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Does Stephen Curry Need Finals MVP to Validate His Legacy?

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 5/23/2019 Michael Shapiro

Stephen Curry standing in front of a crowd © Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images It’s hard to imagine Stephen Curry caring much about winning Finals MVP. Golden State’s adopted son enters the Warriors fifth-straight Finals appearance—this time sans LeBron James—armed with three championships, two MVPs and an unofficial designation as the greatest shooter of all-time. Even if the Warriors zoom to a 3–0 series lead against either the Raptors or Bucks in early June, don’t expect Curry to gun for the award. For a man who avoids legacy talk almost entirely, another career accolade is unlikely to stir much emotion.

Curry will likely dismiss the importance of a Finals MVP to his career resume if asked over the next two weeks. And he may even be as unmoved by the award in private as he is in public. But from a historical standpoint, winning Finals MVP stands as the last barrier in Curry’s otherwise unimpeachable career resume. The list of players with multiple MVPs, three-plus titles and a Finals MVP is short: LeBron, Duncan, Jordan, Bird, Kareem and Russell. Curry fully deserves to join such an esteemed group.

The opportunity ahead of Curry felt improbable just three weeks ago. He averaged just 21.3 points per game in the first four contests against Houston in the Western Conference semifinals, making just 12 of 46 threes. Curry missed gimme dunks (inducing a wave of Twitter schadenfreude) and tallied 12 turnovers. He hesitated before seemingly every three and spent many half-court possessions with his hands on his hips. Curry wasn’t bored per se, but he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. As Kevin Durant staked his claim for best player alive, Steph slumped into a sidekick role. The best point guard of his era had been relegated to decoy status.

Nobody will mistake Curry for a decoy after his last six games. The 2016 unanimous MVP absolutely torched Houston to end round two and continued his dominance in the Western Conference finals, averaging 36.5 points per game against Portland. The vintage performances stirred a near-unanimous apology from fans and media alike, giddy to revel in Curry’s brilliance.

It wasn’t just the point totals and long-range bombs that stirred the public’s renewed love for Curry. The style was arguably more important than the substance. We shouldn’t blame Durant for perhaps the most best isolation scorer we’ve seen this century, but his mano-a-mano dominance dulled viewers and the Warriors alike. Cutting with fervor is less important as Durant cooks from the elbow. Baseline screens are substituted for stationary shooters in the corner. The Splash Brothers rained threes more like a sprinkler than Shamu.

Durant’s injury changed the calculus. Curry danced and darted around screens with abandon against Portland, and unleashed perhaps the most potent aspect of Golden State’s attack in the pick-and-roll. Curry and Green decimated the Blazers one artful dance at a time, with Curry attacking isolated bigs or dumping it off to Green after getting trapped. Green’s feasted in four-on-three opportunities, cashing in on a slate of lobs to Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala. It looked like 2015 again as Golden State danced to the Finals. The next decade could feature a full season of the Warriors in their throwback glory.

Curry will be firmly in line for the Finals MVP if Durant misses even part of the Finals. Green would have to average close to a triple double to merit consideration and Klay Thompson is unlikely to have enough opportunity for the award barring a 50-point explosion. Yet even if Durant plays (and plays well) Curry may still have the narrative boost to snag the award. That hasn’t been the case in each of the Warriors last three Finals victories.

Some would argue Curry should have won the award in 2015 after averaging 26 points per game on 38.5% from three. His Game 5 triple over Matthew Dellavedova remains a highlight of his career. Iguodala won the award mainly his defense against LeBron, which is an even stranger choice in retrospect.

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Durant has owned each of the last two Finals, even if his Game 3 shot in 2017 is lost to history. Golden State winning in five games will indicate a classic gentleman’s sweep for future generations, but the 2017 Cavs were even better offensively than their 2016 title team. Durant dominated throughout, scoring 38 points in Game 1 and 39 in Game 5. He may have become the best player alive that June.

The 2018 Finals could have leaned Curry’s way. Durant averaged 28.8 points per game on 40.9% from three, erupting for 43 points in another Game 3 classic. Curry’s nine threes buried Cleveland in Game 2; he finished the series with 27.5 points per game on 41.5%. Durant won in a toss-up, though with similar results for the pair in 2019, Curry’s sentimental edge should grant him the award.

The Finals MVP is a bit of a silly exercise to close each playoffs. It obscures the impact throughout a postseason, producing the occasional fluke winner. Yet even with the award’s flaws, Finals MVP adds a critical line to the resume of any all-time great. Curry is firmly in the discussion for the greatest point guard of all time. He could be a four-time champion in two weeks. He has two MVPs, one unanimous. No player this century (and maybe no player ever) has made as much an impact on the modern game. Curry is a transformational player on a historic dynasty. If the Warriors win a fourth title, it will only be right for Curry to claim his first Finals MVP.

Related slideshow: Best of the 2019 NBA playoffs (Provided by imagn)


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