Stephen Curry’s MVP Case Really Is Growing in His Absence
DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 17:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts as the Golden State Warriors score against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half at American Airlines Center on November 17, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Since Stephen Curry last suited up in a Nov. 8 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, succumbing to a strained left groin with 3:41 remaining in the third quarter after fouling to stop Khris Middleton in transition, the Golden State Warriors have dropped five contests in 10 attempts. Thanks to a hot start and widespread parity, they’re still sitting pretty at No. 2 in the Western Conference, but they haven’t been able to maintain juggernaut status while questing toward a third consecutive rendezvous with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo has continued to throw up big numbers at every opportunity. LeBron James has gotten on track with the Los Angeles Lakers, lifting them above the .500 mark and into the Western playoff hunt. Joel Embiid is cementing his status as a game-breaking center. Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard are asserting themselves for the Toronto Raptors

Curry has fallen entirely out of Basketball Reference’s MVP Award Tracker, which only features 10 standouts in pursuit of the league’s top individual honor. But his case for the third MVP recognition of his Hall of Fame career has only grown, even if the initial numbers don’t indicate as much. 

Right now, the sharpshooting floor general suffers from an acute lack of volume. He’s only played in 12 of the Warriors’ first 22 outings, which pushes him well behind the award front-runners at this premature stage of the 2018-19 campaign. Even if he returns in the near future, as expected, the number of contests he misses this year could rise well into double digits. 

But let’s say Curry remains fully healthy after returning to the lineup, only taking the occasional night off for rest purposes to withstand the grind of a grueling NBA season. This early-season absence wouldn’t disqualify him from consideration, especially because he’d be on the floor during the postseason-seeding push, thrusting those memories into the forefront of voters’ minds at the expense of his prior time in street clothes. 

Lest we forget, James Harden missed 10 games last year while winning MVP. Allen Iverson sat out of 11 contests while claiming the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in 2001. Bill Walton earned the crown in 1978 while 24 absences shy of perfect attendance. And though those are the exceptions—the average MVP has missed just 2.3 games since Bob Pettit first won the 1956 honor and 3.3 since the start of the current millennium—they do prove overcoming a lack of availability is possible.

Possible is all we need at this stage. We’re merely arguing Curry’s case has grown in his absence, not that he should win. Rising into the lead would require an inspired set of showings for the remainder of the 2018-19 calendar, showings similar to his play before tweaking his groin.

It’s that level of play that makes this a conversation worth having. Curry’s on-court prowess is by no means our focus here, but the struggles without him would, in this context, be wholly irrelevant without first establishing how special he’s been when healthy. Should he eventually factor into the MVP conversation, his candidacy will rest not just on the value demonstrated in his absence, but also on his actual play.

Averaging 29.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.3 blocks while shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 49.2 percent from downtown and 92.3 percent at the stripe, he’s playing like he’s still at his Everestian peak on the scoring end. In fact, his true shooting percentage has never been higher.

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 31:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks on against the New Orleans Pelicans during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on October 31, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But again, that’s not the point. (Nor is the undeniable fact that the rift between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant erupted on the road with Curry watching from afar.)

Though the Warriors are outscoring opponents to the tune of a team-best 13.5 net rating with the sharpshooting floor general logging minutes, we’re more interested in the minus-0.6 mark posted without him. Despite the staggering amount of talent that remains on the active roster when he’s wearing street clothes (plenty of teams would kill to have Klay Thompson, Durant and Green at their current salaries), the Dubs just can’t generate any momentum.

The defense has been fine. It’s the offense that falls apart without the scheme-warping spacing he provides, and we can gain access to even more nuance by examining the on/off numbers for each of the Four Factors on the scoring side: 

  • Effective field-goal percentage: 59.3 with Curry and 53.6 without Curry
  • Free-throw rate: 0.257 with Curry and 0.249 without Curry
  • Turnover percentage: 14.8 with Curry and 14.3 without Curry
  • Offensive rebounding percentage: 27.6 with Curry and 25.5 without Curry

The team doesn’t generate quite as many second-chance or free-throw opportunities, which makes sense when we’re focusing on the effects of a 1-guard who excels on the glass and earns plenty of freebies. It also turns the ball over slightly less often—once more, that shouldn’t catch you by surprise. But the biggest discrepancy comes in the shooting department, and the issues are twofold. 

