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Steph Curry’s Uphill Battle for MVP

The Warriors star has been an unstoppable force on the court this season. But to win his third MVP award, he’ll have to overcome not only his competitors, but also his own missed time.

Steph Curry chewing on his mouthguard Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With just under three minutes to go in the Warriors’ Monday-night matchup against the Timberwolves, Steph Curry took an unfamiliar kind of heat-check shot. Curry’s scorchers typically from come beyond the 3-point line, serving as exclamation points that top off his exuberant performances. This time, though, he got a screen from Kevon Looney, but didn’t pull up from deep. Instead, Curry used an inside-out dribble that left Karl-Anthony Towns catatonic near the baseline, drove toward the basket, pulled up, and hit a fadeaway for a long 2. That Kobelike midrange jumper capped off his 38-point, seven-rebound, six-assist night and helped the Warriors notch a 116-108 win over Minnesota. The off-balance shot from that part of the court seemed fitting. Lately, it hasn’t mattered where and how Curry is taking shots—they’re all going in.

This season, Curry is making 51.3 percent of all his field goals. He’s also shooting exactly 50 percent from 3, while making more than five per game—the most in the NBA. And his bonkers 93.8 percentage from the line has bumped up his career average, making him the best career free throw shooter in league history. Take your 50-40-90 season and go home. Curry is single-handedly making 50-50-90 the next frontier.

This kind of trailblazing demands recognition. Curry’s transcendence has already been crowned twice by way of MVP awards in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons—the latter of which came after Curry recorded the seventh 50-40-90 season in league history. But greatness—even Curry’s level of greatness—can still be improved upon; this year, he’s done just that. When he’s been on the court, he’s been this season’s MVP.

The problem for Curry, though, is that he hasn’t been on the court as much as the other players in early-season contention for the award. He’s already missed 11 games with a groin injury, so even if he were to play in every game the rest of the way (which is unlikely), he’d hit only 71. Players who miss that many games rarely receive MVP consideration, though there is one example from recent league history: Allen Iverson in 2000-01. Iverson played in just 71 games that season, but he averaged more than 31 points and 4.6 assists per game. He ended up receiving 93 percent of the first-place votes, winning the award over the likes of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. Other players have won the award after playing fewer games in a season—the lowest total ever recorded in an MVP season without a lockout is 58, by Bill Walton in 1977-78 —but with the talent in the league today, that’s unlikely to ever happen again.

Still, could Steph play 70 games or fewer and win MVP? It’s a fascinating thought experiment, both because of the team Curry plays on and the precedent he’s set for himself. Curry shares the court with Kevin Durant, who is likely to steal some votes for himself at the end of the season. Also, for Curry to win, he’d have to do something above and beyond the highest bar he’s already set. Voter fatigue can be overcome, but it would take a lot to dissuade people from voting for a new darling like Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the resurgent Kawhi Leonard.

One point in Curry’s favor is that he’s essentially making history right before our eyes, combining sheer volume with exceptional efficiency. In the five games since he returned from injury, he’s averaged 31.4 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 51.8 from deep on over 11 attempts a game. He is chucking and making. And even cherry-picked stats have something larger to say about Curry’s importance to the Warriors. Golden State is 14-3 when Curry plays this season, and 5-6 (with some shouting matches between Durant and Draymond Green) when he’s out. He is the best and most important player on one of the most talented teams in NBA history. We don’t acknowledge that enough.

Even after winning two MVP awards and three championships, Curry is still changing his game. Think back to that midrange jumper against the Wolves. He’s shooting more from the 16-foot zone than he did last season and slightly less from 3 (3.7 percent less than last season). In the modern NBA, the midrange shot is increasingly considered taboo, but for Curry the change is a feature, not a bug. Curry is one of the few players in NBA history for whom every shot that comes out of his hands seems like a great decision. This season, that’s only been amplified. If the Warriors keep going in at this rate, picking him for MVP will be unavoidable.