While taking in my usual scourge of basketball analysis and commentary over the last couple of weeks, I came to a rather shocking realization. There is significant portion of the basketball world – including people with opinions I typically agree with, or at least respect – that do not think Stephen Curry‘s play this year is worthy of a Most Valuable Player vote. Every journalist with a ballot gets five votes for MVP (first-place through fifth-place votes) and there is a strong contingent that believes there are five other players deserving of a vote over the Golden State Warriors sharpshooter; and to say the least, I am perplexed on how anyone can come to that conclusion.
Many players put together top-notch seasons this year, and while I will admit there are a quite a few options that have established themselves as MVP candidates, it is hard for me to wrap my head around anyone being more valuable than Curry outside the two leading candidates battling for the actual MVP honor. To me, Curry is quite clearly the third-leading MVP candidate for the season, and I believe he should at least be in the top five, and garner a vote on everyone’s MVP ballot.
By The Numbers
A quick review of the statistics support my case, as well. The Warriors post a 109.7 offensive rating when Curry is on the floor and drop to a dismal 93.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry sits. That is a 15.9 point swing, and more telling, is a drop from what would rank first in the NBA to what would rank last in the NBA – behind the pathetic Philadelphia 76ers by a long shot. Think about that. Steph going to the bench takes the Warriors from top of the league offensively to worse than Sixers – a team that has routinely been compared to a D-League squad. That 15.9 points per 100 possessions swing is one of the highest numbers in basketball, and no one contending with Curry for that third spot on the ballot is very close to having that much of an effect on the offensive end. Also, despite Curry’s defensive shortcomings (which we will get to later) the difference in net rating when Steph is off the court is just as staggering. The Warriors are plus-9.4 when Curry plays and minus-5.0 when he sits – a 14.4 points per 100 possessions difference – and in short, there are not any other cases of a team being this much better because of one player being on the floor (especially if LeBron James and Kevin Durant are taken out of the conversation).
These numbers are not without their flaws. Specifically, Mark Jackson has been hellbent on his substitution patterns that look more like hockey-style line changes than a staggered approach that is becoming more typical in the NBA. Jackson’s method typically leaves Steph playing most of his minutes with the starters – which happens to be one of the best starting lineups in basketball – while the bench is left fend for itself without any support from other starters while Curry sits. And when your bench has lacked any real scoring punch or offensive ingenuity outside of Draymond Green, that can lead to the type of disparity we see in Curry’s on/off numbers.
That being said, Curry still has had a very significant effect on the Warriors offensively and in general has been a huge factor in their successful play. And if there is any concern that Curry’s plus/minus numbers may overrate his value, his individual numbers further confirm that he has been one of the NBA’s three most outstanding offensive players this season. Curry posted a 61.0 true shooting percentage for the season, which ranked fourth only behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden (among player who played at least 41 games, 20 minutes per game and logged a usage rate more than 20 percent). While LeBron and KD quite clearly led the pack in this regard – and as a result are in another class as far as the league’s best scorers go – Curry was the leader of the second tier of elite NBA scorers along with Harden and Goran Dragic. So while there can definitely be debate between those latter three players, it is not a stretch to say any of them was the third-best scorer in basketball this year.
Along with sharing that title, Curry is also quite clearly the best passer out of all the top scorers in the league. Curry assisted on 37.2 percent of Warrior scores while on the floor this year – good for fourth in the NBA (using the same qualifiers mentioned above) – and the only truly elite scorer that held a candle to him in that regard was LeBron James who was a very distant second. The only player to match Curry’s assist numbers and still post scoring efficiency numbers somewhat in the same tier of excellence was Chris Paul. But even then, Paul only earned a 58.0 true shooting percentage, significantly lower than Steph’s scoring figure. That said, Paul did outdo Curry in terms of assist percentage at around the same rate Steph outscored Paul, but even then, the large chunk of games Paul missed with injury would lead most to give Curry the nod as the better offensive player this year.
All in all, the combination of scoring and distributing was virtually unmatched this year. Durant and LeBron still probably deserve the nod as more effective offensive players at this point. But there is no real argument against Curry as the third best offensive player in basketball this year.
On The Court
And even with all the statistical support above, Curry’s biggest argument for an MVP vote probably comes for actually watching the effect he has on the basketball court. Stephen Curry’s wrecks opposing defenses. Teams literally have to scrap the entire way they defend most scenarios in order to adjust for Curry’s ability to shoot from virtually anywhere on the court. This becomes particularly obvious watching teams defend Curry out high screen and side pick and roll sets – plays that I would put on par with LeBron mid-post isolations, Durant-Russell Westbrook pick and rolls (either way) and Monta Ellis-Dirk Nowitzki pick and pops as the best and nearly unguardable sets in basketball.
As can be seen in the clip above, teams simply have to apply so much attention to Curry off of a screen that it is almost impossible for Golden State not to get a good look of the play. Curry literally forces all five defenders to help way beyond a normal rotation and way beyond their comfort zone.
Quincy Miller and Kenneth Faried abandon their men in order to coral Curry off of the screen. Since Faried is guarding one of the screeners and is the more agile of he and Timofey Mosgov, his rotation makes a little more sense. But Miller leaving a trailing Andre Iguodala in order to pick up Curry is simply something that does not happen, except for those cases where the best shooter in the world is coming off of the screen. So Mosgov and Aaron Brooks are forced to switch with Faried and Miller respectively, forcing four mismatches around the floor. Curry then takes advantage of one of the matchups by blowing by Miller, dragging two more defenders towards him – a helping Mosgov and a top-dropping Randy Foye – and eventually finds a very open Klay Thompson for a jumper he makes almost as often as Curry does.
