While football has rarely before had a decade like this one where two players have been streets out on their own, basketball during the same period hasn’t even had such a contest.
Ever since the Los Angeles Lakers’ bid to reach a fourth consecutive NBA finals ended tamely with being swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, Kobe Bryant’s already-contentious case for being the best player on the planet ceased with it.
Although LeBron James would suffer an even more humiliating playoff exit later that summer, visibly wilting in the finals against the same resolute Mavericks, his status as the sport’s most talented and important player was almost universal. Twelve months later then when he’d make the critical leap from brilliant to champion, his supremacy was undeniable.
And that’s the way it would stay up until the past few months. Even when LeBron’s team would finish a season second in the world, there was no doubting he was still first. While you could take your pick of Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal, or Tim Duncan as your player of the noughties, James, with eight consecutive finals appearances, towered over everyone else in this decade, much like Michael Jordan had in the ’90s.
Now though he is no longer the undisputed best player in the world: by failing to secure his new team, the ailing Lakers, a spot in this year’s playoffs, the 34-year-old King James duly vacated such a throne, albeit possibly only temporarily. Almost every day now someone different is being touted as the sport’s most outstanding player.
Only last month, James Harden, he of the famous beard and step-back three-point move, was being rightly lauded for having one of the most stunning scoring seasons in NBA history, finishing with a season average of 36.1 points a game, a tally only ever trumped by Jordan and Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain.
And yet Harden is not even expected to win this season’s MVP. That honour is expected to go to The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 24-year-old whose stunning athleticism propelled the previously-unfashionable Milwaukee Bucks to the number one seeding in the NBA and the Eastern Conference finals.
But then in that match-up with the Toronto Raptors, he’d painfully discover that he wasn’t even the best player involved in that series, that distinction belonging to Kawhi Leonard.
Antetokounmpo had been shooting a phenomenal 58% from the field for the season. When Leonard was switched onto him two games into the series, his return slumped to just 35%. By going on to average 29.8 points himself for the series, Leonard is now universally acclaimed as the best two-way player in the league, and, some would argue, the best player in the world, period.
Now he comes face to face with the Golden State Warriors, a side who have made it through to a fifth consecutive NBA finals. On their books are a couple of players who this past month alone have also been acclaimed as the best in all of basketball.
For the first two rounds of the playoffs, Kevin Durant had been averaging a stunning 34.2 points a game, underlining his status as one of the sport’s greatest ever scorers and why he was the MVP of the past two NBA finals and James’s heir-apparent for most of the decade.
But since Durant went down injured with a leg strain in Game Five of the crucial series against Harden’s Houston Rockets, Stephen Curry has stepped up and reminded everyone why the season before Durant teamed up with him, he had been the first unanimous regular-season MVP in NBA history as well as the greatest outside shooter the sport has ever known.
In Durant’s absence, the Warriors have won all five of their games, with Curry scoring either 33, 36 or 37 points in each of them. Observers that had come to hate the Warriors have come to remember how they loved them and Curry, pre-Durant, a 6’3’’ lithe guard bending a league of giants to his will. Though Durant possibly remains the best player in the league and on the Warriors roster, Curry has reaffirmed why he has been the most influential of the decade outside of James himself.
And yet the level of Curry’s greatness is still not universally recognised. One of the most widely-watched and listenedto shows in all of talk sport is ESPN’s First Take, featuring the loquacious Stephen A Smith and his debate partner, Max Kellerman. Last week the latter explained why Curry should be excluded in the best-player-on-the-planet discussion.
“Let Steph ball out in the finals and I will reevaluate. But I’m sorry, until then, four players are better than him — LeBron, Kawhi, KD (Durant) and The Freak… And he’s choked in the finals…
How many times has he been NBA finals MVP? Zero. Out of four [attempts]?!
It’s not the first time a pundit has reduced a player’s standing because of his MVP finals count. A popular narrative of the three-peat Lakers of 2000-2002 was that it was Shaquille O’Neal’s team, with the younger Kobe Bryant very much the Scottie Pippen to Shaq’s Jordan, as evidenced by O’Neal winning all three finals MVPs during that stretch.
But a closer look back at those championship campaigns will show it was no such Batman-and-Robin double act.
In the 2000 season, O’Neal was very much the senior partner, averaging 30.7 points in those playoffs, to Bryant’s 21.1. But in 2001, Bryant was very much an equal. During the regular season he was among the league’s five leading scorers, averaging 28.5, just shy of O’Neal’s 28.7. While in the finals an over-matched Philadelphia 76ers had no answer to the inside power of O’Neal, who averaged 33.5 points to Bryant’s 24.6, for the playoffs as a whole Bryant averaged 29.4 points, just a point shy off O’Neal.
Indeed in the pivotal series of those playoffs, a western conference finals sweep of a Duncan-Robinson-powered San Antonio Spurs, Bryant went for 33 points a game to O’Neal’s 27, prompting the latter to proclaim Bryant as “the best player in the world”.
It was a similar story in 2002. Though O’Neal would rightly win the finals MVP, pummelling a hapless and centreless New Jersey Nets, Bryant would have been the likely winner of a playoffs MVP if such a trophy existed, scoring a team-high 10 times to O’Neal’s eight throughout that post-season.
It’s been something similar with the Warriors since Durant joined them in the summer of 2016. Though Curry has gone his first four NBA finals with three rings but no MVP, he has been no-one’s understudy. In the 2015 triumph over the Cavs, he was the Warriors’ leading scorer, averaging 26 points a game, 10 points more than Andre Iguodala who was voted finals MVP.
In the 2016 post-season he didn’t “choke” but rather was hampered by injury which ruled him out of five games; even then he still shot 40 percent from three-point range in a seven-game finals loss to a James-inspired Cavs.
Last year the MVP could have gone just as easily to Curry as Durant. In three of the series’ four games, he was the Warriors leading scorer. Even in Game Three, when he managed just 11 points to Durant’s 43, he nailed a dagger three-pointer late on. In Game Two he hit an NBA finals record nine three-pointers. In the deciding Game Four he’d go for 37 points, 14 more than anyone else on the floor.
With Durant out for at least the first game of this finals series, Curry’s MVP chances have increased. But it won’t be lost on him that so have Leonard’s, and with it, the likelihood of the Raptors claiming a first-ever title.
Last Monday when Curry was asked about the one gap in his CV, he replied, “It’s a special award that everybody wants to get, including myself. But at the end of the day, the first thing I do is look up and see, ‘Did you win or lose?’ That [finals MVP] is like secondary to that. Probably even way down the list.”
The answer was as true as his three-point shot. For sure, it would be neat to win the Bill Russell trophy but we seem more concerned about it than him. The Larry O’Brien trophy is what his focus is on.