Why Are NBA Players Suddenly Calling Stephen Curry the MVP?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2021

Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

As he often does, LeBron James set the direction of discourse for the hotly anticipated Lakers-Warriors play-in game.

Following the Lakers' last regular-season game, James told reporters that Stephen Curry is his pick for this year's MVP award. The comment made waves, because everything James says makes waves. Debating the motives behind James' public statements is its own industry at this point. Was he attempting to hype up his team's next opponent to make an eventual Lakers victory look more impressive? Was he taking a shot at Nikola Jokic, whom most analysts agree will and should win the award this season?

None of that is as interesting as the evolution of how Curry has been perceived among his fellow players. James wasn't the only player to declare Curry the MVP this week. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant echoed the sentiment on Sunday, and ESPN broadcaster Mark Jones says he's heard the same sentiment from a lot of players.

Curry wasn't always revered by his peers in this way. Six years ago, Curry won his first MVP as he led the Warriors to 67 wins. But that season, the NBPA, fed up with what it saw as biased and unrepresentative media voting, held its own awards show with honors voted on by the players. They picked James Harden, not Curry, as their MVP.

In the 2016-17 season, the league added player input to the long-existing fan vote for the All-Star teams. Curry won the fan vote by far that season, but finished a distant third in the player vote for Western Conference guards, behind Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Curry's former teammates, including Andre Iguodala and Matt Barnes, have theorized on why he was never as loved by his fellow players as his skills and accomplishments would suggest. Curry biographer Marcus Thompson II once named James, Westbrook and Chris Paul as stars who weren't fans of his.

There are plenty of possible explanations. Some may have felt that as the son of an NBA player, Curry had an easier ride to the top than most. Others undoubtedly bristled at the way Curry's squeaky-clean image was promoted by the league and some media outlets as the ideal representation of the sport.

There's no doubt, too, that Curry's historic season and the accompanying talk that he had surpassed James as the NBA's best player provided a little extra motivation for James and the Cavaliers in their 2016 title run. 

Whatever the reasons were then, the reality is different now. Against all odds, Curry is the players' MVP in 2021.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

What did it? Winning the scoring title while playing with an injured and overmatched supporting cast and still keeping the Warriors in playoff contention certainly helped.

"Each player at some point in their career has had to do it 'by themselves,'" says 13-year NBA veteran Channing Frye, now an analyst for NBA TV, who played against Curry in three of the Cleveland Cavaliers' four meetings with the Warriors in the Finals. "If Steph had a bad night, here's Klay [Thompson] who can give you 60. Not that people weren't understanding how great Steph was, but it was, 'Can you do it by yourself?' Which he absolutely is doing this year. So that question, which isn't a fair question, was answered this year."

Frye insists there was no "hate" towards Curry among players at the time, despite what the likes of Iguodala and Barnes have said. The basketball reasons make sense—it always looks more impressive when a star player does things on his own, not surrounded by multiple other Hall of Famers. Curry has never been in that position before this season, and it has led to a reassessment of his career from players and others who may have previously been skeptical.

"LeBron knows how hard it is to carry a team," Frye says. "And for what Steph was doing this year, he's like, 'Dude, here, give him his flowers.' There's a respect for knowing you're going to be triple-teamed and still being able to do the things that Steph does. Each person who said Steph deserves MVP has had to do that."

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Curry entered this season with Klay Thompson missing the whole year with a torn Achilles and the rest of his supporting cast consisting of highly paid veteran role players and unproven youngsters. There were questions about whether Curry would be able to have the same impact when all the defensive focus was on him.

It's a role we've never seen Curry play before. During the Warriors' five straight Finals runs from 2015 to 2019, he was surrounded by at least one other all-time great shooter first in Thompson and then the 2016 addition of Kevin Durant. Last season was supposed to be the first test of Curry's ability to carry his own team, but he played just five games while dealing with a broken hand before last March's COVID-19 shutdown. The plan then was for Thompson to return from the torn ACL that kept him out last season, but an offseason Achilles injury put his comeback off another year.

If anyone was wondering whether Curry could "do it by himself," that question has been answered. And assuming the Warriors get out of the play-in, you're going to see a lot of debate over the next few days about whether the Warriors can upset the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns in the first round. That's entirely because of the respect Curry commands and the display he has put on this season.

Curry is now getting that same respect from fellow players.

"As players, we look at how teams have tried to guard Steph this year," Frye says. "They double-team and triple-team the crap out of him and he's still getting 40. It's more of a defensive respect now. Back then, you couldn't double-team him because he had Andre Iguodala and Klay. I wouldn't say it was his fault, people weren't 'hating on him,' I would just say that he fell into that perception that his teammates were Hall of Famers too. For them to be eighth this year is pretty much a testament to Steph, and his ability to be dominant consistently."

The actual MVP conversation is almost beside the point of what the discourse has been around Curry. The question of who will take home the award isn't much of a mystery. It will be Jokic, and it should be Jokic. Everyone else is just jockeying for down-ballot votes. But nobody outside of Denver is excited about the prospect of him winning it. Ironically, this late-game backlash to what feels like an inevitable Jokic win has some similarity to the skepticism many players had about Curry back when he was a two-time MVP and the Warriors were on top of the world.

Maybe in five years, Jokic will be the guy other players say should win MVP when it's clear it's going to a younger star with a game as ahead of its time as Curry's was in 2016, or as Jokic's is now. That Curry is the NBA's people's choice now, given how slow his peers were to warm to his ascendance, is one of the more unlikely developments of this long, strange season.

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.