In this post I’m going to outline why, if I had an MVP vote (which I don’t, and almost certainly never will), I wouldn’t need to flip a coin or wrack my brain to consider Stephen Curry the easy choice over James Harden. Yes, easy. And this isn’t a decision based on a desire to curry (get it?) favor with Warriors PR or fans, either. This is about the future of the NBA, and what I consider most valuable in a game where the actions of every participant are interconnected.
Here’s what I’m not going to do:
1. Make this about defense
Both Curry and Harden were much better defensively in 2014-15 than their reputations heading into the season. Harden was the subject of YouTube blooper reels showing him stuck in quicksand for 15-second chunks. Curry’s energy was conserved in previous seasons by a head coach who made it very clear that Klay Thompson was to take the most difficult defensive assignment every night, almost like a much less violent version of Wayne Gretzky’s teams consistently employing “enforcers” for protection.
But who are we really kidding, these are two guards who get a lot of steals. Both players are talented and smart enough to do whatever’s asked, and while Curry is generally thought of as a better defender right now, the gap isn’t wide enough to swing the MVP vote. With Curry’s strengths elsewhere, the defensive advantage is like sprinkles on a sundae — a welcome addition, but unnecessary for the purposes of convincing most consumers.
2. Go super stat-heavy
It doesn’t matter which side you choose, you’re going to win/lose. Harden has the traditional counting stats (points and rebounds per game) on his side. He also plays four more minutes per contest than Curry, a tidbit one could either hold against the Warriors point guard or use in his favor (depending on whether you live in Northern California or Southeastern Texas).
Harden is the NBA leader in Win Shares, but Curry is the leader in Win Shares per 48 minutes. Curry leads all NBA players in Real Plus Minus with 8.87 (Harden is in second, with 8.30). Harden is the leader in WAR (19.54 to 18.89). Curry has the edge in offensive rating (122 to 118), defensive rating (101 to 103), true shooting (63.9% to 60.4%), turnover percentage (14.3% to 14.7%), and a host of other efficiency-focused categories. Harden’s usage rate trumps Curry’s, which isn’t a surprise.
Which statistics are most important? That’s like asking a group of people to list their favorite pizza toppings. Harden and Curry have put up extraordinary numbers throughout the season, but stats can’t be the be-all/end-all in this case.
And that’s two food-related comparisons, so I guess comparing MVP candidates makes me hungry.
Many have used some form of this argument to explain why Harden is the 2014-15 NBA Most Valuable Player:
Harden’s team is worse. Put Harden on the Warriors and you still have a 65-win team. Put Curry with those Rockets, and suddenly they’re the Pelicans.
There’s a lot of recency bias at play, like everyone who follows the NBA knew the Warriors were this incredibly stacked team that was guaranteed to win 66 or 67 games. Unless my memory is off (not altogether unlikely), here was the consensus on Curry’s supporting cast this summer.
- Klay Thompson: Good shooter and one-on-one defender whom the Warriors should’ve dealt for Kevin Love
- Draymond Green: David Lee’s backup; unpolished offensive game; shoots too many threes
- Harrison Barnes: Shaky NBA future after a very disappointing sophomore season
- Andrew Bogut: Biggest tease in the NBA — a fantastic defender who can’t stay on the court
- Andre Iguodala: Overpaid; no longer a scoring threat; lost a step or two
- David Lee: No more mid-range jumper; getting paid too much to come off the bench
- Mo Speights: Undisciplined, defense-averse power forward; a free agency mistake
- Shaun Livingston: Signs mid-level exception, gets toe surgery a month later
- Justin Holiday: Who?
- Leandro Barbosa: Warriors got him a few years too late
- Festus Ezeli: Can’t stay healthy; Warriors should’ve re-signed Jermaine O’Neal
All coached by Steve Kerr, a total unknown in that role. Some even thought the Warriors might regress after management parted ways with Mark Jackson, who was supposed to be extremely popular with the players (Curry, most of all) and responsible for their new-and-improved defense.
Imagining what it’d be like if Harden and Curry switched places is a waste of time in one respect — Harden’s presence might have led the Warriors to trade Thompson for Love and use a different point guard (Livingston?) in the starting lineup. The Warriors are built around Curry, and this year showed that building a team around Curry isn’t just feasible, it’s optimal.
Here’s why Curry should win the MVP (a two-part list)
1. Basketball is a team game.
This can go both ways. Harden was without Dwight Howard for half the season, Terrence Jones for longer than that, and had to deal with Patrick Beverley’s season-ending ailment and a recent injury to Donatas Motiejunas. The Warriors have been extremely fortunate on the injury front, although they might have made some of their own luck by being so good that no one played more minutes than they could handle.
