For a while, Steph Curry was the frontrunner in the 2021-22 NBA MVP race. The Golden State Warriors were the clear-cut best team in the league, Curry was once again putting up ballistic numbers with video game efficiency, and everything was going his, and their way.
Since then, things have changed. The Dubs have lost six of their last 11 games, and along the way dropped their 1A spot — they now have the second-best record in the league, and the third-best garbage-time adjusted net rating. Curry, while still great, has hit something of a shooting slump — over his last 16 games, he’s shooting 39.7% from the field and 34% from three-point range, while also averaging just 5.6 assists to 3.6 turnovers per game.
He’s no longer the MVP favorite. He’s in the race, for sure, but certainly not at the top. In Basketball Reference’s MVP tracker, which looks at a player’s odds based on historical precedent, Curry is just eighth. He would certainly finish higher than that were voting held today, but the point remains: he’s no longer the top dog, and now just a person in the conversation.
So can he return to the peak of the mountain? To figure that out, let’s first assess his competition.
If the season ended today, and if I had a vote for MVP — a lot of ifs here, huh — it would be a different two-time MVP that would get my vote. After a slow start to the season, Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks — the defending champs — are finally off and running.
Prior to Wednesday’s games, the Bucks were still just the fifth seed in the East, but at 27-18 they’re only two games away from the top seed, and sporting the sixth-best net rating in the NBA. They’re on a trajectory to rise to the top.
And along the way, it’s been greatness as usual for the Greek Freak. His per game averages — 28.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 6.1 assists — are outrageous, as is his efficiency. His defense is still at an all-world level, and he’s the clear face of a title contender.
So what stands in his way? Antetokounmpo’s pair of MVPs are still relatively recent, as they both came in two of the last three seasons. There’s surely a little bit of voter fatigue there. Other than that, it’s hard to make a case against him — it’s just a matter of if anyone, including Curry, can pass him.
You can make a case just as easily for the defending MVP, who is 1B on my hypothetical ballot for what is, for the next few months, a hypothetical award. His per-game stats — 25.3 points, 13.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 35.9% shooting from deep — are even more impressive than Antetokounmpo’s, though his defense, while massively improved, is certainly not at the same level.
He’s top 10 in the league in points, rebounds, and assists per game, which is downright obscene. It’s not a stretch to say he is, once again, having one of the finest offensive seasons in NBA history.
But the case against him is a little easier to make. The Denver Nuggets are the sixth seed, which may not look much worse than the Bucks, but at 22-20, 11.5 games out of the top spot in the West, and carrying just the 14th-best net rating in the league, Denver doesn’t have the look out of a team whose best player will win MVP.
It’s hardly fair to Jokić that the biggest knock on his campaign is that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are injured, but history tells us that unless your name rhymes with muscle test book, you’re not winning MVP on an average team.
KD experienced a brief stint atop the MVP ladder in some people’s eyes, and I don’t really need to explain his case. Y’all watched him for three years on the Warriors. You know what he’s capable of, and he’s been doing it all this year for the Brooklyn Nets.
He’s also unfortunately injured, and unless his return gets fast-tracked, he’ll probably be taken out of the running for the award with the amount of time he’ll miss.
The dark horses
Those three — plus Curry — have been the clear four ahead of the pack this year. But we have nearly half a season left to play, and others can make runs.
Jimmy Butler has been on the outside looking in all year, but only just on the outside. If the Miami Heat find another gear in the final months, he could make a push, though his star shine probably isn’t bright enough.
If the Memphis Grizzlies keep taking names and kicking ass the way they currently are, Ja Morant is gonna see his name on some ballots. Same with Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks.
And if the Los Angeles Lakers figure things out in the second half of the season, do you really think LeBron James isn’t going to get serious love from MVP voters?
So where does that leave Steph?
Curry might not be the MVP frontrunner, but he’s in a pretty darn good position. He’s saving his tires behind the race leaders, just waiting to spring out and take the lead down the final stretch.
The Dubs still have 38 games remaining, and while Curry’s numbers have dropped a little, they’re still eye-popping: 26.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 38.4% from distance. With the three-point record and Klay Thompson’s return behind him, it’s reasonable to think that Curry will start to find his groove again, and start putting the ball in the basket at a historic clip once more.
That, coupled with Thompson’s return, could slingshot the Warriors back to the top of the standings, and while “best player on the best team” might be an overly reductive way to choose an MVP, it’s certainly one hell of a starting point.
If he gets back to his early season numbers, and the Dubs resume their dominance, he’ll return to the top of the pedestal with Antetkounmpo and Jokić. Once there, he’ll likely have the narrative in his favor: he hasn’t won the award nearly as recently as those two, and Golden State bouncing back from two straight seasons of missing the playoffs to be the top seed in the league would be a story that captures the hearts of voters. His “change the game” style will likely have some sway, as will his leadership and improved defense. And if you subscribe to the idea that the MVP should be the player who was the biggest story in the season — and many voters do — then Curry winning MVP in the year that he set the league’s all-time three-point record just makes sense.
Will all of that be enough to allow him to pass the leaders and retake first place by the final buzzer on game 82, and thus become the ninth player in history with a trio of those trophies on his shelf?
Here’s hoping we get to find out.