Steph Curry Is Still Golden State’s MVP

Any rational NBA observer can agree that the Golden State Warriors have one of the most stacked rosters in league history. When a team coming off 67- and 72-win seasons adds a top-three player, it’s hard to argue the contrary.

The Warriors went 16-1 in the most recent NBA playoffs en route to their second NBA championship in three years. Kevin Durant was named Finals MVP—and deservedly so—after a scintillating five-game run in which he proved himself the best player on the Warriors and made the gap more narrow than ever between himself and LeBron James.

But while Durant may be the Warriors’ best player, he isn’t their most valuable. That distinction still belongs to Steph Curry, who has quickly been overshadowed by Durant despite being one year removed from one of the greatest offensive seasons ever and back-to-back MVP awards. Curry lead the Warriors in scoring, shot attempts, usage rate, win shares, and VORP last year, and he remains one of the most efficient scorers in the league. Those numbers all illustrate the tremendous impact Curry has when he’s on the floor, but to explain his value to the Warriors, one must look at what happens when he’s off it.

In theory, the Warriors should never be vulnerable; they have four of the best 20 players in the league and perhaps the most versatile roster in the NBA. But without Curry, they are. Even after adding Durant, Golden State was still outscored with Curry off the court last season. The Warriors have never had a positive net rating with him on the bench.

Curry led the NBA in plus/minus last season (five of the top six were Warriors), and his on/off net rating differential resembles that of some of the most individually burdened players in the league. In other words: the Warriors lean on Curry as though he were a lone superstar.

Curry shared the court with Durant in about 58 percent of his minutes, while Durant played 74 percent of his time with Curry on the floor (the discrepancy is due to an injury that cost Durant 20 games down the stretch, which, admittedly, makes this sample size inherently flawed). In the 1113 regular season minutes Curry played without Durant, the Warriors were plus-15.1 points per 100 possessions, with better offensive and defensive ratings than their overall regular-season marks. When Durant played without Curry—545 minutes—the Warriors were good, but not great, with a net rating of plus-3.8.It’s obvious why Golden State is so unstoppable when Curry is on the floor; he’s the greatest shooter in league history. He possesses an unquantifiable level of gravity that requires defenses to worry about him as soon as he gets within 35 feet of the basket. What’s surprising is that his teammates don’t have the same effect.

Durant spent much of last year getting his footing in Steve Kerr’s system, a night-and-day contrast to his old Oklahoma City offenses, while Curry had already been an MVP in that system for two years. Chemistry matters, especially for a team like the Warriors, who pass, cut, and improvise so beautifully. Durant took a while to really fit in to his new team, and it took a few memorable spats with teammates for that to happen. Until Durant grew comfortable in Golden State, the Warriors needed Curry, the steadying, ever-dangerous force that represents the spirit of the team.

Durant’s ill-timed leg injury cost him 20 games down the stretch of the season and effectively turned the Golden State back into its 2016 self. The Warriors had an 97.8 offensive rating during that time, and were outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry off the floor, marks that would have been the worst in the league over a full season. A stretch that abysmal, even for just 20 games, will tank a full season’s numbers. Still, Golden State went 16-4 during that span. It highlights the Warriors’ talent and depth that a player as good as Durant is one they can afford to lose for that long. Curry, however, is the one they cannot.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and NBAwowy!

 

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