The season is in its infant stages, but it is never too early to celebrate a player who is putting up 27.7 points, 7.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds and playing some impressive defense. That player is not LeBron James. It is the Warriors’ new and improved Stephen Curry.
Coming into the season, Curry was 40/1 to be named MVP – the 11th favorite to win the award. Based on A) the news that Kevin Durant would miss 8 weeks through injury and B) my firm belief that the Warriors would be much improved under Steve Kerr, I wagered a harmless pound on him. At this stage I wish I had wagered £100.
With KD out and LeBron having a sluggish-by-his-standards start to the season and Cleveland playing .500 ball, the MVP race is, for now, wide open – making those odds look laughably long.
Whilst Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-generation force of nature who is doing unseemly things on the defensive end, the unwritten rule is that the MVP must win a bare minimum of 50 games. AD’s Pelicans may not even make the postseason. Besides, he is only 21 and has plenty of time to win several MVPs before he is done.
The time is now for Steph.
He is leading the league in scoring. He is second behind Davis in PER at 29.8 – a number only four players have equalled over the last decade – and ninth in assists. He is also leading the league with 3.5 steals a game. Among players who have not yet missed a game, he is first in plus/minus at a whopping +15.0 a game. These numbers will likely relax a little as the season matures, but Curry is establishing himself as the best point guard in the NBA and a player whose less ball-dominant style of play may turn out to be more conducive to winning than Conference Finals virgin Chris Paul’s.
Curry, LeBron and James Harden are the only players in the league averaging at least 24 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds – and Curry is by far the most efficient of the three, shooting a ridiculous 57% from 2-point range and 41% from 3-point range.
When Curry faced Harden in Houston in the battle of the then-undefeated teams on Saturday, he led the Warriors to a 98-87 win behind a signature 34-point, 13-for-19 shooting performance. His foray to the hoop with 1:30 remaining resulted in this clutch high-arching finger roll from ten feet that would have been ridiculous coming from any other player:
Only three players have ever shot 50% on twos, 40% on threes and 90% on free throws whilst putting up at least 24 points per game for a season: Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant. All three won the MVP award. Curry is currently on pace to be the first guard to join the 50/40/90/24 club.
No matter how long this moment lasts, he is at this moment the best perimeter player in the NBA. And more than just having a hot start to the season, Curry has displayed tangible and sustainable improvements in his game.
Spurred by Kerr’s motion-filled offense, he has become more adept at getting into the paint and drawing fouls. He is shooting a career-high 6.2 free throws a game and according to NBA.com, 28% of his shots are coming from within ten feet of the basket – a marked increase on last season.
Most impressively, he has been playing very good defense to start the season. Until now, Curry has been viewed as a one-way player – great offensively but a weak link defensively. Indeed, last year Mark Jackson routinely hid Curry on the opposition’s weakest perimeter player, an outright admission that he was a poor defender from whom the Warriors expected little on that end of the floor.
Remember how Curry guarded Matt Barnes and Klay Thompson guarded Chris Paul during the playoffs? Not any more:
Curry hounded Paul into a feckless 6-for-15 shooting night last week, even stealing the ball from him on this inbounds pass:
Paul was no doubt surprised by Curry’s new-found defensive aggression.
Curry is not as physically strong or as explosively athletic as some of the elite players at his position, but he has quick enough hands and nimble enough feet to be able to stick with opponents off the dribble when he puts his mind to it.
See here as he fights over the Brook Lopez screen to prevent Damian Lillard getting an open look at the basket:
Lillard shot a miserable 4-for-18 on the night and it was no coincidence. The Warriors currently rank first in the league in defensive efficiency and Curry has been one reason why.
It may also not be a coincidence that Klay Thompson, freed from chasing smaller, quicker players around on defense, has had the best 5-game stretch of his career offensively to start the season: 23.8 points, 3.2 assists, 47% shooting, 6.6 free throws per game.
Curry’s off-ball defense has also shown improvement. Here he cogently double teams Markieff Morris in the post the moment the dribble-challenged Morris puts the ball on the floor, creating the turnover:
One minute later, he pulls the exact same trick:
Of course, we are dealing with a small sample size here but according to Warriors beat writer Diamond Leung, Steph is in it for the long haul, and he is deadly serious:
This is the area of improvement that will really allow his MVP candidacy to gain steam. At this stage, only the most astute Warriors followers and discerning League Pass viewers are aware that Curry is making strides on that side of the ball. As we get deeper into the season and the national media catches wind of the development, it will become a storyline.
Steph has really worked on his game! Not only is he the best shooter in the league, he has become a two-way player! The Warriors are a legitimate contender and he is the main reason why!
All first-time MVP candidates need a narrative that voters can get behind. One that revolves around a combination of individual improvement and increased team success is always a winner.
Curry’s candidacy is legit. He even poked fun at himself after his uncharacteristic 10-turnover game versus Phoenix by sharing a picture of an apple turnover on Instagram:
What’s not to like?!