Stephen Curry: From Most Valuable Player to Most Improved Player?

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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:

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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:

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Player PPG 2015 PPG 2016 Diff.
Paul George 8.8 24.0 +15.1
C.J. McCollum 6.8 20.4 +13.6
Will Barton 6.8 15.8 +8.9
Julius Randle 2.0 10.5 +8.5
Allen Crabbe 3.3 11.2 +7.9
Kent Bazemore 5.2 12.8 +7.6
Gary Harris 3.4 10.9 +7.4
Jae Crowder 7.7 14.6 +7.0
Otto Porter 6.0 12.5 +6.5
Nicolas Batum 9.4 15.7 +6.4
Danilo Gallinari 12.4 18.7 +6.2
Stephen Curry 23.8 29.9 +6.1
Raymond Felton 3.7 9.3 +5.6
Isaiah Thomas 16.4 21.8 +5.4
T.J. Warren 6.1 11.3 +5.2

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.”