About three years ago, if you were to ask any NBA savant who they’d rather have between Stephen Curry and LeBron James, you’re question would be met with blank stares, exasperated grumbles or elementary school-octave laughs.
Fast forward to now, in 2017, and that’s not the case.
Yes, LeBron is better. He’s 32 years old and still setting career highs in assists and rebounds per game. He’s on pace, basically, to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record before he retires. He is the MVP of the league, even now, as the race itself expands to exclude him.
And yet, if we look at team on/off splits, we’ll find that none of the league’s top candidates do more for their squads than LeBron.
According to NBA.com, the Cleveland Cavaliers go from outscoring opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the court, to being pummeled by 8.3 points per 100 possessions without him. That’s a 16.5-point swing in the wrong direction. The Houston Rockets only suffer a two-point drop without Harden; the Oklahoma City incur a 12.6-point plunge without Westbrook.
This means exactly what you think it means: LeBron, statistically, is more valuable to his team than the two most popular MVP choices are to their squads. That’s ridiculous.
Equally ridiculous: Stephen Curry isn’t far behind him.
The Golden State Warriors outpace opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions with Curry in the game. That differential falls to 1.1 when he takes a seat—a 15.8 point reversal, bringing him within one tick of LeBron.
This is important. It proves that Curry’s offense, alone, is almost as valuable as what LeBron brings to on both ends of the court during the regular season. The playoffs are a different beast; LeBron flips a switch and is once again beyond comparison.
But right now, there’s a case to be made that Curry is the second most valuable player overall, trailing only James. It doesn’t matter that the Warriors are still a net plus without him. It’s actually more impressive. The Warriors are otherworldly, but they are human, they are beatable, whenever he isn’t playing.
And that carries us into uncomfortable territory.
What if someone was starting a team from scratch? What if they were focusing on the long haul?
What if they were looking for the player who could keep them relevant for the next six to nine years?
Well, then, that player isn’t LeBron. It can’t be. He’s 32. He’s playing in his 14th season. He’s trying to make his seventh straight NBA Finals. There’s a lot of wear on his treads.
Curry, on the other hand, is 29, more than three years younger. He’s still in the middle of his prime. Those extra three years are enough to tip the scales in his favor. And there’s a case to pick him flat-out, too.
Though he’s an exceptional playmaker and, at times, underrated defender, his game isn’t prided on explosion or general physical superiority. It’s mostly IQ, precision and shooting. So his primary skill set should age better than LeBron’s. This isn’t a knock on the four-time MVP. He’s the smartest player in the league and takes phenomenal care of his body. But there will come a time, perhaps one day soon, when he’s not able to blitz past defenses. When it does, he’ll probably adjust, but there are no guarantees.
Curry’s future is more certain. His MVP star is only beginning to peak. LeBron’s is already there and, mathematically, possibly on the decline.
So while picking LeBron over Curry seems like a no-brainer, it may, in all honesty, actually be the wrong call.