After an impressive outing in his NBA Finals debut, Stephen Curry is inching closer to his first NBA championship and could join elite company at his position. If he and the Warriors are able to win the title this year, Steph Curry will join said elite company at the point guard position, accomplishing something that many of his predecessors and contemporaries have been unable to achieve. We all know about Curry’s shooting prowess, but his overall game has improved greatly. He is clearly now amongst the elite players in the league. A title this season would validate all of the praise that has been heaped onto the 27 year old point guard. Curry would join a list that is a who’s who of Hall of Fame players that have won the NBA MVP and championship in the same season, but more than that, Curry would become the first true superstar player to lead his team to a championship from the point guard position since Isiah Thomas in 1990.
The list of players that have won the NBA MVP and the NBA championship in the same season does not include many players. Since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon did it in the 1990’s, only Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James have been able to achieve the rare feat. The list of players who have won the championship the season they won their first MVP is even shorter, with only Olajuwon and O’Neal doing it since 1990.
Winning both the MVP and the title in the same season speaks to both the individual’s greatness as well as their ability to achieve the ultimate in team success. Curry was the best player on the best team all season and his MVP award rewarded his individual significance to the Warriors’ success, while winning the championship would validate the team’s anointment as this year’s top squad.
Maybe even more important historically for Curry, if he can lead his team to the championship, would be the fact that many great NBA point guards have not been able to get their teams over the hump in the playoffs. Historically, the NBA has almost always been a league that has rewarded teams with great big men. More recently the Association has become a guard driven league, and more specifically, a point guard driven league. There were upwards of a dozen quality point guards in the NBA this past season, with twelve point guards posting a PER above 19, and eight above 20. The list of today’s elite point guards includes Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tony Parker, and Curry, along with other all-star level point guards like Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, and Goran Dragic among others. That doesn’t even include the previously elite Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo. Today, the NBA has more great point guard play than it ever has.
What is noticeable among that list of great point guards is the shortage of NBA championships. Of course, Parker has four rings, and Rondo one from his time with the Celtics, but it is largely accepted that those two point guards, while great and instrumental to their respective title winning teams, did not carry their teams to championships as the number one option. Parker did win a Finals MVP In 2007 from his series against Cleveland, but that was more due to match-up issues for the Cavaliers. Tim Duncan was the unquestionable MVP of that championship Spurs team. Granted, many of the great point guards today are young and still have a chance to win titles down the road, but Curry could be the first of the lot bring his team a Larry O’Brien trophy. Without question there has been a trend of point guard led teams losing early in the NBA playoffs the last two-plus decades. Curry has a chance to break that trend.
With the exception of Paul and Parker, many of the great point guards today are still young up-and-comers who are just establishing themselves as elite players. Although Westbrook has been to an NBA Finals, those players have not had much time to succeed in the NBA. But over the last two-plus decades, there have been a handful of Hall of Fame point guards that have been immensely successful, and yet teams that rely on their point guard as the number one option can never seem to get that elusive championship. In the 1980’s, Magic Johnson was the dominant NBA figure at point guard and won five championships with the Lakers. Johnson had battles in the NBA Finals against fellow point guard Isiah Thomas, who was able to break through and win back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 with the Detroit Pistons. Since that 1990 season, there has not been a superstar point guard-led title team in the NBA.
Hall of Fame point guards like Gary Payton, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash all were close to leading their teams to championships, but ran into the like of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. In addition to Parker, another Finals MVP point guard from the 2000’s is Chauncey Billups, who won the award in 2004. Billups may be the closest we have seen to a point guard leading a team to the title, but the ’04 Pistons were a complete team with no real superstar players that relied heavily on defense and a collapsing superior Lakers team. Payton and Kidd were able to capture rings as important role players later in their careers, but were unsuccessful in their attempts during their respective primes. Chris Paul has been in the league for a decade and hasn’t been able to get past the second round of the playoffs. Many great NBA point guards have tried and failed. Only Payton, Stockton, Kidd, and Westbrook have even been to the NBA Finals.
Why is it so hard for teams that rely heavily on point guard play to win championship? The league has always been a big man league, and with the exception of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, teams have had excellent post players. The reliance on three-point shooting was not as important the previous twenty or so years. But with the introduction of the stretch four and the “pace and space” style offenses we see today that rely largely on three point shooting, talented big men are becoming more and more sparse throughout the league. Having someone who can orchestrate that offense will become critical and we have seen the success of the great point guards today in those systems. Will Steph Curry become the first of many point guards we see winning the MVP as well as leading their team to the championship? I don’t know for sure, but if he is able to accomplish both feats within the next two weeks, he will join some elite company and do something no one has been able to do the last twenty-five years.