No one was surprised when Steph Curry was announced as the league MVP.
Steph had a recording-breaking season while leading his Golden State Warriors to one of their own, but he made history one more time when he became the first player to win the MVP award unanimously. There were 131 people voting and all of them voted for Chef Curry in first place. A clean sweep.
Not everyone was singing Steph’s praises, though. Indeed, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James have both doubted Curry's award. Tracy McGrady’s comments about Steph becoming the first unanimous MVP, however, are perhaps the most intriguing.
While on ESPN’s The Jump, T-Mac said this, via Sports Illustrated’s Kenny Ducey:
"For him to get this unanimously, it just tells you how watered down our league is," he explained.
"When you think of MJ, Shaq. I mean, those guys really played against top-notch competition. More superstars, I think, on more teams, than it is in our league today. But it's well deserved. He had a hell of a season."
Steph had a great season but not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson ever won the Most Valuable Player award unanimously and few would suggest that Curry is better than them.
So, does T-Mac have a point? Let’s break his statement down into two parts: “more superstars” and “on more teams”. I warn you, there are a whole lot of numbers coming up.
No one is doubting that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal played against stellar opposition. To show just how good the league was during their playing days, let’s look at their best seasons.
For Michael Jordan, let’s use the star-studded 1987-88 season, in which he led the league in scoring and steals as Curry did this year, and the 1995-96 season, in which the Bulls set their famous 72-10 record, as well as the 1999-2000 monster season for Shaq.
Using the rankings given by ESPN, we can break down just how good the league was during those seasons.
In the 1987-88 campaign, the NBA had 20 players now in ESPN’s positional top 10s as well as 10 and five in the top 25 and 10 of all time, respectively.
The 1995-96 season was seemingly weaker. While there were still 10 players in the top 25 of all time, there were only four in the top 10 and 14 in the positional top 10s.
The years 1999-2000 had only three players in the all-time top 10 and 16 in the positional top 10s, but it did have 11 in the top 25. Clearly, these seasons were amazing. To have half of the 10 best players of all time or even of the top 25 is pretty mind-blowing.
The problem is that Curry’s year, 2015-16, is hardly comparable using this method. Plenty of players included in the numbers above earned their places in these rankings after the selected season, whereas that is impossible for Curry’s year.
Still, this campaign has impressive numbers considering. There are 10 players in the positional top 10s in addition to seven in the top 25 and two in the all-time top 10. If this was done in the future, those numbers would undoubtedly be higher so maybe the leagues of Jordan and Shaq did not have more superstars than today’s NBA? It is hard to judge.
It is even harder to judge quality. Were the elite players of these seasons better than today’s elite?
Magic, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are but a few of the names that played in Jordan’s historic seasons under review, especially the 1987-88 campaign.
Shaq had to contend with legends like Garnett, Duncan and Allen Iverson, but, to be fair, Curry has had to beat LeBron, Durant, and Westbrook - some of the best all-around players since the Big O. As I said, there is no easy answer.
At first, this seemed fair, especially for someone who has grown up after these historic seasons. The emphasis on the ‘big three’ suggests the superstars of today are focussed on a few teams but that’s wrong.
The 95-96 season, for example, had MJ, Pippen, and Rodman on the Bulls roster and that means that Jordan will only have competed against 11 players in the positional top 10 rankings - just one more than the 2015-16 class has already.
There have always been, and always will be, stars playing together, whether it’s Larry Bird and Kevin McHale or Shaq and Kobe.
To look at the spread of superstars among teams then, let’s look at how many teams are represented in each season’s top 20 in scoring, rebounding, assisting and stealing as well as the average.
MJ’s dominant 1987-88 campaign had 15 teams in the top scorers, 16 in the rebounders, 18 in assists and 15 in steals. That means that 16 teams were represented on average over the four major categories.
In the 1995-96 season, the numbers improved in every area. 16 teams had a player in the top scorers, 18 in the rebounders, 20 in the passers and 17 in steals, for an average of 17.75.
The 1999-2000 season was a slight step back with two more teams represented in scorers, but fewer everywhere else. As well as 18 in scorers, there were 17 in rebounds, 19 in assists and only 15 in steals. The millennium season brought about an average of 17.25 teams represented per top 20 column.
So how does today’s NBA compare? This term, the top scorers wore the uniforms of 17 different teams, the glass-eaters and assisters represented 19 teams and the stealers 18. This gives an average of 18.25 different franchises represented by the top 20 charts - easily the best of the bunch. Maybe, then, the superstars are more spread out?
Not so fast. Using these averages and the number of teams in the league, we can find out the number of teams not represented in the average top 20 for each season.
The 2015-16 and 1999-2000 seasons averaged 11.75 teams unrepresented. The 1995-96 campaign, so far the weakest, had 11.25 as the average while the 87-88 season had only seven unrepresented teams. So then they are less spread out, right?
More complications I’m afraid, because the number of teams in the NBA was not constant through these years. The 1987-88 campaign, with 23 teams, could have had a minimum of three teams without a player in the top 20 while the rest of these seasons (with 29 or 30 teams) could have had a minimum of nine or 10. These numbers are all open to interpretation.
So is T-Mac right?
No. It is a surprise that Curry won the first ever unanimous MVP considering the immortal names that couldn’t before him, but that should not be a negative reflection of the league.
Steph had an unbelievable season as the top scorer and stealer while comfortably joining the 180 club, with percentages of .504 from the floor, .454 from the three and .908 from the line. He easily broke his own record for threes in a season, hitting over 400, and continues to change the game with his unparalleled shooting. Steph deserved this.
In regards to McGrady’s comments, it is hard to compare different times. It seems that the number of superstars in the league today is consistent with, not inferior to, the NBA’s past and more teams are represented in the top 20 columns than any of those other seasons.
The league, however, is bigger than ever and with a bigger league you get more players with talent but you don’t get more generational superstars. You can’t expect to get more stars because you have more teams so it is understandable that the league might seem “watered down” with star-less teams that can’t compete.
The NBA has changed drastically and comparing today with the past is almost impossible. All we can do is focus on today, where the NBA is as good as ever and Steph is the rightful and unanimous MVP.