That is how much havoc Curry causes by coming off of a screen. Better defensive teams may be more organized about how they go about sending these defenders at Curry, but in general this is the level of attention Curry draws whenever he comes off of a screen early in games. Most teams first reaction is to send at least two defenders at him to run him off the line and get the ball out of his hands. That opens up a world of options for the Warriors and David Lee, Green and Andrew Bogut – all great passing roll men – typically have a field day playing four on three after Steph outlets the ball to them after a high pick and roll.
As games carry on, though, teams will typically switch up their defense on Curry pick and rolls. The Warriors frequently find themselves using smaller units at the end of games, and as result, more versatile defenders are typically guarding the screener in these pick and roll sets. This allows the opposing defense to switch on the screens and quickly take away the window for Curry to take an open shot. But even then Curry creates a boatload of problems for the defense. First Curry is often still able to take advantage of bigger defenders, by either creating enough room to get a clean look off, or being able to use the threat of his jump shot to gain an advantage and blow by his defenders. Also switching typically provides a mismatch for the screener as well.
Getting these types of mismatches can be both a blessing and a curse for the Warriors. In general these types of mismatches are a great way to get the defense to bend away from open shooters and cutters, and it also forces smaller defenders to defend in a spot they are less comfortable with. However, the Warriors do not necessarily execute on post-ups as effectively as they could – they do not space the floor and cut well off of post entries – but Mark Jackson continues to go to these types of mismatches as soon as they become available (no matter how ineffective the play projects to be). However when the Warriors do execute these plays properly it can really open up the court for some of the Warriors ancillary offensive pieces.
While the Warriors do not generally draw double teams on their post ups, on possessions that they do their players are typically smart enough and unselfish enough to create an open look off of the advantage.
Finally, bolder teams may occasionally play Curry straight up out of pick and roll sets – with guards fighting over the screen while the big man hangs closer to the paint than the 3-point line. In general, when guarding a point guard this can be an effective strategy, as most point guards cannot consistently take advantage of the openings provided by the defensive setup. Curry however, has been an absolute terror out of this type of set for a few reasons. The obvious reason, is Curry’s unreal effectiveness when shoot the three ball of the of the dribble. That shot – the off the pick pull-up 3– is a shot nobody took just a few years ago. Curry – along with Damian Lillard and to a lesser extent, James Harden – have mastered that shot to the point where you are almost asking to be lit up if you do not send a your big man all the way out to the 3-point line.
Along with that shot though, Steph has also developed a complete arsenal of ways to attack the big man off of a high screen.
Curry is not only an amazing 3-point shooter off of the screen, he also can use an equally deadly mid-range pull up as well an array of dribble moves, floaters and tricky finishes to finish over and around the big man sagging low off of the screen. The addition of these moves has been the final piece to the puzzle for Curry, as the addition of a very efficient in between game has vaulted him up the scoring ladder this season. Here are Curry’s shot charts from last year and this year:
Chris Paul and Tony Parker had been the consensus “top point guards in basketball” leading into this season. They earned that title because they provide something defensively that most point guards (not named Mike Conley) do not, but more so because they had mastered the inside and in between game better than any other small guard in the league.
Curry joined them this year, as his game in the paint has went from bad to average – above average considering his size – and his eight- to 16-foot game has become unthinkably effective. Specifically, Curry has mastered his quirky underhand floater/long distance finger roll type shot and has also perfected his righty floater from the left side. He also is knocking down his closer pull up looks with relative ease, and in general he has become nearly unstoppable both beyond the arc and inside the three point line.
In Defense Of Defense
The problem with all this, of course, is that it only deals with one side of the court. Curry is a minus defender. He always has been and probably will never rise above below average on that end of the court. This is the main point against his MVP campaign, but in my opinion it is not enough to knock him off the stage and take away his bronze medal. There are mainly two reasons why I feel Curry still deserves the third spot on the ballot over his competitors. First, none of the other candidates after LeBron and Durant are particularly strong two-way players. Blake Griffin and Goran Dragic are not necessarily providing much more defensively than Curry. And while Joakim Noah is providing a lift to Chicago on offense while taking the defense to elite level, Chicago’s offense has been so miserable that it is hard to really credit Noah too much for his offensive contribution.
But more importantly the Warriors have been so good on defense this year, the fact that Curry has been a minus defender has not really been a factor. The Warriors only allowed 99.9 points per 100 possessions this season – the third-best figure in basketball behind the extremely stingy Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. When Curry is on the floor the Warriors are able to keep up that defensive pace for the most part. The Warriors post a 100.3 defensive rating when Curry is on the floor and only better it to 98.8 when he is off the floor. That 100.3 number would still be good for fifth in the NBA and that 98.8 number is only slightly better than the Warriors are normally. All in all, Curry being on the floor does not necessarily hurt the Warriors on defense.
A part of that – as mentioned earlier – is a product of playing so much minutes with the starting group. Iguodala has been one of the most influential defensive presences in all of basketball for almost the last half decade, and Bogut is on the short list of centers who are capable of anchoring an elite defense. But in general Curry’s defense – although in a vacuum is bad – has been a net neutral for the Warriors all season. When combining that with his unearthly offensive abilities and his effect on the offensive end this season, it is hard to place him anywhere but number three on the MVP ballot.
Michael Badger is a freelance NBA writer who focuses particularly on advanced statistical analysis and in depth on court break downs. He has previously written for HoopsHabit.com. You can find all of his work at http://michael-badger.tumblr.