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The Case For Stephen Curry, MVP

It almost goes without saying that Stephen Curry is the best player on the best team in basketball — the first team in history to win at least 67 games three seasons in a row. But Curry isn’t going to win his third-straight MVP.

As of April 9, zero percent of ESPN’s Forecast panel predicted that Curry would win, and only 2 percent thought he deserved it. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double — which I personally thought impossible — an accomplishment so storied that it will almost certainly overshadow anything else. Even as FiveThirtyEight’s sports team planned this week’s series of cases for the various MVP contenders, there was some question whether we should make a case for Curry at all. I volunteered for the assignment, and not because I’m our resident bard of all things Curry. I volunteered because Curry really is the NBA’s most valuable player.

This is the fourth entry in our series making the case for five NBA MVP candidates. We’ve also made the case for James Harden, the case for Kawhi Leonard and the case for Lebron James. Still to come: Russell Westbrook. Also, check out our NBA predictions.

How did Steph go from being a one-man revolution and the first unanimous MVP to being almost an afterthought in the race? Well, two things:

  1. The already-great Golden State Warriors signed one of the best players of this era in a brazen attempt to break the game of basketball and dance on the rubble they left behind. Anything less than a perfect season practically feels like a letdown.
  2. Curry picked the wrong year to regress toward the mean.

While Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James have all been putting up mind-bending box scores, Curry had his worst season in — well, since his first MVP two seasons ago. He hit “only” 41 percent from 3-point range, down from 45 percent last season, despite having his shot burden reduced by the arrival of Kevin Durant — the most recent non-Curry MVP — from Oklahoma City. Curry’s true shooting percentage dropped from an ungodly (and league-leading) 67 percent (with a second-in-the-league 33 percent usage rate) to a more demi-godly — and tenth-highest — 62 percent (with a usage rate of 30 percent, 11th in the league).

Curry’s 2016-17 stats would normally be something to crow about — indeed, this regression pretty much puts him back in the neighborhood of his first-MVP form. But this is 2017, when they only put him in the pack. Stars shooting hyper-efficiently despite high usage is the new black:1

Among our MVP candidates — Curry, Harden, James, Leonard and Westbook — only Curry posted declines in both his shot burden and his efficiency from last season to this one. (Usually, you’d expect a player to become more efficient as they’re used less.) When the Warriors signed Durant, we wondered whether his presence would lead to endless open threes or whether adding another elite shooter would have diminishing returns. Now we’re left wondering whether Durant’s presence might even be hurting Curry (e.g., perhaps some of Curry’s great shots are being replaced by merely good Durant shots).

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have gone in the opposite direction, filtering even more of their team’s offense through their best players. So even though the Thunder haven’t been the same without Durant, Westbrook has been putting up historic numbers. Meanwhile, Harden has thrived with even more responsibility, and the Rockets have improved.

Still, among our MVP candidates, Steph has been the most efficient shooter. Indeed, only seven times in history has any player shot more efficiently and had such a high usage rate: Curry last season; Karl Malone in 1989-90; James in 2012-13 and 2013-14; Durant in 2013-14 and 2015-16; and Isaiah Thomas for the Celtics this season.

How to be good at offense

But! There’s more to Curry than shooting like a ninja. He’s also the best offensive facilitator in basketball. “Wait” — you may be thinking — “Curry is supposedly a point guard, yet he put up only 6.6 assists per game, almost 4 assists per game lower than Westbrook and his lowest average since 2011-12. How can you call him a facilitator?”

The answer is that he creates better shots for his teammates. Assists are inherently meaningless. They’re a proxy for how much a player helps his team score, sure, but they’re a crude metric from an era when better ones didn’t exist. It’s cool that Westbrook flipped the odometer in three popular stats for the first time in a long time, but the person who touched the ball last before someone else made a shot is irrelevant. These days, we have much better data to help figure out whether a player makes his teammates better on offense. Curry does.2

Let’s take a look at what happens to teams’ shooting when their MVP candidate is off the floor (I’ll also add Durant so that you can see who’s really moving the needle in Oakland):

There are stories to be told in each section of that chart, but for our purposes, focus on the fire raining down from the sky in the Curry section. Not only do virtually all of his teammates (10 of 11 players with at least 30 shots, representing over 1,700 shots taken without him3) shoot worse without Curry on the court to draw attention, they shoot dramatically worse. Overall, Curry’s teammates shoot 7.3 percentage points worse with Curry off the court, with his average teammate4 shooting 8.3 points worse. Among our MVP candidates, LeBron has the next-highest impact on average teammate shooting (3.9 points), followed by Westbrook (2.5 points). When it comes to opening up a team’s offense, Curry has no equal.

Curry makes a good team greatest

OK, so he’s still a nasty offensive weapon, but that’s only a small part of the game. There are also chase-down blocks to be made, right? To factor in defense and other non-shooting-related contributions, let’s again leave the box score behind and focus on what happens when a player is on the floor versus when he isn’t. A decent way of doing that is to look at some on-off court plus-minus stats from NBA.com. Plus/minus stats alone are often worth being skeptical about, especially because who plays with whom and when can make a big difference — though they can still be revealing, especially when considered in their broader team context.

