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Stephen Curry: From Most Valuable Player to Most Improved Player?

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Two

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 05: Commissioner Adam Silver presents Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors with the 2014-2015 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Trophy prior to the start of Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies at ORACLE Arena on May 5, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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Stephen Curry walked into the Warriors’ locker room in Cleveland clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy, squinting to keep the champagne from falling into his eyes. He was atop his sport – NBA champion and Most Valuable Player.

“We’ve got to celebrate this trophy,” Curry declared at Golden State’s championship parade a few days later, “like there’s no tomorrow.”

Of course, Curry did nothing of the sort.

He stayed hungry, worked hard and got even better.

Curry returns to Cleveland for tonight’s Cavaliers-Warriors game carrying MVP frontrunner status and the league’s most bizarre Most Improved Player case – maybe ever.

His points per game (23.8 to 29.9), 2-point percentage (52.8% to 57.8%), 3-point percentage (44.3% to 44.7%), rebounds per game (4.3 to 5.3) and steals per game (2.0 to 2.1) are all up from last season.

From MVP to MIP one year later – could it really happen?

“Yeah, why not?” said Golden State forward Draymond Green, who immediately answered his own question. “I mean, it’s weird.”

Yes, it is.

Just four players have received an MIP vote after winning MVP:

  • Bill Walton won MVP in 1978 then missed substantial time over the next several years, including three full seasons. He emerged as Sixth Man of the Year with the Celtics in 1986, also getting one MIP vote that year. He was a much better fit for the now-defunct Comeback Player of the Year, an award that caused confusion with MIP.
  • Karl Malone won MVP in 1997 and received an extremely curious MIP vote the next year. There’s no good reason to believe he improved significantly from age 33 to 34, let alone more than anyone else in the NBA.
  • Shaquille O’Neal, the 2000 MVP, drew a first-place MIP vote in 2005. He had the best field-goal percentage of his career to that point, 60.1%. But that was only slightly better than the 59.9% he shot in his second season, and the gain was due to becoming more selective than actual improvement. Shaq didn’t suddenly become better at age 32.
  • LeBron James – who won MVP in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 – received a second-place MIP vote from Michael Smith of Prime Ticket in 2014. Smith’s first- and third-place MIP votes in 2014? Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Yup, Smith mistakenly put his MVP picks on his MIP ballot.

I’d hardly be surprised if Malone’s and O’Neal’s votes were due to similar errors – or just voters honoring a player they liked. Before the NBA began releasing voter-by-voter ballots two years ago, there was far less accountability.

Curry, on the other hand, actually deserves consideration.

Despite a quicker trigger on 3-pointers, Curry is making them at a higher clip. He’s getting to the rim more, finishing better and drawing more fouls. He’s hitting the defensive glass harder, helping the Warriors transition to offense more quickly.

Curry has taken a couple small steps back. His defense isn’t quite as sharp, and he’s not facilitating as much. But in turn with hunting his own shot more often, Curry has lowered his turnover percentage. And individual offense is more important than individual defense, given a greater emphasis on team defense.

“He’s better,” Warriors acting coach Luke Walton said. “I don’t know how to put that on a scale, but he’s definitely playing at a higher level.

“I think that comes from gaining even more confidence from winning a championship and winning an MVP and then putting in the hard work along with that.”

This degree of improvement from a reigning MVP is unprecedented.

Curry has increased his PER from 28.0 last season to 31.7 this season. His jump of 3.7 from an MVP year is the most ever – trumping Larry Bird’s +2.3 after winning MVP in 1984.

Here’s the PER difference for every MVP from their MVP season to the following year:


