Is Steve Curry getting his third MVP this time round?
Stephen Curry’s remarkable streak of 30-point performances came to a halt Wednesday, but not before he recaptured the imagination of NBA fans and crashed an MVP debate dominated by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
“I mean, I gotta be [the MVP],” Curry told The Rex Chapman Show. “I gotta be.”
The comment came on the heels of one of the most absurd scoring stretches we’ve ever seen. He was doing 2015-16 Curry-level damage (or worse) without Klay Thompson or a prime Draymond Green to attract defensive attention.
Numbers don’t do it justice, but from March 29 to April 19, Curry averaged an eye-popping 40.0 points, 7.1 threes and 4.5 assists in 11 games. The 78 total threes he hit in that stretch were the most ever in an 11-game span. The exclamation point on the run was a 49-point, 10-three explosion on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Perhaps most importantly, the Golden State Warriors played above .500 during Curry’s supernova and took a firmer grasp of a play-in spot. Without him, it’s hard to imagine this team is sniffing 10th place.
Golden State is plus-3.1 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor, a point differential around what you’d expect for a 49-win team (in a regular, 82-game season). When Curry isn’t playing, that net rating plummets to a ghastly minus-9.4, which is around that of an 18-win team.
Therein lies the crux of Curry’s MVP case.
If you define “most valuable player” as the player who provides the most value to his team, as some do, it’s not hard to talk yourself into including Curry in the conversation.
Every Warrior who has played at least 300 minutes with Curry has a better point differential with the two-time MVP than they do without him.
The effective field-goal percentages of Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore are all better when Curry plays (dramatically so for Green and Bazemore) too.
Without Curry, Golden State would be chasing pingpong balls. Beyond his ridiculous statistical output, the attention he commands all over the floor creates precious extra space for his teammates.
But the MVP trophy has typically been reserved for the best player on the best team (or at least, a team within shouting distance of that distinction). The winner who may be closest to Curry’s “cellar dweller to playoff contender” impact is 2016-17 Russell Westbrook.
That season, Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, posted a plus-13.4 net rating swing and led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 47-35 record. But even his win met plenty of pushback, and a .573 win percentage is comfortably better than Golden State’s sub-.500 mark.
Curry’s coming from behind to snag this award from Jokic, who secured 90 of the 101 first-place votes in ESPN’s latest straw poll, would shatter some norms, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Curry struggled to 18 points on 7-of-25 shooting in a loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. He wasn’t going to maintain the level of his 30-point streak for the rest of the season, but if he’s even close to that, his MVP narrative may take hold.
Recency bias is real. And 35 points per game for the last couple of months, a two- or three-spot charge up the standings and Curry’s captivating style of play could be this season’s lasting impression for plenty of voters.
But that’s an uphill battle. And a seven-foot Serbian who’s having one of the greatest individual seasons in league history is standing in the way.
LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Curry (in 2015-16) and David Robinson are the only players who’ve put up box plus/minuses loftier than Jokic’s 11.8. (BPM is “a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference.)
In 35.4 minutes, Jokic is averaging 26.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.4 threes and 1.4 steals. His true shooting percentage is significantly higher than the league average.
Those numbers (adjusted for pace) walloped Curry’s in a blind poll.
At the very least, though, Curry has played himself back into the debate. Even if he doesn’t hit enough threes and shimmy his way to a third MVP, this is the kind of legacy-enforcing campaign many of his fans were hoping for in 2020-21.
Plenty will continue to point out that Curry doesn’t have any Finals MVPs and that the Cleveland Cavaliers were riddled with injuries for Golden State’s pre-Kevin Durant championship. But this campaign makes it harder to discount his greatness in good faith.
Five years after his historic unanimous MVP campaign, Curry still gives the Warriors a puncher’s chance against anyone, even without the supporting cast he had during the dynasty.
Reminding MVP voters of that, especially at this point in the season, will likely earn him some tallies on the final ballot. Another run like the one we just saw could make this a real race down the home stretch.