Curry or James? The Statistical Breakdown for NBA Playoffs MVP

Most of us are suckers for superstars like Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

It just so happens that the upcoming era of the NBA might very well be known as the age of superstars. Just look at this past year, where the MVP race was filled to the brim with six legitimate contenders vying for the title.

Age Name 1st place 2nd Place 3rd 4th 5th Total Points
27 Stephen Curry, Golden State 100 26 3 1 1,198
25 James Harden, Houston 25 87 13 4 936
30 LeBron James, Cleveland 5 12 62 32 12 552
26 Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City 5 33 41 29 352
22 Anthony Davis, New Orleans 9 35 53 203
29 Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers 10 15 29 124

One study of NBA Hall of Famers and current superstars determined that MVP caliber players, on average, peak at 27 years old (and two months). Its fitting that this year’s MVP, Stephen Curry, was awarded the NBA MVP award one and a half months after his twenty-seventh birthday.

When accounting for birth month, the average age of this year’s top six vote recipients was also twenty-seven.

As the voting suggests, the decision was far from set in stone. Many members of the media thought that Harden deserved MVP despite Golden State’s dominance throughout the year, including the Sconnie Sports Talk NBA MVP analysis.

The race (that I’ve created) for NBA playoffs MVP is even tighter.

Statistically Speaking, How Should We Determine Who’s the Playoff MVP in 2015?


It’s impossible to create a statistic that incorporates every single aspect of a player’s game into one single number. Yet, this is where the future of data-driven analysis is headed, and unsurprinsingly, the best measure that correlates with being voted MVP is based on Value Added.

VA: Value Added – the estimated number of points a player adds to a team’s season total above what a ‘replacement player’ (for instance, the 12th man on the roster) would produce. The Value Added equation factors in everything from minutes played, turnovers, assists, personal fouls, shooting percentage and everything in between. Value added is based on John Holinger’s PER formula, which is a comprehensive equation that weights more than a dozen variables and produces a number that signifies a player’s relative value.

It makes sense that Value Added is a phenomomenal indicator for being crowned MVP.

The Earned Win Average, or EWA = Value added / 30, and is a measurement of how many games a team won based on having a given player vs. a replacement player. Usually, the person with the highest EWA has been crowned MVP: in the past six years, the EWA measure has predicted the MVP winner five of six times. This year, Harden had the regular season advantage over Curry in terms of Earned Win Average. LeBron James finished sixth in regular season EWA.

James has an extremely slight edge in terms of playoff EWA: 5.5 to Curry’s 4.9, though this tiny difference could easily change in a matter of two or three additional games. Despite James’ small advantage in this metric, Curry fans should feel his case for NBA Playoffs MVP is strong.

The Case for Curry


Here’s what the data says about Curry’s dominance over LeBron this postseason.

Relative to James, Curry has a sizeable advantage in terms of true shooting percentage, which is a measure similar to a baseball player’s slugging percentage.

Essentially, it measure a player’s shooting percentage weighted according to the proportion of three pointers and free throws they’re shooting.

Curry’s true shooting Percentage is .601, whereas James’ is .487.

True Shooting Percentage = Total points / [(FGA + (0.44 x FTA)]

The TS% equation simply states that the true shooting percentage weights a two-pointer as two in the numerator, and a three pointer as three. It makes sense that if we’re measuring efficiency, we should combine each facet of their game. If two players each have a .500 field goal percentage, and one player shoots all threes and the other shoots all twos, the first player is quite obviously the more efficient player.

In the previous example, they would be exactly 50% more efficient. In the case of Stephen vs. LeBron, Curry has been a 23.4% more efficient shooting the ball.

True shooting percentage is an excellent measure of a player’s shooting value, just as slugging percentage (which weights a double twice as much as a single and so forth) measures a hitter’s value in the batter’s box.

A final point for Curry fans to harp on is the fact that Golden State’s road has been much more difficult than LeBron and Cleveland’s postseason journey to the finals has been. Just look at the comparisons between their opposing teams’ regular season win totals, and the EWA’s of their best player.

Stephen Curry’s Playoff Opponents
Opposing Team: Wins Opposing Team’s Best Player Best Player’s EWA
45 Anthony Davis 23.7
55 Marc Gasol 14.9
56 James Harden 24.1
52 Average 20.9
LeBron James’ Playoff Opponents
Opposing Team: Wins Opposing Team’s Best Player Best Player’s EWA
60 Isaiah Thomas 8.3
46 Pau Gasol 15.0
40 Al Horford 12.5
48.7 Average 11.9

The Curry defense rests.

