This article is a part of the Take Notice Column. This column serves to bring the attention of the reader to a new, unique, and / or radical point of view from the author. To view other Take Notice pieces, click here.
Let me preface this article by saying, STEPHEN CURRY ABSOLUTELY DESERVED THE 2015-16 MVP. It is not a debate at all. Curry had one of the best individual seasons in NBA history (including shattering the record for most three pointers made with 402), and the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games. He deserved the MVP, and he deserved the it unanimously.
However, as is tradition every year in early May when the NBA is announced, people question the meaning of the award – is it supposed to go to the best player, or the most valuable player? The player with the best individual numbers, or the player who means the most to their team?
Under the assumption that the award were handed out based on the latter measure, I don’t believe Curry would have had the most compelling case. To me, that would go to LeBron James, who is the absolute focal point of everything his Cavaliers do on both ends of the floor.
So, what constitutes value? There obviously is no easy answer, but most people make their case for a player’s “value” by talking about the effect on their team if that player were to be removed. In the past, there was no actual evidence of what would happen, so it was mostly conjecture on the part of individuals arguing for their favorite player.
However, with the increased exposure of advanced stats and lineup data, better cases can be made for the value of players.
According to Basketball Reference, the Warriors and Cavaliers were nearly even statistically when Curry and James were off the court, respectively. The Warriors’ net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) with Curry on the bench this season was -4.3, and the Cavs’ net rating with James on the bench was -4.8 These net ratings are about equivalent to that of the average 30-win team, so the Warriors and Cavaliers were both lottery teams with their stars on the bench.
Meanwhile, in the 2709 minutes James played this season, the Cavaliers’ net rating was +11.7, an elite number that would be the best mark in the league. The Warriors’ net rating, on the other hand, skied to an otherworldly +17.9 when Curry was on the floor this season.
So wait, the Cavs and Warriors were about the same with their stars on the bench, but the Warriors are 6 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the court than the Cavs are with LeBron. Wouldn’t that make Curry more valuable?
On the surface, yes it would. However, the data goes deeper than that.
Many of the Warriors’ most used lineups that did not include Curry also did not include their next best players, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. As a matter of fact, according to NBA.com, their four most prevalent non-Curry lineups also did not include Green and Thompson. The worst of those lineups included Leandro Barbosa, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Festus Ezeli, and Marreese Speights, and had a -7.8 net rating in 53 minutes this season.
However, when Green and Thompson were in the game with Curry on the bench, the Warriors outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions in 543 minutes, according to NBAWowy.com. That’s pretty good- It’s so good, only the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs beat that mark for a full season.
And when the Warriors’ starters (Green, Thompson, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes) were in the game with one of their bench players? Their net rating improved to +11.6, including their defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions) dropping to a stifling 95, which would be the best in the league.
Obviously, Curry is an incredible player, but I believe he makes an already-great team legendary. They would still win 50+ games if they had the exact same roster without Curry. And we saw what happened when they lost Curry – they *only* went 4-2 in games Curry missed this postseason, plus 2-0 in the games he was hurt and could not finish (Games 1 and 4 vs. Houston).
James’ Cavs, on the other hand, were flat-out bad by any measure when he was not in the game. Unlike the Warriors, the Cavaliers most-used lineups without James largely included their key players. Kyrie Irving was included in the four most-used, non-James lineups, and Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were included in three of those four.
Of those four lineups, only one of them (Irving, Love, Thompson, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert) had a positive net rating, outscoring opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions. Those other three lineups? They averaged a net rating of -9.1, which was worse than every team in the league except the 76ers and Lakers.
But that’s just a few lineups, right? Well, in 249 minutes with Love and Irving on the floor and James on the bench, the Cavaliers’ net rating was -3.3. This is better than the overall -4.8 the Cavs posted with James on the bench, but you would think two All-Stars would provide the Cavaliers’ with a better contribution while their alpha dog was resting.
When the Cavaliers’ starters (Irving, Love, Thompson, and Smith) played without James, the results were mind boggling – they were outscored by 23.4 points per 100 possessions! While small sample size caveats apply, that is an absolutely horrid mark.
These numbers obviously aren’t the end-all, be-all of player value, but they do paint a good picture of the effect Curry and James each have on their teams. They are both incredible singular talents, and they obviously both make their teams much better.
With that said, I believe the Cavaliers’ need James more than the Warriors need Curry, as evidenced by the steeper drop-off the Cavaliers face when James leaves his running mates and heads to the bench. And I’m not the only person who feels this way. James is truly the most valuable player in the league, has been for nearly a decade, and will be for the foreseeable future.