Improbable: The First Unanimous NBA MVP, Stephen Curry

In 2009, he “didn’t have the upside of Ricky Rubio or Johnny Flynn”.

 

For the next couple of years, he was “just a shooter”.

 

In 2012, he was “injury prone”.

 

In 2013, he was just “very good”.

 

In 2014, he was an All-Star.

 

In 2015, he became a Champion and an MVP.

 

In 2016, he’s the first MVP selected unanimously, a member of the 50-40-90 club, the scoring champion, broke the record (again) for three-pointers in a season, the 11th back to back MVP, and the third guard ever to do so.

 

Despite that, there’s still no better way to describe Stephen Curry than the one Steve Kerr used at the press conference the yesterday.

 

“Improbable.”

The heights of excellence we saw Curry rise to this year were insane by the standards of every player in the history of the NBA. It may be the greatest offensive season ever. He turned on a dime, knowing shots would go in. He ended a game from a spot most players don’t dare take serious shots from. And he did that stuff regularly. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

PPG FG% 3P% FT% REB AST STL
30.1 50.4 45.4 90.8 5.4 6.7 2.1

That’s good for leading the league in scoring and steals, as well as the earlier mentioned 50-40-90 clubs, an all-time benchmark for efficiency. To become a member of it at the volume of scoring that Curry does is crazy, even more so with the number of three pointers he takes. Beyond that, it’s the type of shots he takes. He shoots well above the league average (about 60%) in the paint at a clip of 64.5%. He also made 5.1 threes per game, 3.2 per game from 25+ feet. He made those long shots at 44.6%.  If you’re keeping score at home, that’s all-time volume, all-time efficiency, and an earth-shattering amount of long-distance makes.

 

Curry was a walking highlight reel this year, who ascended to another level after an MVP season, coming in fourth in Most Improved Player voting, something that’s never been done before. Most repeat MVPs continue to be cemented at the top in their repeat year with incremental change, as opposed to such a drastic change. There’s a lot of question about what “value” means in basketball circles these days, and the two prevailing theories on the award are:

 

  • The best player on the best team. This was the way most saw Curry’s win last year. They got 67 wins, he’s their best guy, so he gets the award. By that logic, you can also award him this year’s MVP, since the Warriors won 73 games.
  • Which player’s team would suffer the most without him? This was the argument for James Harden last year, or one that could be made for Damian Lillard on his overachieving Blazers this year. This is the method that makes a lot of people resent Curry’s trophy, because this is how they see value.

 

I’d say that this year, more than last year, Curry satisfies both definitions. He’s definitely the best player on the best team, since Golden State just finished up the best regular season ever. As for the second, you have to think a little differently. While it might sound like the same idea technically, there’s a philosophical difference. Instead of asking “whose team would be the worst without him”, think “who does the best job of making his team better”.

 

Yes, the Warriors are very good without Curry. Probably an upper-50’s win team. Yes, they have done well in the playoffs without him (though against teams with glaring weaknesses that probably shouldn’t be where they are). But he makes them transcendent. Without Curry, the Warriors are a good team. With him, they’re great. Without Harden last year, the Rockets probably suck. Same with the Trailblazers this year and Lillard. But in the grand scheme of things, the “value” of those players is closer than you think. It’s just that at that point, it becomes the classic argument of whether you should reward bad to good or good to great (read: historic). Curry completely deserved to be a unanimous MVP this year, for all the records, all the wins, and all the remarkableness of this season.

 

Should it have happened before? Yes. But that’s not a testament to some watering down of the league, or weakening of competition. It’s a failure on the part of voters. LeBron not getting a unanimous win in 2013 isn’t because the league is weaker now, it’s because this year no moron decided to vote for Carmelo Anthony. This took a perfect storm of dominance, historical impact, visibility, and intelligent voting to happen.

 

We just watched a slight-framed, 6’3 guard dominate the NBA in a way no one has ever seen, and 402 three-pointers was just the tip of the iceberg. We just watched a kid who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, was told to “try and walk on” at his father’s alma mater, and spent his early career being taken at a surface view earn the first-ever unanimous MVP award. It’s awesome, fun, deserved, and a million other things. But more than anything, it’s improbable.

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