Moore: How a Wild Year for Steph Curry’s Usage Could Bring Value to His MVP Odds

Moore: How a Wild Year for Steph Curry’s Usage Could Bring Value to His MVP Odds article feature image
Credit:

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena.

  • With Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala gone and Klay Thompson injured, Steph Curry will have to handle a huge load for the Warriors this season.
  • Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) discusses Steph's game and whether he provides value in the MVP betting market.

Let me take you back.

In 2015-16, Steph Curry made 402 three-pointers, the most in NBA history for a season. At the time, the record was 286, which Curry had also set the year prior.

Since then, Curry has added two more of the top-six in history. Only James Harden and Paul George have joined him in the top-six, with Harden finishing second all-time last season with 378 and George landing fifth with 292. That Curry made 402 three-pointers in a single season is still quite honestly mind-boggling. 

In 2014-15, when he first set the record for made 3-pointers, he won MVP. Then he broke that record and shattered it with…. 116 more.

One hundred.

And sixteen more.

Since that season, Curry managed to still plug in two more top-five all-time 3-point seasons, but never came close to the MVP award. There was no real shot for him. His staunchest supporters, of whom there are so many online, will always gnash their teeth at this and cry out at the unfairness of it all, but we have learned there’s a certain amount of talent you can be surrounded by that simply renders you ineligible for certain awards.

You can’t add a player most people believe is better than you and win MVP, even if you are the most important fixture of arguably the greatest team of all time.

As the Kevin Durant era manifested itself, a trend developed — one that would ultimately contribute to Durant’s decision to leave the Warriors (according to published reports). If you asked coaches, scouts, basketball personnel and most hardcore fans who the better player was between Curry and Durant, most would say Durant.

He is a 7-foot machine who regularly hit percentages within range of 50-40-90 while being a superior passer and the second-best defender on Golden State behind Draymond Green. He won two Finals MVPs. He can single-handedly take over games and ruin opponents all on his own.

(I write these words in the present tense because I refuse to believe Durant’s Achilles injury will rob us of the prime twilight of one of the best players to ever step on an NBA floor. He can get back. I choose to believe this.)

However, when you asked who was the most important Warrior, who was the player that turned them from a dominant team to The Warriors, there would be awkward shifting and grumbling.

Eventually, most would admit that no matter what argument you took — data, eye test or some combination of the two — you were led to understand that it was Curry who drove the Warriors.

When they looked like The Warriorsit was because Steph was loose. Otherwise, they were just another dominant team led by an all-time talent in Durant. A juggernaut? Sure. But not the same kind of gigantic space battleship that looked like this at its fullest power:

In time, I came to understand the dynamic this way: Durant built the Warriors’ new floor to be 10 feet above any flood. A tidal wave could crash upon their shores, and the Warriors were unaffected because if Durant was playing well — or even by his standards, average — the Warriors were untouchable. He took what they did and added his Durant-ness, so that even if they didn’t play like The Warriorsthey still slammed teams back out into the bay to be sent along by the currents.

Curry, however, was the ceiling. When he was engaged and on, Golden State was still The Warriors. For small flashes and little moments, they would whoosh by in a flash so blinding it might as well have been attached to a mushroom cloud. When Curry was the engine, rare as it was, it seemed like Golden State was making the basketball gods his choir, building a symphony that left the other team as nothing but sound waves bent to their will.

Durant made them untouchable.

Curry made them transcendent.

And that tension was always evident. When they had Durant, there was always a slight tension that they weren’t The Warriors because of him, while the team knew that he took away the risk of what happened in the 2016 Finals.

Ultimately, Durant needed to go somewhere where the MVP chants were not perfunctory but enthusiastic, and where he could build his own ideas of greatness. That’s a story for another time.

But what remains in Golden State is a different Steph Curry, maybe a better Steph Curry, and one that will now have every opportunity to pursue his third MVP. He’ll also have challenges in obtaining it he has never faced in his career.

THE CHASE

For starters, let’s be clear in that it is not as simple as Curry just going back to the 2016-season version. That version is gone. Curry’s older — 31 now — and point guards past 30 tend to decline.

The Warriors are not the same, either. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are both gone, along with (presumably) Andrew Bogut, and there’s no Harrison Barnes where Kevin Durant has stood these past three years. There is D’Angelo Russell, who presents complications to this whole thing, but we’ll get back to him in a minute.

The Warriors are simply not going to be as good defensively as they were in either 2015 or 2016. This matters a lot for Curry’s MVP chances.

For starters, the winner has to hit a certain team-wins threshold. Unless Curry breaks his previous record of 402 made 3-pointers — which, hold on, let me pause for a moment to break out in uncontrollable laughter at how utterly ridiculous that number is — he’s going to have to win 50 games or more.

Bear in mind that Harden finished the season with the second-most made 3-pointers in NBA history and still didn’t win because Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks won more games (on account of Giannis’ performance; it’s all tied together in a logic pretzel).

