Stephen Curry walked into the Warriors’ locker room in Cleveland clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy, squinting to keep the champagne from falling into his eyes. He was atop his sport – NBA champion and Most Valuable Player.
“We’ve got to celebrate this trophy,” Curry declared at Golden State’s championship parade a few days later, “like there’s no tomorrow.”
Of course, Curry did nothing of the sort.
He stayed hungry, worked hard and got even better.
Curry returns to Cleveland for tonight’s Cavaliers-Warriors game carrying MVP frontrunner status and the league’s most bizarre Most Improved Player case – maybe ever.
His points per game (23.8 to 29.9), 2-point percentage (52.8% to 57.8%), 3-point percentage (44.3% to 44.7%), rebounds per game (4.3 to 5.3) and steals per game (2.0 to 2.1) are all up from last season.
From MVP to MIP one year later – could it really happen?
“Yeah, why not?” said Golden State forward Draymond Green, who immediately answered his own question. “I mean, it’s weird.”
Yes, it is.
Just four players have received an MIP vote after winning MVP:
- Bill Walton won MVP in 1978 then missed substantial time over the next several years, including three full seasons. He emerged as Sixth Man of the Year with the Celtics in 1986, also getting one MIP vote that year. He was a much better fit for the now-defunct Comeback Player of the Year, an award that caused confusion with MIP.
- Karl Malone won MVP in 1997 and received an extremely curious MIP vote the next year. There’s no good reason to believe he improved significantly from age 33 to 34, let alone more than anyone else in the NBA.
- Shaquille O’Neal, the 2000 MVP, drew a first-place MIP vote in 2005. He had the best field-goal percentage of his career to that point, 60.1%. But that was only slightly better than the 59.9% he shot in his second season, and the gain was due to becoming more selective than actual improvement. Shaq didn’t suddenly become better at age 32.
- LeBron James – who won MVP in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 – received a second-place MIP vote from Michael Smith of Prime Ticket in 2014. Smith’s first- and third-place MIP votes in 2014? Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Yup, Smith mistakenly put his MVP picks on his MIP ballot.
I’d hardly be surprised if Malone’s and O’Neal’s votes were due to similar errors – or just voters honoring a player they liked. Before the NBA began releasing voter-by-voter ballots two years ago, there was far less accountability.
Curry, on the other hand, actually deserves consideration.
Despite a quicker trigger on 3-pointers, Curry is making them at a higher clip. He’s getting to the rim more, finishing better and drawing more fouls. He’s hitting the defensive glass harder, helping the Warriors transition to offense more quickly.
Curry has taken a couple small steps back. His defense isn’t quite as sharp, and he’s not facilitating as much. But in turn with hunting his own shot more often, Curry has lowered his turnover percentage. And individual offense is more important than individual defense, given a greater emphasis on team defense.
“He’s better,” Warriors acting coach Luke Walton said. “I don’t know how to put that on a scale, but he’s definitely playing at a higher level.
“I think that comes from gaining even more confidence from winning a championship and winning an MVP and then putting in the hard work along with that.”
This degree of improvement from a reigning MVP is unprecedented.
Curry has increased his PER from 28.0 last season to 31.7 this season. His jump of 3.7 from an MVP year is the most ever – trumping Larry Bird’s +2.3 after winning MVP in 1984.
Here’s the PER difference for every MVP from their MVP season to the following year:
|MVP||PER||PER next season||Difference|
|2015: Stephen Curry||28.0||31.7||+3.7|
|1984: Larry Bird||24.2||26.5||+2.3|
|1992: Michael Jordan||27.7||29.7||+2.0|
|1974: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||24.4||26.4||+2.0|
|1999: Karl Malone||25.6||27.1||+1.5|
|1977: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||27.8||29.2||+1.4|
|2005: Steve Nash||22.0||23.3||+1.3|
|1961: Bill Russell||18.1||19.4||+1.3|
|1963: Bill Russell||18.2||19.3||+1.1|
|2012: LeBron James||30.7||31.6||+0.9|
|1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||29.0||29.9||+0.9|
|1986: Larry Bird||25.6||26.4||+0.8|
|1981: Julius Erving||25.1||25.9||+0.8|
|1956: Bob Pettit||27.3||28.1||+0.8|
|1994: Hakeem Olajuwon||25.3||26.0||+0.7|
|1976: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||27.2||27.8||+0.6|
|2006: Steve Nash||23.3||23.8||+0.5|
|1979: Moses Malone||23.7||24.1||+0.4|
|1995: David Robinson||29.1||29.4||+0.3|
