For the swaths of Warriors fans who descended on South Philadelphia on April 19, Golden State’s 107-96 win over the Sixers was an opportunity to broaden the NBA’s great MVP debate. At the time, the national conversation focused exclusively on a couple of big men, one of whom happened to play his home games in Philadelphia. So when Steph Curry stepped to the foul line with 30 seconds left of a game that had been decided, the building began to echo with a chant typically reserved for Joel Embiid.
Turns out, they were right. The most interesting question in the MVP race is no longer whether Embiid is more worthy than Nikola Jokic. The biggest conundrum for voters at the moment is whether either is more deserving than Curry.
The answer might not be a definitive yes, but it is far from a hard no. In fact, you have to wonder whether the lack of buzz surrounding Curry is mostly a product of expectations. The things we saw at the Wells Fargo Center two weeks ago are the sort of things we can’t help but take for granted, given how often we’ve seen them.
The 10 three-pointers he hit? He’s done it 20 other times. Every other player in NBA history has combined to do it 44. The 49 points that he scored? He’s done it 10 other times, more than all but 10 other players, three of them active. Curry might not be the greatest of all time, but he has a case for most entertaining.
“He’s been unreal,” Embiid said after the loss.
The MVP crowd favors history, which why explains the focus on the big men. Take Embiid. Only five players in NBA history have ever finished a season averaging more than his 44.0 points per 100 possessions. Only two of those players did so while averaging 15-plus rebounds per 100 possessions, and both won MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo did it twice, Russell Westbrook once). If there was an easy way to quantify Embiid’s defensive contributions, they would be no less historic.
The two biggest arguments against Embiid are both likely to be deal-breakers. Even if he plays in each of the last seven games on the schedule, he’ll end up having missed 27% of the season. In normal years, you could make an argument that 75% of Embiid is better than 100% of any other center. But that brings us to the second argument against him.
Pretty much any way you slice the numbers, Jokic has been Embiid’s equal. The Denver big man entered Tuesday averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game. He ranks in the NBA’s top 15 in each of those categories, and ahead of Embiid in two of the three. If there was any doubt about Jokic’s impact, they should be gone now that he’s led the Nuggets to a 9-2 record since they lost Jamal Murray for the season.
However much you like Embiid, however strong of a case you can make that you would rather have him at center in a seven-game series, you simply can’t ignore the fact that he has played 800 fewer minutes than Jokic. That’s the equivalent of six NBA games. The MVP is a regular-season award, and minutes matter in the regular season.
But Curry’s performance has been no less historic. If he plays in each of the Warriors’ last seven games and maintains his season averages, he will finish the year just 67 three-pointers shy of his own single-season record. He will do this in a year in which the schedule was 10 games shorter, which will leave him having played in seven fewer games than he did in the 2015-16 season. His current pace of 5.2 three-point makes per game would be the best of all time (he also owns the next two spots).
You want to talk historic efficiency? Curry is on pace to become just the second player to finish a season with an effective field-goal percentage of .600-plus while averaging at least 20 attempts per game. More impressive is the fact that he was also the first. He ranks first in the league in scoring at 31.4 points per game. He ranks 15th with a .427 three-point percentage despite averaging nearly twice as many attempts as anybody in front of him (Joe Harris’ 6.4 are the closest to Curry’s 12.3 per game). He is the league’s seventh-best foul shooter.
“I think he’s on a historic run right now,” Sixers guard George Hill said. “He’s making tough shots from everywhere on the floor. He’s playing at that All-Star, MVP-caliber level that he’s been playing at many years ago.”
Really, though, Curry’s case is best exemplified by games like the one he dropped on the Sixers. Starting alongside him that night where Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, and Kent Bazemore. Take Curry away, and that’s a team with a top-five lottery pick. You saw it last season, when the Warriors finished with a league-worst .231 winning percentage. The only substantive change has been the return of Curry, who appeared in just five of the Warriors’ 65 games in 2019-20. Green missed 22, but Golden State was 10-33 in the ones that he started.
Now, at 33-32, the Warriors are in the hunt for a playoff spot with two weeks left in the regular season. Would they be there if you swapped out Curry for Jokic or Embiid? At the very least, it is a question that MVP voters should carefully consider.