Let me start by saying this: I love Steph Curry in a deep, profound basketball way – my absolute favorite basketball play is a heat-check three pointer in front of a loud home crowd, and that play is essentially the essence of Steph. I would not be upset if he won the MVP this year. And yet…
Maybe it’s my argumentative nature, but I’m uncomfortable with how quickly the consensus has built in favor of Curry over James Harden, especially after a season of hearing that the race would come down to the wire and be too close to call. Perhaps for many, the Warriors’ final numbers wound up being so eye-popping that Curry’s case was impossible to deny: 67 wins, the most since 2007, and a net rating of 11.4, more than 4 full points ahead of the second-place Clippers.
As far as I can see, though, nothing happened in the last two weeks of the season that settled the Curry/Harden debate decisively. If anything, the Rockets’ surge to the crucial second seed, even as Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas were lost to major injuries (and Dwight Howard skipped half of every back-to-back), was the biggest storyline between the two favorites. Both James Harden and Stephen Curry remained their dominant selves down to the wire.
First, the obligatory questions about what the MVP means have to be addressed, if quickly. The best-player-on-the-best-team is reductive, and still does a disservice to Stephen Curry (that’s Kevin Pelton’s ESPN Insider column about Steph). No one has a handle on which player is more indespensible than another, but I personally believe that Harden’s value to the Rockets – his contributions to a team’s performance relative to other elements – is more tangible than Steph’s to the Warriors.
So let’s start with those injuries. As we go through the numbers, remember that the Rockets didn’t just make the playoffs, they finished with the best record of any team in the West besides the Warriors, and they did it in a year when most expected them to either hold steady or regress this year – even before any injuries occurred. The Warriors’ starting lineup entering the year (Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Green-Bogut) played a total of 385 games. The Rockets’ starters (Beverley-Harden-Ariza-Jones-Howard) totaled 293, more than a full season’s worth of games less.
The Warriors experienced exactly one major injury to a rotation player this year, and that was David Lee’s hamstring injury prior to the season tipping off. His absence turned into a boon for the Warriors, as it allowed Steve Kerr to slot Draymond Green into the starting lineup, where he became a contender for Defensive Player of the Year. To repeat: the one serious injury the Warriors experienced didn’t hinder their success at all. The best team in any given sport is very frequently the healthiest team among an established group of elites.
Dwight Howard reminded everyone of how good he can be this week, but it was striking precisely because he was so rarely that player even in the 41 regular season games he played. I could go on about Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley, but I won’t.
Let’s go back to Steve Kerr, who finished second in Coach of the Year voting. He did a masterful job with the Warriors, introducing a more complex offense and smarter rotations. Everyone would agree that he was a demonstrable factor in the Warriors’ improvement this year.
That is not to say that Kerr’s success diminishes Steph’s achievements. However, Rockets Coach Kevin McHale, who did oversee a very good defense, is not part of the motion offense revolution that has been associated with well-coached teams this year. The Rockets run pick-and-rolls and isolations, and that’s about it. They get away with it because they have James Harden. When Harden is off the floor, the Rockets can score in bunches as long as their fast-break bench rabbits, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith (both midseason acquisitions), can create turnovers. In the half court, the Rockets were hopeless without Harden in the regular season.