But if we’re talking about the player who elevated the games of those around him, it was Curry. This is just one silly instance, but it’s something we saw several times this year: On Saturday, Curry had a layup. But instead of flipping in an easy shot and raising his own point total, he passed it to Harrison Barnes for a three in the corner. Jim Barnett seemed almost stunned that Curry would look out for a teammate in such a way, but that’s just Curry.
Curry spent the second quarter of Monday’s game against Memphis getting the ball to Thompson. That sounds like nothing, since Thompson had broken out of his slump in a huge way and was nailing all sorts of ridiculous shots from everywhere on his way to a 37-point half, but Curry was 4-for-6 in the first quarter and could’ve looked for his own shot a couple times. Instead, Curry seized the unselfish moment and his teammates enthusiastically (a little too enthusiastically, in Kerr’s view) followed suit.
That’s what Curry has done all season. Bogut and Green are outstanding passers, especially considering their respective positions. Lee isn’t half-bad at dishing the rock, either. Iguodala and Livingston love getting other guys involved. But this leadership comes from the top down. It’s a lot easier to be unselfish on a team that’s coached by a ball movement fanatic, but the entire thing crumbles if Curry decides that he needs some “me time” every game for reasons other than “in order to win, my team needs me to stop passing and score eight points in 90 seconds” or whatever.
Not to mention that without Curry on the floor, this is a below-average offensive team (the numbers bear this out). Thompson is a better scorer than anyone Harden plays with, but consistency is not his strength. Curry’s slumps last a week and a half, tops. Unlike Thompson, Curry doesn’t have bad months — that’s what it takes to lose fewer than 20 games in a season.
Everything Curry has done this year — other than the showboat stuff, which serves a purpose in that it fires up both himself and his teammates — has been with two goals in mind: win games as efficiently as possible and set up the team for a deep playoff run. Curry could be the league’s leading scorer if he wanted, but he spends sections of each game setting up his teammates in order to either thaw them out or keep them cooking.
We can either punish Curry for his teammates’ good health, or we can recognize that he’s been the epicenter of excellence since the season started. What was the guy supposed to do, force it into traffic and draw contact a few more times a game to boost his scoring average at the expense of his teammates and the Kerr/Gentry offense?
2. The game is changing.
This is true in two ways. First, the emphasis on three-point shooting has never been this high, and Curry is leading the revolution. He shoots threes off the dribble, on the run, as a spot-up guy on the rare occasions when someone isn’t following his every move. That’s what’s funny about Daryl Morey’s constant campaign for Harden — his team has shot more threes than anyone in the league: 2,652. That’s 463 more three-point attempts than the Warriors, who have made just 51 fewer threes than Houston. The Warriors are tops in three-point percentage, in large part because Curry leads the team at 44.2%.
Second, the Spurs made everyone realize that the Michael Jordan hero model, or even the Shaq-and-Kobe model, is extremely difficult to replicate and inadvisable in most cases. Superstars are required to win championships, but building a strong team is paramount. Harden’s game pleases those who grew up idolizing Jordan, and many will always see an NBA MVP as a player who wills his team to victory with sheer determination and individual skills. Harden is like a bulldozer, continuously pushing forward against whatever setbacks his team happens to face that particular night. Curry is more like a wrecking ball, pulling back and swinging forward, with every power-packed “punch” (a word Curry uses during just about every interview session) inflicting more damage than the one before. Both players are great at what they do, but which method creates more value?
What kind of basketball do we want to foster?
So many have thrown out the “what if these guys switched places” hypothetical that’s impossible to prove, and most look at that hypothetical from the perspective of the bettor laying money on a “WINS: over/under” futures wager. Here’s another one — which set of teammates would be happier if Harden and Curry switched spots? Which coach would be happier in this scenario? I’d be willing to bet the Rockets and Kevin McHale would be the ones smiling if these two players were dealt straight-up, but my regional bias may be showing.
We can pretend the NBA MVP award is the same as “Most Outstanding Player” (something Rick Barry repeatedly suggested the NBA should add to its yearly awards list back when he was a host on KNBR), but it’s not. The award throughout history has been as much a statement about the league as a whole — and what garnered the most appreciation that particular year — as much as it was about who was the most valuable. Besides, the term “valuable” is something that, as we know by now, is nearly impossible to quantify.
This has not been the year of Harden, any more than it’s been the year of Westbrook. It’s been the year of the Warriors, the team with the largest point differential, fastest pace, and highest morale in the NBA all season. When a point guard is the reason for all of this, and he breaks shooting records, plays with incredible efficiency and defends well (sorry, I guess I lied earlier when I wrote that I’d leave that part out), all while kicking the Rockets’ behind in all four meetings with the help of the rest of the Warriors, he’s the MVP.