Magic Johnson said he wouldn’t play if he was hurting his team, and he was hurting his team.
So, fewer than five minutes into Game 3 of the 1989 NBA Finals, Johnson – who was battling a hamstring injury – left the game. The 1989 MVP, Johnson watched Game 4 from the sideline as his Lakers get swept by the Pistons.
And, by one measure, Johnson still had a better Finals than Stephen Curry is having this year.
Curry, the back-to-back MVP, is averaging 16.0 points per game in the Finals (down from 30.1 in the regular season). He has more turnovers (15) than assists (13). The Warriors have been worse on both ends with him on the floor.
By game score, Curry is having the worst Finals on record by someone who won MVP that year.
Here’s everyone who won MVP and played in the Finals the same year since 1974, sorted by game score per team game in the Finals. NBA champions are in blue, runners up in wine:
Curry ranks below Johnson in 1989, and Johnson’s score is lowered by his DNP in Game 4. Remember, it’s per team game. Players are docked for not being on the floor.
But Curry hasn’t missed time. He might not be 100% after his first-round knee injury, but that can no longer be a key excuse. He appears to be moving much better.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1974 average game score is artificially inflated, because it doesn’t include turnovers (the NBA hadn’t begun counting them yet). But he would have had to average more than 20 turnovers per game to have a lower average game score than Curry this year. It’s safe to assume Abdul-Jabbar cleared that bar.
For anyone before that, it’s impossible to even roughly approximate game score. So here’s Curry compared to earlier MVPs in points, rebounds and assists per game:
|1971 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (MIL)||Won||27.0||18.5||2.8|
|1970 Willis Reed (NYK)||Won||23.0||10.5||2.8|
|1962 Bill Russell (BOS)||Won||22.9||27.0||5.7|
|1957 Bob Cousy (BOS)||Won||20.7||6.7||9.1|
|1963 Bill Russell (BOS)||Won||20.0||26.0||5.3|
|1965 Bill Russell (BOS)||Won||17.8||25.0||5.8|
|1967 Wilt Chamberlain (PHI)||Won||17.7||28.5||6.8|
|1961 Bill Russell (BOS)||Won||17.6||28.8||4.4|
|2016 Stephen Curry (GSW)||TBD||16.0||5.0||4.3|
|1958 Bill Russell (BOS)||Lost||14.5||19.3||2.3|
Bill Russell in 1958 might be the reigning worst Finals by an MVP. Johnson in 1989 is another contender. But both involved significant injury. Russell hurt his ankle in Game 3, missed two games and then struggled through a Game 6 series-ending loss to the St. Louis Hawks.
Again, Curry can no longer make such a strong claim about being hobbled.
Curry hasn’t been bad. For an MVP, he’s been awful. It’s worth noting the difference.
The Cavaliers have also done a nice job double-teaming him and forcing the ball into someone else’s hands. The Warriors happily took advantage of those 4-on-3 situations in Games 1 and 2, not needing Curry to carry them. But when Cleveland upped its defense in Game 3 and better contested Golden State’s other options, Curry didn’t answer.
I don’t expect him to continue playing the mediocrely. This is just three games, and I’m comparing Curry to players who had larger samples to prove their value (except Johnson in 1989). I’m unconvinced the Cavs can prevent him from regressing to his mean, and even just that would mean tremendous improvement.
But, so far, Curry has produced a Finals dud of historic proportions for an MVP.