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Steph Curry Is Slumping, but He Still Might Be the Early MVP Favorite

The new 3-point king’s shot has been off the mark for almost a month, yet even a bad Steph may have a better MVP case than anyone else

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Warriors have enjoyed just about the best half-season imaginable—at least, for any season in which they don’t break the wins record. A team widely predicted to be a fringe contender instead holds the NBA’s best net rating (plus-8.5) and second-best record (30-10) heading into its 41st game Thursday against Milwaukee. Klay Thompson is back, and the role players are all fitting in. Draymond Green is the favorite to win his second Defensive Player of the Year award.

The one hiccup has come from the most surprising place: Stephen Curry. The NBA’s new 3-point king has slumped since a 4-for-21 showing against the Suns on November 30, with an especially poor showing last week, when he shot a combined 8-for-41 against the Heat and Mavericks. Yet even a compromised Curry represents one of the NBA’s most potent offensive threats.

As the Warriors reach the halfway mark, these are two incongruous yet true statements: First, Curry is suffering through his worst offensive season since becoming an All-Star eight years ago; and second, Curry might be the MVP anyway.

Let’s start with the slump, because just about every indicator says that Curry’s offensive production has ebbed to its lowest point since 2012-13, his last season before making his first All-Star and All-NBA teams. (We’ll ignore the five games he played in an injury-plagued 2019-20 campaign, because there’s not enough sample there to analyze.)

Curry’s true shooting percentage has dipped below 60 percent for the first time since 2012-13. His PER is just 22.1, also the lowest since 2012-13. His advanced plus-minus stats on offense—which blend box score statistics with team performance to measure overall impact—are similarly slumped.

Steph Curry’s Advanced Offensive Stats

Statistic Impact Per 100 Possessions Relative to Curry's Past
Statistic Impact Per 100 Possessions Relative to Curry's Past
RAPTOR +6.4 Worst since 2012-13
Estimated Plus-Minus +5.9 Worst since 2012-13

Curry’s 3-point struggles have received the most attention, as his current 38.4 percent mark would easily be the lowest in a season in his career—but the bigger problem is actually his 2-point performance. Based on Second Spectrum tracking, which compares a player’s actual eFG% to his expected eFG% based on factors like shot location and defender distance, Curry is still making many more 3s than expected. His diet of 3-point shots is one of the toughest in the league, with few corner 3s and open looks, so 38.4 percent, on a career-high number of attempts, is still a tremendous mark.

But by that same analysis, Curry is making fewer 2-pointers this season than we’d expect.

Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data

Like the rest of the league, Curry is drawing fewer fouls than in recent seasons, which might be contributing to his struggles from 2-point range. Indeed, his finishing rate at the rim has fallen a smidge, from the mid-60 percent range to just 60 this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But his struggles extend beyond the paint: Curry is less accurate this season from every distance, and it is actually his midrange jumper that has abandoned him the most so far.

Cleaning the Glass

Curry will probably break out of his swoon soon. After all, his slump has barely lasted a month, and even that stretch includes such heaters like his 46-point outing against the Grizzlies on December 23. It’s worth remembering that essentially every player is streaky—especially one as reliant on 3-pointers as Curry. At the end of December, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton found that Curry was the NBA’s second-most inconsistent player of the early season.

Through his past 15 games, Curry is shooting just 35 percent on 3s, equivalent to the league average this season. But he has fallen that far numerous times throughout his career—and even lower. During a swoon in February and March 2017, his 3-point percentage dropped below 30 percent for a 15-game stretch. That didn’t stop Curry from spearheading perhaps the most potent attack in league history, as the Warriors rampaged to a 16-1 playoff record and a title. He has always rebounded from these dips just fine.

Yet Curry doesn’t even need to bounce back all the way to his prime shooting numbers to win MVP. Let’s start by adding a column to that earlier chart, to show how Curry is faring relative not only to his own past, but to the rest of the league this season.

Steph Curry’s Advanced Offensive Stats (With NBA Rank)

Statistic Impact Per 100 Possessions Relative to Curry's Past NBA Rank
Statistic Impact Per 100 Possessions Relative to Curry's Past NBA Rank
RAPTOR +6.4 Worst since 2012-13 3rd (tie)
Estimated Plus-Minus +5.9 Worst since 2012-13 5th

Even as the least productive version of himself, Curry is still a top-five offensive force in the league, with a rare combination of volume and efficiency. He is one of just seven players this season with at least a 30 percent usage rate and 59 percent true shooting; all seven are All-Star locks.

