You know that expression, “Nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts”?
Not completely applicable on this occasion though it’s on the right track: Steph Curry is an absurdly talented, historically great player, but …
Talk of him being in this season’s Most Valuable Player conversation is patently ridiculous.
Cue the Warriors fanbase’s outrage and The Cult of Steph’s incredulous disbelief. Oh, it’s there. I’ve already felt its wrath on Twitter (surprise, surprise) when initially civil attempts at logical discourse on the subject ultimately devolved into homophobic and misogynist insults being lobbed my way.
Look, I understand that the term “most valuable” is an inherently ambiguous one prone to interpretation, and it means different things to different people. For some, the MVP is the best player on the best team; for others, it’s the guy who’s dominated a given season’s narrative; there are those who say it’s the player who is most irreplaceable; and for a few, it’s the most statistically dominant.
Steph supporters have begun to push the idea of late that Golden State would be a lottery team without him, and thus the simple fact that he has that team on the verge of the playoffs is — in combination with his statistical brilliance — justification for MVP candidacy.
Much as I love Curry’s game and appreciate what he’s doing, I can’t come close to making that leap.
I’ll concede, his production is phenomenal: Through Wednesday’s games he’s averaging 31.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, shooting 42.8% on 3s.
And I’ll also point out that the Warriors are, through Wednesday, 31-31 overall, and that aforementioned “on the verge of the playoffs” actually means “at least solidly entrenched in 10th place at worst and likely bound for the play-in tournament.
And that, to me, is where Steph’s nascent MVP campaign crashes, burns, and disintegrates into dust.
Like it or not, agree or not, team success is now a substantial criterium for the MVP award. Of the past 30 MVPs, 24 of them came from a team that finished with the best record in its conference, and five came from a second-place team.
The lone exception was Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, when him becoming the first player in forever to average a season-long triple-double was enough to make up for the Thunder finishing sixth in the West.
And even with that caveat, OKC still finished 47-35 — a .573 winning percentage.
Westbrook aside, the last time an MVP came from a team that finished outside the top two in its conference was Michael Jordan in 1988, when the Bulls went 50-32 (.610) and finished third in the East.
The last time before Westbrook an MVP was not on a team in the top half of its conference was Moses Malone in 1982, when the Houston Rockets finished 46-36 (.561), good for sixth in the West.
And we’ve got to back even further to find the last time an MVP came from a team around .500, like the Warriors are now: Back in 1975-76, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took home the hardware in spite of the Lakers going 40-42 (.488) — fourth in the West.
So it’s not completely unprecedented that a guy from such a mediocre team can win the prize — but you do have to go back 45 years, when the league was just a little bit different — to find such an example.
Much as I love Kareem — my favorite athlete ever, and the guy who single-handedly made me a basketball fan — I can admit that, in retrospect, him winning that award was pretty dubious. Yes, his individual stats were brilliant (27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 4.1 blocks, 52.9 FG%) … but the Lakers were sub-.500.
And if you’re using Kareem’s award as your justification template for Steph … you’re gonna hate to find out that Curry’s season doesn’t even stack up to that. Kareem’s season was superior in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), offensive/defensive/total win shares, box plus/minus, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) …
Where does the argument for Steph go after that?
Up in flames.
We can appreciate his brilliance. We can acknowledge that he is one of the NBA’s best players. And we can even reward him for it — with an All-NBA Team selection …
But listing him on an MVP ballot, to say nothing of putting him first, is just silly.
PAST 30 MVPS
The 30 most recent Most Valuable Player award winners, plus their teams’ winning percentages and how they finished in their respective conferences:
2020 • MVP: Giannis Anteteokounmpo; Bucks: .767, 1st in East
2019 • MVP: Giannis Anteteokounmpo; Bucks: .732, 1st in East
2018 • MVP: James Harden; Rockets: .793, 1st in West
2017 • Russell Westbrook; Thunder: .573, 6th in West
2016 • Steph Curry; Warriors: .890, 1st in West
2015 • Steph Curry; Warriors: .817, 1st in West
2014 • Kevin Durant; Thunder: .720; 2nd in West
2013 • LeBron James; Heat: .805, 1st in East
2012 • LeBron James; Heat: .697, 2nd in East
2011 • Derrick Rose; Bulls: .756, 1st in East
2010 • LeBron James; Cavaliers: .744, 1st in East
2009 • LeBron James; Cavaliers: .805, 1st in East
2008 • Kobe Bryant; Lakers: .695, 1st in West
2007 • Dirk Nowitzki; Mavericks: .817, 1st in West
2006 • Steve Nash; Suns: .659, 2nd in West
2005 • Steve Nash; Suns: .756, 1st in West
2004 • Kevin Garnett; Timberwolves: .707, 1st in West
2003 • Tim Duncan; Spurs: .732, 1st in West
2002 • Tim Duncan; Spurs: .707, 2nd in West
2001 • Allen Iverson; 76ers: .683, 1st in East
2000 • Shaquille O’Neal; Lakers: .817, 1st in West
1999 • Karl Malone; Jazz: .740, T-1st in West
1998 • Michael Jordan; Bulls: .756, 1st in East
1997 • Karl Malone; Jazz: .780, 1st in West
1996 • Michael Jordan; Bulls: .878, 1st in East
1995 • David Robinson; Spurs: .756, 1st in West
1994 • Hakeem Olajuwon; Rockets: .707, 2nd in West
1993 • Charles Barkley; Suns: .756, 1st in West
1992 • Michael Jordan; Bulls: .817, 1st in East
1991 • Michael Jordan; Bulls: .744, 1st in East