|2008: Kobe Bryant||24.2||24.4||+0.2|
|2003: Tim Duncan||26.9||27.1||+0.2|
|1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||25.3||25.5||+0.2|
|2002: Tim Duncan||27.0||26.9||-0.1|
|1960: Wilt Chamberlain||28.0||27.8||-0.2|
|1989: Magic Johnson||26.9||26.6||-0.3|
|1969: Wes Unseld||18.1||17.8||-0.3|
|2000: Shaquille O’Neal||30.6||30.2||-0.4|
|2011: Derrick Rose||23.5||23.0||-0.5|
|2009: LeBron James||31.7||31.1||-0.6|
|1988: Michael Jordan||31.7||31.1||-0.6|
|1985: Larry Bird||26.5||25.6||-0.9|
|1964: Oscar Robertson||27.6||26.7||-0.9|
|1997: Karl Malone||28.9||27.9||-1.0|
|1970: Willis Reed||20.3||19.3||-1.0|
|2004: Kevin Garnett||29.4||28.2||-1.2|
|1962: Bill Russell||19.4||18.2||-1.2|
|1972: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||29.9||28.5||-1.4|
|1990: Magic Johnson||26.6||25.1||-1.5|
|1973: Dave Cowens||18.1||16.6||-1.5|
|1996: Michael Jordan||29.4||27.8||-1.6|
|1982: Moses Malone||26.8||25.1||-1.7|
|1967: Wilt Chamberlain||26.5||24.7||-1.8|
|1966: Wilt Chamberlain||28.3||26.5||-1.8|
|2001: Allen Iverson||24.0||21.9||-2.1|
|1958: Bill Russell||22.8||20.7||-2.1|
|2014: Kevin Durant||29.8||27.6||-2.2|
|1965: Bill Russell||19.5||17.3||-2.2|
|2013: LeBron James||31.6||29.3||-2.3|
|1975: Bob McAdoo||25.8||23.3||-2.5|
|1968: Wilt Chamberlain||24.7||21.9||-2.8|
|2007: Dirk Nowitzki||27.6||24.6||-3.0|
|1993: Charles Barkley||25.9||22.8||-3.1|
|1957: Bob Cousy||21.0||17.9||-3.1|
|1983: Moses Malone||25.1||21.8||-3.3|
|2010: LeBron James||31.1||27.3||-3.8|
|1991: Michael Jordan||31.6||27.7||-3.9|
|1987: Magic Johnson||27.0||23.1||-3.9|
|1959: Bob Pettit||28.2||23.7||-4.5|
|1998: Michael Jordan||25.2||X||X|
|1978: Bill Walton||24.8||X||X|
Two players – Bill Walton due to injury in 1978 and Michael Jordan due to retirement in 1998 – didn’t play the season after winning MVP.
Curry has gone from someone who had a great season to someone playing like an all-time great. Michael Jordan comparisons, at least offensively, are not out of line (even if Curry still falls short of that mighty standard).
Though a holistic view of Curry’s progress treats his MIP case favorably – even after the incredibly high bar he set for himself last season – voters often take a more simplistic view. Whose scoring average increased the most from the previous season? That question will send you in the direction of likely, though not necessarily deserving, MIP candidates.
Curry holds up reasonably well. His points-per-game increase of 6.1 ranks 12th in the NBA. Two players ahead of him, Paul George and Julius Randle, missed significant time last season due to injury, making their scoring bumps somewhat less telling.
Another factor that sets Curry apart: He started on a whole different level. Here are the 15 players who’ve increased their scoring averages most from last season, with the low end of the bar showing last season and the high end showing this season:
|Player||PPG 2015||PPG 2016||Diff.|
It’s often said it’s harder to go from good to great than bad to good. But what about great to greater?
Just four players have EVER averaged as many points per game as Curry last season and increased their scoring average by so much the following year:
|Player||Years||PPG first year||PPG second year||Diff.|
|Wilt Chamberlain||1961 to 1962||38.4||50.4||+12.0|
|Kobe Bryant||2005 to 2006||27.6||35.4||+7.8|
|Bernard King||1984 to 1985||26.3||32.9||+6.6|
|Tracy McGrady||2002 to 2003||25.6||32.1||+6.5|
|Stephen Curry||2015 to 2016||23.8||29.9||+6.1|
Full disclosure: I didn’t pick Curry as my mid-season MIP. I took C.J. McCollum, and Lance Thomas and Reggie Jackson rounded out my mythical ballot.
Yet, I’m most fascinated by the candidacy of Curry, who made my short list.
We’ve never seen anything like this before. MVPs just don’t improve this much.
It’s hard to grasp.
I don’t think Curry will win MIP. But I think he’ll get more MIP votes after winning MVP than every other MVP combined. With Bill Walton, Malone, Shaq and LeBron getting one a piece, the bar is four.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, when asked whether Curry had improved, shared a thought process I believe will be common with voters:
“Oh, I don’t know,” Van Gundy said. “That’s not even something I think about. He’s great. He was great last year. Is he better? I don’t know. He’s pretty damn good.”
We can all agree Curry is amazing. Why debate his level of improvement?
But there’s an award specifically dedicated to that. It’s incumbent on voters to consider Curry’s kooky case. Voters complain about this award more than any other. What does it mean? Who is it for?
It seems outlandish even to consider the reigning MVP.
But as Draymond Green said: “If you deserve it, you deserve it.”