Here’s what they don’t tell you in NBA Fan Academy: The Most Valuable Player award is not meant for the best player in the NBA. It’s not meant for the player who had the best season. It’s not even meant for the player who is the most valuable to his team or to the league.
Pay attention to the game long enough, and you’ll figure out that the MVP more often goes to the player whose season was the most successful and – this is important – whose story was the most compelling in the eyes of the collective basketball media.
So if you’re wondering how Shaquille O’Neal has only one MVP trophy when he was the league’s most dominant force for the better part of a decade, or how Kobe Bryant has just one MVP when he was the league’s most lethal scorer for the better part of a decade, or how Tim Duncan has only two, or how Michael Jordan has only five MVPs…that’s why.
While a player can’t be considered for MVP without having an abundance of talent and making a big impact on the league, winning MVP is about more than talent and impact. An MVP needs the stats, the victories, the star power, and the narrative. And even though the award technically represents one season of work, a winner’s past is just as important as his present. Last season is the prologue; the chapter that sets up this season’s tale of redemption, or maturity, or coming of age.
Which brings us to the 2014-15 NBA season.
The two best players in the sport, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, winners of five of the last six MVP trophies (Derrick Rose has the other one), are not making particularly strong MVP cases so far this season.
LeBron has missed time with injuries, and his Cleveland Cavaliers are battling for a top-four playoff seed in the weak Eastern Conference. Durant has also missed time with injuries, and his Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for a playoff spot, period, in the West.
LeBron has an MVP-worthy story – the prodigal son returns to bring long-awaited glory to his suffering hometown – but may not be able to overcome the adjustment period of the new-look Cavs getting used to each other. Durant, after last season’s coming-of-age coronation as officially elite, probably wouldn’t win this year anyway as no new narrative has emerged for him. He still may be the best scorer on the planet, but if voting for him seems boring or too easy, KD’s not getting that trophy at the end of the season.
With LeBron and Durant sliding slightly to the side, a sliver of spotlight has opened for a new crew of stars and MVP candidates: James Harden, Damian Lillard, Marc Gasol, and Jeff Teague among them.
And then there’s the man who should be considered this year’s MVP frontrunner: Stephen Curry.
The sixth-year point guard for the Golden State Warriors is the face of arguably the best team in the league. At press time, the Warriors had just reeled off a 19-game home win streak, were sitting on top of the Western Conference, and were neck-and-neck with Teague’s Atlanta Hawks for the best record in the NBA.
Curry, at press time, was averaging over 22 points, eight assists, and two steals per game. He ranked in the league’s top 10 in scoring, and in the top five in assists, three-pointers made, free-throw percentage, and Player Efficiency Rating. He was leading the league in steals.
The numbers are there. The victories are there. But for Curry, his MVP candidacy didn’t become realistic until his story and his star power caught up to his stats and success.
The narrative for Curry is that 2014-15 is the year he made the leap from “rising star” to certified mainstream superstar.
A few weeks ago, voting for the NBA All-Star Game closed with Curry as the No. 1 vote-getter. Having received more than 1.5 million votes, Curry proved more popular than perennial leaders LeBron, Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard.
While the Warriors used to be a young squad with down-the-road championship aspirations, now they’re a legit title contender. They went from the best-kept secret on League Pass to a national TV regular, and Curry is at the forefront of that movement.
Curry is the better half of a backcourt – alongside Klay Thompson – that has the catchy (and marketable) “Splash Brothers” nickname. Curry is in heavy rotation in commercials for brands like State Farm, Degree, Muscle Milk, and ESPN. His signature sneaker, the Under Armour Curry One, is scheduled for release at Champs Sports this Friday, just in time for the All-Star Game.
Depending on the day or who you ask, Curry is either the NBA’s best shooter, its best ball-handler, or both. He is considered one of the league’s best clutch performers. Dating back to last season – which is, remember, crucial in this season’s MVP campaign – Curry has an impressive collection of game-winners and big shots on big stages.
A colleague of mine, a very knowledgeable basketball writer, recently decided his top three MVP candidates for 2014-15 are Curry, Teague, and Lillard. On the surface, it’s a trio with similar stories: Dynamic point guards, underrated and somewhat overlooked when they entered the league, now settling into the beginning of their respective primes and leading fresh contenders ready to take down the establishment.
But of the three, Curry is the only one with a real chance at MVP. Teague has been amazing, but his star power isn’t there yet; only household names win MVP. Lillard has star power – he is piling up endorsement deals like he’s piling up game-winners – but there’s not much different about his story this season than last season. (And Lillard will likely split MVP votes with teammate LaMarcus Aldridge.)
Everything about Curry this season exudes MVP readiness. Talent-wise, he may not be much better than he was last season, when he finished sixth in MVP voting. Story-wise, this season has a different feel.
Basketball’s kingmakers are ready to give Curry his first MVP. The public is ready to see him crowned MVP. And most importantly, Curry is ready to claim MVP.
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