So, with that caveat, here’s the difference in net points per 100 possessions (scoring margins, essentially) when each of our MVP candidates is on the floor versus when he isn’t:

But as we said, there are a lot of team dynamics that can affect those gaps. So to get a slightly better picture of what’s going on, here’s how every player on our candidates’ teams affected their club’s net scoring margin (their impact in points), versus how good their teams were without them (which gives us a window into how much water each is carrying for their team):

The y-axis here is equivalent to the gap between the dots in the previous chart. James doesn’t just have the biggest impact on his team’s scoring margin — he’s a massive outlier on his team. Curry has the second-highest impact, with Westbrook not too far behind. Importantly, the Spurs and Rockets are outscoring their opponents by comfortable margins whether or not their MVP candidate is on the floor. In both cases, the best player hasn’t even broken out of the pack on his own team. Which isn’t to say that those players aren’t extremely valuable — there are a lot of particulars that affect these results (like who plays with whom), as well as a fair amount of variance. But it illustrates an important lesson that sports narratives often get backward: It’s harder to have a huge impact on a team that’s already good.

Curry, meanwhile, is the best player on the best team, and he makes it a lot better. That’s amazing. One reason rebounding legend (and now Hall-of-Famer) Dennis Rodman was so great is he could help make good teams great and great teams greater. Curry is like that, but with even more impact.

Let’s take a crack at quantifying how much extra credit Curry should be getting for this. Curry is third in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (behind Chris Paul and LeBron James) — which accounts for both actual on/off differentials and statistical production to estimate a player’s “true” value. This results in Curry’s being second in wins produced with 17.5, a sliver behind James’s 18.2.

But Curry and James play on very different teams. Back when I was writing about Rodman, I came up with a basic method that adjusts a player’s impact on winning for the quality of his team. Instead of using players’ absolute number of wins produced, we can look at their wins produced as a share of all the wins that were available to them and use that as a rough estimate of how many wins we might expect them to generate if placed on a .500 team.5 So let’s run the top 10 win producers in ESPN’s RPM through this adjustment:

PLAYER TEAM GAMES PLAYED TEAM WINS WITH PLAYER PLAYER WINS ESTIMATE OF PLAYER WINS ON A .500 TEAM
LeBron James Cavaliers 74 51 18.2 16.4
Stephen Curry Warriors 79 64 17.5 22.0
Jimmy Butler Bulls 76 38 16.9 12.1
Russell Westbrook Thunder 81 45 16.6 13.1
Draymond Green Warriors 76 62 15.7 20.1
Rudy Gobert Jazz 81 49 15.5 13.8
James Harden Rockets 81 52 14.8 14.3
Kawhi Leonard Spurs 74 54 13.7 15.0
Chris Paul Clippers 61 41 12.7 12.6
Anthony Davis Pelicans 75 31 12.4 8.3
Curry is even better if you adjust for the Warriors’ strength

Player wins calculated using ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.

Source: ESPN

Using this method, Curry comes out well ahead of LeBron, with 22.0 (adjusted) wins produced to LeBron’s 16.4. Even if you assume that Curry and teammate Draymond Green are benefiting somewhat from playing with each other, that’s still a pretty big gap between Curry and James — and RPM is one of the few stats that already tries to account for teammate effects.

Conclusion

Finally, Curry (and his team) being so freaking good for at least three seasons in a row matters. While we all like a good regression to the mean, an unusually large one like Curry’s this season is more likely to be an anomaly itself. That is, he may have been running above expectation last season but running below expectation this season. Many of our other candidates are having unexpectedly good years given their recent history, while Curry — who, again, is right there with or ahead of them in virtually every way — has been unexpectedly not-as-great. In other words, there’s a good chance that Curry is still better than he has looked this year (while running below expectation), while the others are more likely to be a bit worse than they’ve looked (while running above expectation).

At its core, this has been a dramatic season for NBA performance, but my reasoning for Curry being the best is similar to why I think James — like Peyton Manning in the NFL — should have won even more MVPs than he has: Outcomes and statistics change dramatically from year to year, value typically doesn’t.

Footnotes

  1. Data in chart is through April 6, so 2016-17 points may vary slightly from end of season.

  2. Curry’s effect whether or not he’s shooting well reminds me a bit of Randy Moss’s legendary ability to improve his team’s passing game whether he was catching balls himself or not. Even late in Moss’s career, Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith had career years with the 49ers using Moss as a decoy.

  3. These numbers and subsequent ones in this paragraph are current through April 9, although there’s no reason to expect major changes since then.

  4. Weighted by how many shots they took with or without Curry on the floor, whichever was smaller.

  5. It’s pretty simple. For a player with a positive impact (which all our MVP candidates obviously have), estimating what his impact would be on a .500 team is just: (Player impact on win percentage/(1 – Team winning percentage without player))*0.5

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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