Second, a worse defense means that with the opponent scoring more, they can set their defense better against him. Part of what engages Curry at the highest level is when the Warriors are playing ‘in chaos’:

Fewer stops means less pace, less chaos. It’s hard to push the ball on makes. It can be done, but it’s difficult. Curry’s still insane in the halfcourt, don’t get me wrong, but that defensive slippage will matter.

However, there are benefits to where he is now as well.

Curry’s turnover rate last year was the lowest of his career at 11.6%. That’s indicative of the strides he’s made as a passer. His assist rate took a huge downturn last season: He averaged less than 7.5 per 100 possessions, compared to his career-high of 11.7 back in 2013-14. He made fewer passes, to be sure, which would have raised his turnover rate as well. But watching him, he played with a better sense of managing and orchestrating the offense around him than he ever has.

He wasn’t the tip of the spear last season, nor was he the conductor, but he found the balance between the two, and it led to a +13.7 Net Rating — best in the league last season, even if it was beneath his prior three seasons with the Warriors clearly on cruise control.

The reason these subtle shifts matter is that this will be the first season Curry’s usage rate may actually be in line with the other stars with whom he’s competing.

By comparison, here are the usage rates of the MVPs since 2009 when Curry entered the league:

Curry’s two MVP seasons were lower than the previous three MVP seasons, and his 2015 season was lower than the other 10. As part of the Warriors’ entire offensive scheme, typically there’s even distribution.

But this season is different. With Klay Thompson out, Durant gone and the other changes to the roster, Curry will have to take on a bigger role this season.

The reality is we’ve never seen Curry with what should be this amount of freedom. It’s a totally unknown venture, and that makes its ROI all the more attractive.

Unless Russell seamlessly slides into the role of Thompson in his absence, or suddenly becomes the Warriors’ best player, Curry’s set to be featured the way so many of his peers have been: as the man up against it, trying to carry his team. He still has Draymond Green, but Green — especially in the regular season — has not been as dominant in recent years and isn’t a scoring threat.

There’s also been discussion of the team potentially flipping Russell at some point. But if that occurs, it’s almost certainly going to be for a bevy of role players who will make things easier for Curry, not more difficult.

The hard part is key for this, though. Just as it was thought to be ‘too easy’ for Curry in the Durant era, voters will oftentimes be drawn towards those who are ‘carrying’ their teams. If Curry is going supernova in a way reminiscent of 2015 or 2016, with a lesser team, he may actually be more rewarded for it.

For that to apply, however, there also can’t be a truly great team that sets itself apart. That’s where this season’s delicate balance of parity comes into play. It’s reasonable to expect the Bucks to take a step backward this season with regression. It’s also natural to expect growing pains for the Clippers and Lakers both with injuries and new rosters.

In other words, it’s entirely possible for Curry to have a season not unlike what James Harden had last year — maybe not as statistically prolific, but without the overbearing weight of a signature 60-win season like Giannis had.

(Which would be yet another cruel twist of MVP fate for Harden, and which is amazing in and of itself that he’s had such bad luck given that he actually has won it already.)

What does a Curry MVP season look like?

  • 70 games played
  • 29 points per game
  • 9 assists per game
  • 5 rebounds per game
  • 47% from the field (slight drag due to usage)
  • 43% from 3
  • 90% from the stripe
  • +9 or better Net Rating
  • 115 Offensive Rating
  • 52 wins for Golden State, top-three seed

Only two players have had seasons of 29-9-5 (Westbrook and Oscar Robertson).

You can trade in some assists if he finishes with a top-four 3-point number, even if they pale to his other numbers. Why? Because he’s having to do this on his own now.

That’s the big narrative thread here. No more superteam to cover for him. No more Splash Brother Klay to space for him (at least until mid-season). No Durant to raise the floor if he has a bad night. This is all on Curry.

And if he succeeds, as he has every year since Steve Kerr arrived in 2015, he’ll be right there among the leaders for MVP.

THE ODDS

Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Curry at +400, but the East Coast books, including PointsBet and DraftKings, have Curry as high as +550. You can position that with a hedge featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and another longshot (Joel Embiid +1100 being my personal favorite).

In the end, just backing Curry isn’t a bad look. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong: Russell taking up too much usage, the Warriors struggling and deciding to tank a year until Thompson is healthy, Thompson not returning from injury, an injury for Curry (who has always had problems with his ankles), etc. Not to mention the threat of someone running away with the West like the Lakers, Clippers or Nuggets.

There’s value on Curry; this is going to be the most untethered we’ve ever seen him. It’s also the first year where he’ll have this level of defensive attention. Everyone’s always been terrified of Curry; he has the strongest gravity in the league. But there was always the threat of Thompson cutting open for a 3 or Iguodala slipping or Durant being Durant. Now it’s just Curry and Draymond, at least for a little while.

Let’s see what Curry cooks up this time.