing so embody two very different types of innovation.
Most teams win—and most players succeed—through a series of incremental innovations that provide continuous, but gradual improvement. Imagine an NBA team like a product. At any particular time, the manufacturer focuses on making slight improvements in the product: shaving off a few dollars in cost, improving quality a bit, adding a couple of new designs, etc. These improvements often determine whether a manufacturer is competitive with its rivals across town or across the globe.
LeBron James enjoyed the title of the greatest player in the world for the past several years not because he was bigger, stronger, taller, more mobile, smarter, and more determined than other players. These incremental innovations allow the “LeBron” product to gain market share from the competition.
On the other hand, Curry has perfected a model for playing basketball that no one else can come close to imitating, although his fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson might come the closest. And in doing so, he provides a perfect example of the power of disruptive innovation.
Disruptive innovation is not training to jump half an inch higher or lifting weights to get 10 percent stronger. It is something that allows an entirely new product to enter the market to destroy the competition, and that’s what the “Curry” product is. Indeed, Steph is an iPhone in a Nokia and Blackberry world.
Curry has developed a shooting technique that allows him incredible accuracy not just from the NBA three-point line, but from virtually anywhere beyond midcourt. His form is scarily accurate (he once hit over 70 threes in a row in practice), and his technique works even when closely defended. That is why he holds the record for most threes in a season—making 402 this year—when no one beside him has ever made more than 276. He made more threes this year than the worst three-point shooting teams did in most of the last 10 years. And he made more three pointersthan any NBA team for the first 15 years after the three pointer was introduced. When Michael Jordan won his first championship, his Chicago Bulls hit only 138 three pointers as a team all year, and NBA teams averaged about 200 made threes in a season.
In part this is because Curry has employed creative and novel training techniques that let him develop the ball handling ability to be able to create his own shot in the open court. Moreover, the Golden State Warriors embraced this innovation and built a system around him that has encouraged him to develop as a three-point shooter, recognizing his innovative capability and creating an environment for him to thrive. Indeed, the Golden State Warriors management team has tried to become more of a Silicon Valley startup than a typical NBA front office.
So what happens next? Both James and Curry will continue to be extremely successful. Players will work doggedly to become as fast and as strong as James. However, many players will also seek to imitate Steph. Practicing shots from midcourt will become normal. Exercises to improve dribbling skills to imitate Curry’s will become common. And just as Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett inspired a host of young big men to grow up wanting to play more mobile post-positions, scrapping post-ups for jump-shots and slashing drives, Curry will revolutionize how players approach the point-guard position. Newer players will work on improving Curry’s model, becoming the fastest, strongest, and most determined Curry protégé they can become, continuing a cycle of innovation that will be in turn eventually replaced by whatever is next.
Most teams win by incremental innovations that give them a slight competitive edge. However, examples of disruptive innovation are common in sports, as teams devise new strategies or perfect new skills that allow them to not just beat their competition, but to leave them in the dust until others can figure out how to replicate their methods. Think of high jumper Dick Fosbury, who pioneered the “Fosbury Flop” method of going over the bar backwards, which earned him the gold medal and the world record in 1968. By the next Olympics, the majority of high jumpers had adopted his technique. The St. Louis Rams, dubbed the Greatest Show on Turf, demonstrated that an offense need not establish the run before throwing. They ran rampant over opposing defenses from 1999 to 2001, breaking the all-time yardage record and scoring over 500 points in three consecutive seasons. The 2002 Oakland A’s, who set baseball’s record for longest winning streak with the sixth-lowest paid team in the major leagues, used new statistics to disrupt baseball and set the stage for data-driven revolutions in many sports. And now Curry has done the same, showing how quickly disruptive innovation can elevate a player or a company to the top. And he has shown how quickly those who fail to adapt can be left behind.
LeBron James and Steph Curry represent precisely the two types of innovation that allow companies to be competitive. While the LeBron James’s of the world—large companies who continue to innovate and improve incrementally—provide large value to the economy, disruptive innovations can vault small companies and previously unknown people into positions as global leaders. Companies like Boeing or GE find continuous ways to improve themselves and stay at the forefront of global markets. Meanwhile, companies like Uber or Tesla can find a way to change the way the game is played, and create enormous value from humble beginnings. Curry and the Warriors should remind us that unless more U.S. companies, supported by smart federal government policies like a robust R&D and “innovation box” tax incentives, embrace disruptive innovation to stay ahead of the rest of the global competition, the U.S. economy could look more like the hapless Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers (the two worst teams in the NBA this year).