“I say that not to demean the award,” Steph Curry said earlier this week, after noting that the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award, which celebrated its 50th birthday this month, is probably “way down the list” of things that matter in a Finals series. He left that thought dangling, however, opting to pivot in deference to the legends who’ve cemented their legacies with a trophy that all but says: At the very pinnacle of basketball, you stood above the rest. Curry, as you may have heard, has never won a Finals MVP award. It is the missing piece in his trophy cabinet—the only remaining league honor that Curry could conceivably win but hasn’t yet. With two-time Finals MVP winner Kevin Durant’s health uncertain entering the Warriors’ series against the Raptors, this appears to be Curry’s latest, greatest chance. As archivists and mythmakers, us media members have appeared ready to annoint Curry ever since Golden State completed its sweep of Portland nearly two weeks ago.
Imagine the media coverage Thanos would have gotten, on the verge of landing his final Infinity Stone, if he were a lovable, cherubic overlord, and you’ll come close to understanding what a Finals MVP would seemingly do for Curry’s legacy. Steph has all the anecdotal evidence in the world to assert his greatness, but he still has to navigate through a certain sports paradigm that is beholden to a shorthand, checklist-based measurement system that makes career accolades and milestones the ultimate measuring unit for the individual athlete. From a certain perspective, taking home the Bill Russell trophy can seem like the only thing he has left to prove, but to whom is he proving that?
”I understand that’s the conversation, and I like that conversation because it means I’ve been here plenty of times and we’re still winning,” Curry told NBA TV on Wednesday. “Honestly, I know that would be an amazing accomplishment. The way that I play, the energy that I give on the court—every playoff game that I’ve played, every Finals I’ve played is to win the basketball game, however you get that done. For us to win championships, I know I have to be playing at a very high level. Whether that means a Finals MVP or not, I’ll let that kind of work itself out. In terms of chasing rings and banners, that’s the first and foremost. You can’t cheat the game that way.”
In one sense, the award was never meant for a player like Curry. As my colleague Jonathan Tjarks once noted, in the past seven seasons, the Finals MVP has either gone to LeBron James or the player who best defended him. For nearly the entire decade, the award has been directly tied to LeBron’s position as the best player in the world. Over the past two years, Kevin Durant has punctuated Golden State’s championship runs with monolithic individual greatness, at levels that rival the very best the game has ever seen. Durant has had the final word over Curry, and his soloistic style of play reinforces a notion that basketball, at its very zenith, is about one person’s capacity for transcendence. In the past four Finals, the Warriors faced LeBron, who, year after year, shouldered the burden of taking the Cavaliers to the championship round as the world’s best player. This year, the Warriors will encounter new blood at the top, but the story remains similar. The Raptors have made it to the summit on the back of Kawhi Leonard, who is having one of the best individual postseason runs in history (and is having his name thrown into the discussion of “world’s best”). There is a motif here, one the Warriors decided they had to adopt to secure their dynastic run in acquiring Durant back in the summer of 2016. KD, LeBron, Kawhi—these are players who bypass the limitations of their team when the system breaks down. If the postseason is a war of attrition, having players capable of such rugged individualism is paramount.
Curry is not like those three. He is system personified; a player who, even at his most spectacular, reaches that level by establishing order and collaboration from those around him, even if it looks like chaos to the opposition. His impact on the game produces broken numbers. In a league where pet moves are often used over and over like a battering ram, Curry’s tricks are diffuse. He can hit 3s off the dribble, off the catch, off a sidestep, off a screen, and off balance over a 7-footer. From anywhere. He runs in circles and zags, dragging defenders along with him, like he were a gravitized ball of trash from Katamari Damacy—all in the effort to create open opportunities for others. He sets pindowns for Klay Thompson and back screens for Durant. The points per screen assist he generated for the Warriors in the regular season (2.32) is nearly identical to that of Rudy Gobert, the most prolific screen assister in the NBA by a mile. He warps the dimensions of the floor and has forever warped our usage of the word warp. (Between the analytical connotations and the Star Trek–y deep-space exploration that is Steph’s offensive game, the most perfect verb in the Curryverse has also become the most hackneyed.)
Curry’s effect on the court is true basketball hegemony, and it’s no surprise how quickly the discourse shifted when the Warriors steamrollered opponents even in Durant’s absence. As the Blazers were bludgeoned by an effectively four-year-old version of the Warriors’ offensive attack, it became all too easy to grow wistful for those salad days of revolution. They were the jump-shooting team that proved Charles Barkley wrong. They were the team that transformed small ball from bug to essential feature. Their most devastating quirk might have been their twin-headed pick-and-roll, which had both the handler and the screener in prime playmaking position. They were lightning in a bottle. Golden State had essentially unmoored a time capsule; it was as if nothing had ever changed. But so much had. Their 2016 Finals loss was a trauma that forced a more conventional annex to the structure the team had already built. Durant was a safeguard against a mobilizing league; the Warriors’ toughest opponents still aren’t quite at their level, but they’re close. For the first time in years, Golden State faces a degree of uncertainty; does it have enough to easily overcome the Raptors should it be without Durant for the series?
In the meantime, there is still Steph. And while the elusive Finals MVP would give him a 10-year résumé as strong as any in league history, there is a part of me that wonders whether part of his legacy could be eschewing the award entirely. Draymond Green is playing the best basketball of his career, especially after being given more responsibilities in Durant’s absence. He’s always been the league’s premier multipositional disruptor, but the vintage pick-and-roll rapport with Curry has turned him into an ideal two-way big man in these playoffs. Green has the third-best odds of winning Finals MVP; should he win it, he’d be the second defensive specialist to win the award for the Warriors in five years. It’d be hard not to trace that back to Curry, whose unique skills (and willingness to use them in myriad ways) creates avenues for unlikelier heroes to emerge. With Curry, there will always be a steady baseline on offense because there will always be someone open, and there will always be a historically great shooter on the floor. That stability allows for the less obvious aspects of Warriors basketball—like its defensive geniuses—to take center stage. It’s no small feat, given how difficult it can be for the general public to recognize great defense. But like everything else that Curry brings into his orbit, it becomes an essential part of the whole. In that sense, Andre Iguodala’s Finals MVP is also one of Steph’s great accomplishments—the equivalent of his fabled scoreless game at Davidson in 2008, in which his team won by 30 anyway.
“Steph realized Andre’s value in that series,” Andrew Bogut told The Mercury News earlier this week. “I’ve never seen Steph hating on a teammate for getting an award. He’s still a two-time MVP. He’s won multiple championships. He’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest to play the game. I think he sees the bigger picture. Our league is competitive individually sometimes. But Steph is not one of those guys. He more wants to kill the guy that is guarding him. He doesn’t want to compete with somebody on his own team.”
With all the noise of Durant’s impending free agency hovering over the Warriors’ season, the Finals MVP discourse isn’t just about a highly anticipated notch to be carved into Curry’s belt. It is the conduit into observing how the biggest tension Curry has faced in the Warriors’ dynastic era will get resolved. Perhaps this Finals series will serve as a referendum on what these Warriors are meant to represent—joy? revolution? unrepentant winning?—and the epitaph that we’ll engrave once the era is finally over. It’s not the award that matters as much as the assertion, in one way or another, that he truly is the most valuable player.