No sooner than Stephen Curry slides his name into the NBA MVP conversation, the Warriors come upon a portion of the schedule that could make or break his chances.
Their next six opponents are all Eastern Conference teams, and none currently has a record above .500.
Their seventh opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, will be without seven-time All-Star Anthony Davis.
It’s time for the Warriors to get fat, if they have it in them. If they can’t find a three- or four-game win streak -- a feat not accomplished through their first 28 games -- during this stretch, that MVP trophy will start soaring out of Curry’s reach.
“In many ways, this next stretch is our chance to prove to people that we're more than just a 500 team,” coach Steve Kerr said after a 129-98 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night.
The Warriors, at 15-13, are sitting at .536, a rate at which an MVP candidacy withers and dies. Despite Curry’s excellence, at no point this season have they been three games over .500.
The vast majority of NBA MVP awards go to the best player on a team with one of the league’s top postseason seeds. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken the last two MVP awards, and both times the Bucks earned the No. 1 overall seed that comes with owning the NBA’s best record.
Not once since the NBA and ABA merger before 1976-77 season has the MVP award gone to a player on a sub-.500 team, and only once since 1982 has it gone to a player on a team that failed to win at least 58 percent of its games.
That was Russell Westbrook in 2017. And he put up historic numbers, averaging a triple-double, on an Oklahoma City team that finished 47-35, a .573 winning percentage.
If the Warriors win four of seven, they are at .543. Win five, they’re at .571. Win six, their record goes to 21-14, a .600 winning percentage that likely will attract attention.
Only two players, Moses Malone (twice) of the Rockets and Westbrook, were voted as winners on teams below .600.
Then there is the competition for the 2020-21 MVP.
LeBron James is, like Curry, an annual candidate, and his Lakers are defending champs and on pace to finish 54-18.
Joel Embiid is making a strong bid in Philadelphia, where the 76ers are on pace for a 46-26 record.
Did we mention Utah? The Jazz have not had an MVP since Karl Malone in 1999 and their 23-5 record is tops in the NBA. If they stay on a 59-13 pace, it would be impossible to ignore their roster, even though it’s a collective led by Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.
Curry is averaging 30.1 points per game, shooting 49.9 percent overall, 43.6 from distance and 93.3 from the line. He’s averaging 5.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds. These numbers are similar to those posted in 2015, when he won the first of his two MVP awards.
For the sake of any realistic chance of Curry having a case to win the MVP award, the Warriors need at least 44 wins. That’s the magic number for serious consideration. If he continues to produce at his current blistering pace and the Warriors finish the season at 44-28, a .611 winning percentage, it could open a spirited debate.
Such a record likely would put the Warriors in four- or five-seed territory. The Thunder were a No. 6 seed when Westbrook won the award, edging Rockets star James Harden.
A 44-28 record doesn’t make Curry a favorite, or even a likely MVP. But anything less makes a third MVP award the longest of shots.
Thus, the importance of this week. The Warriors go on the road Thursday to face Orlando, followed by Charlotte, New York and Indiana. Upon returning home next week, they face the Hornets on Feb. 26, followed by a trip to Los Angeles to battle the Lakers on Feb. 28.
Golden State concludes its first-half schedule with a brutal back-to-back, at Portland on Mar. 3 and at Phoenix the next night.
“We keep saying it over and over again: We’ve got to prove it,” Curry said.
“But we’re gaining confidence in terms of how we’re supposed to play on a nightly basis and have a good opportunity, honestly coming up. A good Miami team coming in. Go on the road, some tough Eastern Conference opponents but games that we feel like if we play the way we’re supposed to, we can match up with anybody. That’s the challenge ahead.”
That’s the quest for the Warriors, to utilize this stretch to build a level of team momentum they’ve yet to experience this season.
For only if they flourish can the Steph-for-MVP talk begin to sound rational.