Stephen Curry is not going to become the fourth player in NBA history to win three consecutive MVP awards. After edging James Harden in 2014-15 and winning unanimously in 2015-16, Curry is far back enough in the pecking order this season to not even be on most ballots, barring massive tumult in the ranks in the second half of the season.
This has happened for several reasons. First and foremost, Curry is just doing much less. His per-game scoring has dropped 20 percent and he is shooting at lower efficiency across the board. Also, his count of spectacular nights and incredible moments has decreased.
Last year, the Warriors won almost every night because the team was loaded and Curry was on full blast. Now, the Warriors win almost every night because the team is loaded beyond comprehension. They don’t need Steph to go nuts, so (intentionally or not) he doesn’t.
It’s hard to see this changing. Kevin Durant is younger and, having not been here for the 2015 title, more eager to prove himself to the Bay Area faithful. Curry has an innate selflessness that causes him to set up Klay Thompson, Durant, and other Warriors more than perhaps other scoring champs would. He’s also always been fully comfortable playing off the ball throughout his career, something a few other modern high-usage lead guards (like Russell Westbrook) are less likely to unilaterally embrace.
But when the Warriors need something spectacular, when they need an outburst, Curry is there. He almost seems as though he is pacing the magic, letting sparks fly out of his fingers briefly now and then, only to pull back and keep his true nature hidden.
Wednesday’s win over the Blazers was an example. Portland was game to run with Golden State, even with Damian Lillard out. C.J. McCollum was on fire. Coincidentally or not, Curry put up his best scoring night (35) in six weeks. He loosed the magic, just a bit.
This Steph layup was ridiculous pic.twitter.com/fw9gWbbnbI— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) January 5, 2017
But he didn’t blow up for 50, he didn’t nail a bevy of 40-footers. He did just enough to counter McCollum and help paper over an off-night for Thompson. The Warriors won.
After breaking the regular season wins record, after a unanimous MVP victory, knowing he’ll get a supermax $200 million deal this summer, it’s completely understandable that nothing but the championship matters to Curry. The Warriors are obviously on track to get back to the NBA Finals. Beating the Cavaliers once there, assuming the Cavaliers are also there, is all that matters about this season.
Curry is, in a sense, coasting. This is not a criticism. It’s actually a nod to how excellent a player Curry has become — that he can coast to 24 points per game on 40 percent three-point shooting, on a team that’s on pace for 70 wins.
This is Curry at a new level. He’s not trying to impress anyone on a nightly basis. Not constantly, at least. He’s comfortable in his own skin without 50-point nights and SportsCenter Top 10 moments. He’s preserving all of the energy those events take, keeping it in reserve for the spring.
This is what LeBron James has been doing for five years, at least. LeBron has long had nothing to prove in the regular season. His mountains are found in the finals. So he tunes himself and his team all 82 games, dropping some random spectacle in there by chance or necessity, and then he brings the full brunt of himself in the playoffs. LeBron is not particularly worried about winning another MVP, a scoring title, or being the league’s biggest Vine star. He wants more titles. So, his effort is focused toward that goal.
Curry is on that level now. This is all one long dress rehearsal for what really matters. It’s a luxury built by impossibly hard work and a star-ridden roster, just as it has been for LeBron. It’s an important evolution to understand as we judge Curry for what he does and does not do in January. We need to understand that it doesn’t matter to him. What happens in June is what matters.