By Jason Levine
The NBA Most Valuable Player Award in recent years has often gone to the most compelling stat line rather than the most valuable player. Just four years ago, Russell Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double, captivating the voters en route to his first and only MVP Award. He was voted MVP despite having an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) barely above league average and ranking fifth in win shares in the league. This year, the most captivating stat line appears to be that of Nikola Jokic, who is averaging numbers never seen by a center. In fact, according to StatMuse, only two players since 1950 have ever matched Jokic’s averages of 25+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 8+ assists.
However, is he truly the most valuable player? With his recent mesmerizing performances, Steph Curry has launched himself right to the forefront of the debate, and many NBA superstars agree — most notably LeBron James. In the press conference after his final regular-season game, James said, “We get caught up in the records sometimes … instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.” Even though the Golden State Warriors have not won as many games as the Denver Nuggets, and Curry lacked the gaudy assist and rebound numbers of the current presumptive front-runner, Curry has actually been more valuable to his team than Jokic has been to the Nuggets.
The easiest way to see Curry’s value to the Warriors is simply by looking at their performance in the eight games he missed this season. LeBron put it best: “If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at?” Well, the Warriors went 2-7 without Curry in the lineup against a roughly league-average schedule (52.3 opponent win percentage). Their win percentage in those games, 22.2, would rank dead last in the NBA this year. Furthermore, when comparing the Warriors this year and last, Curry’s impact cannot be overstated. Last year, with a very similar roster, the Warriors finished 14-46 without Curry in the lineup. This year, with Curry in the lineup, the Warriors are 37-26, a 58.7 win percentage that would be good for fifth in the Western Basketball Conference. Without Curry, it is safe to say we would not be looking at a playoff team.
Jokic, to his credit, has not missed any games this year, which makes that kind of analysis impossible for him. However, we can look at the impact on their respective teams when both players are on the court. While Jokic does have a slightly higher impact on offensive eFG%, he actually has a much lower impact on net eFG%. His .7% increase on net eFG% is significantly lower than Curry’s 5.4% increase. A lot of this stems from his negative impact on the defensive end at a premium defensive position. Teams have an eFG% that is 4.9% higher with Jokic on the court. While on/off splits are seen as a noisy statistic due to starters competing mostly against other starters instead of the reserves, second spectrum opponents are shooting 66.2% at the rim with Jokic as the primary defender — second worst among starting centers. His poor rim defending is a clear depiction of his negative impact on that end of the floor. For all of the critiques of Curry’s defense over the years, this year opponents have actually had a lower eFG% with Curry on the floor. Additionally, in those eight games Curry missed, opponents had an eFG% that was 6% higher than in the games with him in the lineup.
Curry For the Team
The areas in which Jokic seemingly has a statistical advantage over Curry are rebounding and assists. However, are these statistics more valuable to his team? As a rebounder, Jokic ranks outside of the top ten for starting centers in offensive, defensive, and total rebounding percentage. So while his rebounding numbers are superior to Curry’s, they are unremarkable when he is starting center. Curry’s 7.7 rebounding percentage, on the other hand, ranks sixth among starting point guards. Moreover, the Warriors have a net rebounding percentage 5.9% higher with Curry on the floor, compared to the 1.6% increase the Nuggets have with Jokic on the floor. So even though Curry’s raw rebounding numbers are lower, they are arguably more valuable to his team than Jokic’s.
Despite Jokic’s assists numbers being higher, Curry’s presence improves his teammates’ performance. With Curry on the floor, the four teammates he shares the court with the most have a weighted eFG% that is 3.55% higher. Jokic’s four most prevalent teammates only gain a 3.21% increase with him on the court. Curry’s greater impact can largely be attributed to the defensive attention he attracts. In a modern NBA that emphasizes court spacing, no one has more pull as a shooter than Curry. He leads the league in three-pointers attempted twenty-five or more feet from the basket, and he connects on them at an impressive 44.4% clip, which would rank eighth for the entire league. He leverages his pull on the defense with his impressive passing in his own right, ranking in the league’s top thirty in assists, to have a greater impact on his teammates despite slightly lower assist numbers.
As LeBron stated, “I don’t know [what] else … you’re looking for [in] an MVP.” Jokic may have a more unique stat line than Curry, but it is clear he is not the more valuable of the two players. The advanced metrics agree that Curry’s on-court impact for the Warriors is greater than Jokic’s impact on the Nuggets. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which calculates the impact players have on the floor, estimates that Curry has added 19.05 wins to the Warriors, 2.5 more than the next highest, and three more wins than Jokic, despite missing nine games. By looking at every facet of the game, it is clear why. Curry is the better scorer of the two, leading the league in scoring. The statistics where Jokic has an advantage over Curry appear superficial and don’t necessarily provide more value to the Nuggets the way Curry does to the Warriors in the same areas. In two other key areas that impact their MVP cases, Curry has a distinct advantage. His usage rate is higher, meaning he directly affects the outcome of more possessions than Jokic. He is also the more clutch of the two. In the last five minutes of games separated by less than five points, Curry’s true shooting percentage is 6% higher than Jokic’s.
Curry Beyond the Stats
Curry should be the MVP because, in almost every facet of the game, he provides more value to his team than Jokic. If the voters still need a compelling part of Curry’s stat line to seal his candidacy, they can look to his three-pointers — which, at 5.3 per game, would be the most in a season — and the fact that he is the oldest scoring champion ever not named Michael Jordan.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.