Let’s start with ancient Jewish law. Really, where else would a story about Steph Curry begin? The ancient land of Israel would have courts of 23 people to help maintain order. These courts would be relatively familiar to us except that they had this one strange quirk. If the 23 judges ever came up with a unanimous guilty verdict against someone, the person was automatically acquitted.
You can argue that this makes absolutely no sense, and you might be right. But the thinking, as I understand it, went like so: NOTHING is that sure. There is always some reason for doubt, some reason for hope, some reason for uncertainty. If 23 people all agree on the same thing, the law suggests, there has to be collusion or the defense was presented poorly — there is no way that 23 independent people could come to the exact same conclusion on something so complicated as guilt or innocence.
Tuesday, it was announced, that for the first time ever, we have a unanimous NBA Most Valuable Player. That’s Steph, of course. He got all 131 votes.
Now, let’s begin by saying: I would have voted for Steph Curry too, and it would have been an easy decision. I mean, come on, he led the NBA in scoring and steals, broke his 3-point record by more than 100 and led the greatest regular season team in NBA history. I don’t really see how you can pick anyone else.
But, this is the point, isn’t it? Someone ALWAYS picks someone else. True, there have been a bunch of unanimous MVPs in baseball — Bryce Harper last year became the 17th — but that’s only two or three dozen voters. This is more than 100.
At the first Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, 11 people did not vote for Babe Ruth. Through the years, scores of people did not vote for Stan Musial or Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Jackie Robinson or Sandy Koufax. Sixteen people did not vote for Greg Maddux a couple of years ago. Seriously, who doesn’t think Greg Maddux is a Hall of Famer?
I’ve always dreaded — and mocked — these non-votes for all-time greats, and will continue to do so. But they do suggest an independent spirit among voters. There are those who believe that no one should be elected unanimously. There are those who believe that if Ruth and Mays didn’t get unanimous elections, you can’t unanimously elect players who were not as good. There are those who have individual gripes even against these icons of the sport. I powerfully disagree with all of that, but that doesn’t mean their voices do not deserve to be heard.
In 1995-96, Michael Jordan was obviously the best and most valuable player in the NBA. He led the league in scoring, was first team all-NBA defensively, he led the Bulls to a dominating 72-win season and the Bulls, even at that moment, were recognized as the greatest team ever. Jordan did win the MVP award. But Karl Malone got a first-place vote. Hakeem Olajuwon got a vote. And, stunningly, Anfernee Hardaway got two votes.
This is how it goes. Everyone — or “everyone” in quotations — knew that LeBron James was the best player in basketball in 2008-09 when he almost single-handedly led Cleveland to a 66-16 record. I mean the second-best player on that team was probably Mo Williams. James scored 28 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished seven assists, averaged two steals and a block per game. He was playing all-around basketball as it had rarely been played. He won the MVP award. But Dwyane Wade got seven first place votes, Kobe Bryant got a couple, Chris Paul got a couple and even Dwight Howard got one.
So, why was it different this year? Was the gap between Steph Curry and everyone else that big? Was it because voting for anyone else was inconceivable?
I don’t think so. Kawhi Leonard finished second in the voting but is there a viable case to choose Leonard over Curry? Sure. Leonard was a terrific offensive player. He was certainly not Curry, but he was pretty spectacular. He averaged 21 points and seven rebounds per game, shot 51 percent from the field and finished third in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (just one percentage point behind Curry). That’s pretty dazzling stuff. And yet he’s really known for his defense — he’s been the NBA Defensive Player of the Year each of the last two seasons and, by the numbers, he is every bit as good as the hype.
So, you could make the argument that when you combine offense and defense, Leonard was the league MVP.
LeBron James finished third — is there a viable case for James over Curry? It’s a little bit tougher, but James still dominates the game with his brute force, his unparalleled passing ability and with the way he can control games.
Russell Westbrook? Kevin Durant? Chris Paul? I think their cases against Curry are tougher, but again, I’m trying to look at it through someone else’s eyes.
I think it came down to three things:
1. Curry was the clear choice. Just because you can make an argument for Leonard, LeBron or Westbrook, it doesn’t mean that it’s a GOOD argument.
2. The Warriors were so dominant all season long and such an overpowering storyline that picking a player from another team — even a 67-win team in San Antonio — would seem silly. To be honest, if I had to make a case for anyone else, I might have made it for his teammate Draymond Green, who is just so wonderfully versatile and fierce and integral to Golden State’s success. But picking Green over Curry is just too cute. It reminds me of a magazine cover I saw in the 1980s that had the headline: “Why Wayne Gretzky is not the best player in hockey.” Green is great. Curry is better.
3. Curry is just so much fun to watch — the most fun player in basketball since Magic, I think — that he defies dissent. I’m sure people who despise the Warriors find a way to despise Curry, but it’s a tough trick. The guy makes crazy shots, he does funny Twitter things, he’s got this fantastic family, he is like one of the Avengers. How are you going to vote against that guy?
And, heck, maybe this starts a trend. In three years, Mariano Rivera will become eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. A year after that, it will be Derek Jeter. Someday, it will be Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw. Maybe one of them will get in unanimously.