High-Volume, High-Efficiency Scorers

Player USG% TS%
Player USG% TS%
Nikola Jokic 32.3% 63.6%
LeBron James 30.5% 63.0%
Kevin Durant 31.4% 62.1%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 34.8% 61.6%
Zach LaVine 30.1% 61.0%
Joel Embiid 34.7% 59.7%
Steph Curry 32.6% 59.0%

Curry’s previous slump, half a decade ago, offers another lesson for the current campaign. At one point during a March 2017 game, on-court microphones captured Steve Kerr showing his star guard’s poor shooting numbers alongside a positive plus-minus figure. “It’s not always tied together,” Kerr said. “You’re doing great stuff out there. The tempo is so different when you’re out there. Everything you generate for us is so positive. It shows up here, not always there.”

The same is true now: Even a slumping Curry completely changes the tenor of a game. Curry’s on/off differential is plus-21.9 points per 100 possessions, according to CtG—the second-best mark in the league, after Nikola Jokic’s plus-23.2. And according to NBA Shot Charts’ RAPM, which adjusts on/off ratings based on the identity of teammates and opponents, Curry is by far the league’s most impactful player this season.

In part, that’s because he’s compensated for worse shooting efficiency with stronger defense than is typical. The advanced metric EPM (estimated plus-minus) says this is the best defensive season of Curry’s career, and Golden State is allowing 9.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court than when he’s off, the best mark on the team, according to CtG.

Yet Curry’s greatest impact remains on the offensive end, where mere mortal shooting numbers cannot mask his effect on the rest of the team. The Warriors play faster with Curry, and they generate better looks with his shooting gravity warping defenses: Every single Warrior has a better shot profile when Curry’s on the floor, according to analysis of Second Spectrum data.

Steph Curry’s Impact on Teammates

Shooter Shots With Curry Shot Quality With Curry Shot Quality Without Curry Difference
Shooter Shots With Curry Shot Quality With Curry Shot Quality Without Curry Difference
Andrew Wiggins 359 54.0% 48.1% +5.9%
Jordan Poole 214 55.9% 51.6% +4.3%
Otto Porter Jr. 158 53.3% 52.0% +1.3%
Draymond Green 153 61.2% 54.2% +7.0%
Kevon Looney 150 63.9% 62.7% +1.2%
Gary Payton II 117 63.9% 63.6% +0.3%
Nemanja Bjelica 109 56.5% 51.1% +5.5%
Damion Lee 105 56.9% 50.4% +6.5%
Juan Toscano-Anderson 76 65.6% 57.0% +8.7%
Andre Iguodala 52 60.1% 56.7% +3.4%
Jonathan Kuminga 47 56.4% 55.9% +0.5%
Chris Chiozza 26 51.5% 48.7% +2.7%
Klay Thompson 25 47.5% 46.2% +1.3%
Moses Moody 12 57.1% 55.5% +1.6%
Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data

All of those indicators suggest that Curry has the best case to win MVP, at least based on how the electorate tends to vote. A month ago, Curry was the runaway winner of ESPN’s MVP straw poll, winning 94 of 100 first-place votes, and even after his slump’s worsened, he remains the odds-on favorite to win the award, according to the FanDuel sportsbook.

He wouldn’t be the first athlete to win his sport’s highest individual honor while playing at his lowest level. In 2014, for instance, just as Curry was rounding into All-Star form, the Angels’ Mike Trout suffered what is still his worst-ever healthy season at the plate, with the highest strikeout rate and lowest on-base percentage, and his worst season in the field. Yet even the worst version of Trout was still the most valuable player in baseball: He didn’t just win his first MVP award that season, but was the unanimous winner as the best player on his league’s top-seeded team.

Trout benefited that season from a relatively weak field of American League MVP candidates. Curry will have no such luck with Jokic, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James all reaching similar statistical heights through the season’s first half. But compared to his competitors, Curry gains important intangible bonuses from his team’s performance and the narrative of its season—and from its most indelible highlight thus far, when Curry broke the career 3-point record in Madison Square Garden.

Despite playing even more effectively than he did in his MVP-winning 2020-21 campaign, Jokic probably cannot overcome all of those Curry advantages as long as his injury-ravaged Nuggets are stuck around .500. The others are all either well behind Curry statistically or in the standings, or both. And that’s with Curry mired in a slump. Imagine how much momentum he’ll gain when—not if—he returns to form, with a third MVP trophy, and his first in six years, squarely in his sights.