First, and most obvious, Curry’s historic marksmanship doesn’t factor into the numbers when he’s riding the pine. But just as important is the regression endured by his teammates when he’s not there to draw away defensive attention. Kevin Durant, for example, has seen his slash line fall from 54.3/44.4/90.4 with Curry to 48.5/22.0/93.5 without him.

Jordan Bell is the only one of the nine players who has logged at least 50 minutes alongside Curry who has seen his shot quality improve when not working with the starting 1-guard. That’s significant. It’s also not new: 

Curry simply produces planetary levels of gravitational pull, the likes of which can’t be matched by any current superstar on any NBA roster. He draws attention from every able-bodied defender in simultaneous fashion, bending them with his dribbling exhibitions and off-ball movement alike. Better still, he’s able to capitalize upon their added surveillance by finding the open man, like he does here with Durant against the New Orleans Pelicans:

B/R

At first, that might seem like an innocuous occurrence. Curry simply used a pair of high screens to force the Pelicans into disadvantageous switches, and then he took advantage of Durant slipping by his assignment on a backdoor cut to the hoop. 

But watch it again and notice Tim Frazier trying to fight through the initial pick set by Durant, even though his adversary made solid contact and forced him too far behind the primary action. That alone gets Durant some space, but so too does Nikola Mirotic’s subtle movement—the true key behind the easy jam. 

When Curry first makes it clear that he’s moving to his left and using a screen, Mirotic’s heels are even with the restricted area. He’s covering the paint in Davis’ absence and willingly granting Draymond Green—his primary assignment—plenty of cushion. But by the time Curry has moved to the other side of the half-court set, Mirotic is almost up to the elbow in case the league’s deadliest three-point threat keeps dribbling around the horn.

That’s all the space Durant needs. 

Quinn Cook, here operating the pick-and-roll with Kevon Looney, gets no such luxuries despite shooting a potent 47.1 percent from beyond the arc: 

B/R

Or here, Cook’s pass to Durant gets intercepted because Trae Young can hand off the coverage to Taurean Prince without fear of getting cooked in the split-second of transition: 

B/R

Myriad examples exist highlighting these discrepancies, and the message remains clear in all of them: Defenses treat the Warriors quite differently when Curry isn’t on the floor, and those alterations make life quite a bit tougher for his teammates. He’s unique in this respect, the lone Golden State All-Star who requires special treatment. Even Durant, historically talented as he may be in the scoring department, can be handled within the flow of a normal scheme, albeit only by abnormally talented stoppers. 

With Durant on the floor sans Curry, Thompson and Green over the last three years, including both regular season and playoff minutes, the Warriors have a mediocre 1.9 net rating. Green moves into the red (minus-1.9) when operating as the solo star. Put Thompson on the floor without the other three, and Golden State outscores foes by 2.5 points per 100 possessions

Granted, this next number isn’t as astronomical as the 16.8 net rating earned when all four are working in harmony, but the Warriors still sit at 12.7 when Curry is all alone. He’s not even in the same zip code, much less the same ballpark.

In a strange way, all of this might not just help the point guard’s eventual MVP case, again assuming he’s able to regain full health and continue torching opponents from all over the half-court set. The absence may prove vital to his candidacy. 

Having a top-tier supporting cast typically helps with a title pursuit, but it also hurts the chances of earning individual hardware. Any and all of Curry’s success can be saddled with the “Yeah, but his job is so much easier when working with Durant, Green and Thompson” caveat. 

Except now, it can’t. 

           

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games on Nov. 26 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com. Records accurate through games on Nov. 26.

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