Where Curry’s Award would Place him in the History Books

In the past twenty five years, the regular season MVP went on to win the finals MVP award nine times. On four of these occasions, the player happened to be named Michael Jordan.

In the past forty years, a player has won his first MVP and his first Finals MVP award in the same year only three times. We can consider these rare seasons as true breakout years, as they exemplify players blossoming into not merely a consistent leader throughout the regular season, but as a clutch and unwavering rock amidst the raging ocean of playoff basketball.

Players with True Breakout Years
Age (Entering Playoffs ) Player 1st MVP 1st Finals MVP Championships Finals MVP Age (During Most Productive Year)
27 Larry Bird 1984 1984 3 2 30.9
29 Hakeem Olajuwon 1994 1994 2 2 30.1
27 Shaquille O’Neal 2000 2000 4 3 26.8
27 Stephen Curry 2015 ? ? ? ?

Note that each of these true breakout players went on to win the NBA Finals MVP the very next year. Two of those times, the player was 27 years old, which as I mentioned earlier, is the average peak-age of an NBA career.

Here’s why this is great for Curry: these players didn’t simply regress into the comforting class of , but rather, they went on to solidify themselves as some of the few greatest players of all-time.

So even though the data says that the average NBA All-Star peaks at twenty-seven, don’t expect the twenty-seven year-old Curry to fade in the years to come, especially if Golden State manages to secure the title this year.

The Case for King James


If you prefer the opposite side of the argument, LeBron lovers could also make a strong, statistically-based case for LeBron as Playoffs MVP. You can bring up the fact that LeBron has the advantage in Earned Win Average throughout the playoffs this year, which as I mentioned previously, is the single best indicator of a player’s value.

The primary reason that LeBron edges Curry in this measure is a direct result of James’ far superior abilities on the boards: LeBron’s rebound rate, or the percentage of missed shots that a player rebounds, is more than double that of Curry’s (14.2% vs. 6.8%).

Additionally, James supporting cast has been much weaker than Curry’s. With Kyrie Irving sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs, Batman is left without his Robin, whereas Curry has fellow All-Star Klay Thompson to help bear the load of carrying his team. It’s not just one sidekick that separates the Warriors and Cavaliers: The Earned Win Average’s of Golden State’s other four starters during this playoffs is more than double that of Cleveland’s other four.

Warriors Playoff EWA Playoff EWA Cavaliers
Draymond Green 2.1 1.7 Timofey Mozgov
Klay Thompson 1.9 1.3 Tristan Thompson
Andre Iguodala 1.2 0.2 Iman Shumpert
Harrison Barnes 0.5 -0.5 Matthew Dellavedova
5.7 2.7


Where LeBron’s Award Would Place Him in the History Books


The list of players who have thrice won an MVP award in the same year that they won an NBA Finals MVP award is short: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal. LeBron would be the fourth.

What would be the most incredible part about this year’s performance though would be LeBron’s obvious lack of additional star power. Shaq had Kobe, Jordan had Pippen, and Bird had Kevin McHale, all Hall of Famers.

LeBron certainly had Hall of Fame support in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, but his pursuit of this year’s title is completely on his shoulders in the absence of Irving and Love. Am I simply underestimating Timofey Mozgov or Matthew Dellevedova’s future Hall of Fame status, or is LeBron’s lack of a legitimate sidekick as incredible as it seems?

The Winner is…

From a completely objective point of view, meaning if we only consider unbiased statistical analysis, determining a playoff MVP is too close to call. With at least two games left in the playoffs, the race is neck-and-neck.

In terms of LeBron and Steph’s abilities to distribute the ball, the two are nearly identical. The two prospective MVP’s each have an assist ratio (the percentage of possessions that end in assists) between 19-20%. The two both play more than eighty percent of each game. Curry has proven his ability to come through down the stretch of a game, and LeBron certainly knows how to hit a buzzer beater. There is no “clutch factor” statistic, but if there were, I’m sure these players would rank among the top in the league.

In determining a victor, I know only three things for certain: The Finals MVP will be Curry or James (sorry Delly, you’ll have to settle for most vibrant player), whichever team wins the title will determine the MVP of the playoffs, and the winner will establish their legacy among the all-time greatest NBA players.


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