MVPPERPER next seasonDifference
2015: Stephen Curry28.031.7+3.7
1984: Larry Bird24.226.5+2.3
1992: Michael Jordan27.729.7+2.0
1974: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar24.426.4+2.0
1999: Karl Malone25.627.1+1.5
1977: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar27.829.2+1.4
2005: Steve Nash22.023.3+1.3
1961: Bill Russell18.119.4+1.3
1963: Bill Russell18.219.3+1.1
2012: LeBron James30.731.6+0.9
1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar29.029.9+0.9
1986: Larry Bird25.626.4+0.8
1981: Julius Erving25.125.9+0.8
1956: Bob Pettit27.328.1+0.8
1994: Hakeem Olajuwon25.326.0+0.7
1976: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar27.227.8+0.6
2006: Steve Nash23.323.8+0.5
1979: Moses Malone23.724.1+0.4
1995: David Robinson29.129.4+0.3
2008: Kobe Bryant24.224.4+0.2
2003: Tim Duncan26.927.1+0.2
1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar25.325.5+0.2
2002: Tim Duncan27.026.9-0.1
1960: Wilt Chamberlain28.027.8-0.2
1989: Magic Johnson26.926.6-0.3
1969: Wes Unseld18.117.8-0.3
2000: Shaquille O’Neal30.630.2-0.4
2011: Derrick Rose23.523.0-0.5
2009: LeBron James31.731.1-0.6
1988: Michael Jordan31.731.1-0.6
1985: Larry Bird26.525.6-0.9
1964: Oscar Robertson27.626.7-0.9
1997: Karl Malone28.927.9-1.0
1970: Willis Reed20.319.3-1.0
2004: Kevin Garnett29.428.2-1.2
1962: Bill Russell19.418.2-1.2
1972: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar29.928.5-1.4
1990: Magic Johnson26.625.1-1.5
1973: Dave Cowens18.116.6-1.5
1996: Michael Jordan29.427.8-1.6
1982: Moses Malone26.825.1-1.7
1967: Wilt Chamberlain26.524.7-1.8
1966: Wilt Chamberlain28.326.5-1.8
2001: Allen Iverson24.021.9-2.1
1958: Bill Russell22.820.7-2.1
2014: Kevin Durant29.827.6-2.2
1965: Bill Russell19.517.3-2.2
2013: LeBron James31.629.3-2.3
1975: Bob McAdoo25.823.3-2.5
1968: Wilt Chamberlain24.721.9-2.8
2007: Dirk Nowitzki27.624.6-3.0
1993: Charles Barkley25.922.8-3.1
1957: Bob Cousy21.017.9-3.1
1983: Moses Malone25.121.8-3.3
2010: LeBron James31.127.3-3.8
1991: Michael Jordan31.627.7-3.9
1987: Magic Johnson27.023.1-3.9
1959: Bob Pettit28.223.7-4.5
1998: Michael Jordan25.2XX
1978: Bill Walton24.8XX

Two players – Bill Walton due to injury in 1978 and Michael Jordan due to retirement in 1998 – didn’t play the season after winning MVP.

Curry has gone from someone who had a great season to someone playing like an all-time great. Michael Jordan comparisons, at least offensively, are not out of line (even if Curry still falls short of that mighty standard).

Though a holistic view of Curry’s progress treats his MIP case favorably – even after the incredibly high bar he set for himself last season – voters often take a more simplistic view. Whose scoring average increased the most from the previous season? That question will send you in the direction of likely, though not necessarily deserving, MIP candidates.

Curry holds up reasonably well. His points-per-game increase of 6.1 ranks 12th in the NBA. Two players ahead of him, Paul George and Julius Randle, missed significant time last season due to injury, making their scoring bumps somewhat less telling.

Another factor that sets Curry apart: He started on a whole different level. Here are the 15 players who’ve increased their scoring averages most from last season, with the low end of the bar showing last season and the high end showing this season:


PlayerPPG 2015PPG 2016Diff.
Paul George8.824.0+15.1
C.J. McCollum6.820.4+13.6
Will Barton6.815.8+8.9
Julius Randle2.010.5+8.5
Allen Crabbe3.311.2+7.9
Kent Bazemore5.212.8+7.6
Gary Harris3.410.9+7.4
Jae Crowder7.714.6+7.0
Otto Porter6.012.5+6.5
Nicolas Batum9.415.7+6.4
Danilo Gallinari12.418.7+6.2
Stephen Curry23.829.9+6.1
Raymond Felton3.79.3+5.6
Isaiah Thomas16.421.8+5.4
T.J. Warren6.111.3+5.2

It’s often said it’s harder to go from good to great than bad to good. But what about great to greater?

Just four players have EVER averaged as many points per game as Curry last season and increased their scoring average by so much the following year:

PlayerYearsPPG first yearPPG second yearDiff.
Wilt Chamberlain1961 to 196238.450.4+12.0
Kobe Bryant2005 to 200627.635.4+7.8
Bernard King1984 to 198526.332.9+6.6
Tracy McGrady2002 to 200325.632.1+6.5
Stephen Curry2015 to 201623.829.9+6.1

Full disclosure: I didn’t pick Curry as my mid-season MIP. I took C.J. McCollum, and Lance Thomas and Reggie Jackson rounded out my mythical ballot.

Yet, I’m most fascinated by the candidacy of Curry, who made my short list.

We’ve never seen anything like this before. MVPs just don’t improve this much.

It’s hard to grasp.

I don’t think Curry will win MIP. But I think he’ll get more MIP votes after winning MVP than every other MVP combined. With Bill Walton, Malone, Shaq and LeBron getting one a piece, the bar is four.

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, when asked whether Curry had improved, shared a thought process I believe will be common with voters:

“Oh, I don’t know,” Van Gundy said. “That’s not even something I think about. He’s great. He was great last year. Is he better? I don’t know. He’s pretty damn good.”

We can all agree Curry is amazing. Why debate his level of improvement?

But there’s an award specifically dedicated to that. It’s incumbent on voters to consider Curry’s kooky case. Voters complain about this award more than any other. What does it mean? Who is it for?

It seems outlandish even to consider the reigning MVP.

But as Draymond Green said: “If you deserve it, you deserve it.”