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Thank God Steph Curry Won Finals MVP

The yearly charade of selecting a Finals MVP is finally behind us and thank God Steph Curry finally won. It’s the one legacy-defining award that had weirdly eluded him for years.

But I still can’t get over just how little the voters agree on what it means to be the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.


Does the Finals MVP have to be on the winning team? Apparently not—Jerry West won the very first Finals MVP after dropping 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in a Game 7 loss by two points. Since then, Finals MVPs have always come from the winning team, though LeBron did earn four out of eleven votes for Finals MVP in 2015.


It was Andre Iguodala who won the other seven votes (and the trophy) for his defense on LeBron as a key component of the original Warriors Death Lineup. Everyone knew that Steph Curry was the better player, but he “only” averaged 26 points per game that Finals and shot a disappointing 5-of-23 in a Game 2 loss. And the choice to start Iguodala after the Cavaliers went up 2-1 did seem to tilt the series in the Warriors’ favor. So was Iguodala was the most valuable player in those Finals? Or was awarding him the Finals MVP a flat-out mistake?


Before we can measure who was most valuable, we need a theory about what makes players valuable in the first place. What I’ll call the Winning Theory makes the simplifying assumption that just one thing is valuable in sports: winning. Only winning counts, though players can contribute to their team winning on or off the court. And according to the Winning Theory, the Most Valuable Player is the one who contributes the most to their team winning.


In reality, we value more than just winning in sports. We value other forms of achievement, like breaking records (LeBron chasing Kareem’s total points), overcoming adversity (Klay Thompson’s return from injury), impacting the broader culture (Allen Iverson being Allen Iverson), and even changing the game itself (Steph’s huge effect on how the next generation plays). And we value much more than achievement in sports—for example, we care about entertainment, skill, character, and equity. None of us are truly Winning Theorists. But even after we cheat by pretending that we are, it’s still incredibly difficult get a handle on what it means to contribute to your team winning.


The basic problem is that players don’t win games—teams do. And it’s hard to separate individual contributions from team outcomes, even at the level of a single play. Imagine the Golden State Warriors running their beautiful motion offense for a full shot clock. You’ve seen it a thousand times before. As Steph runs around, the Warriors flow effortlessly from one action into another, with everyone touching the ball. By the end, the defense is scrambled, and Draymond Green finds Klay Thompson backdoor for a wide-open layup. Who contributed the most to scoring those two points? It isn’t obvious. But we’ll need answers for problems like this to start answering the question of who contributed the most to winning.


One very powerful way to try to get a handle on these sorts of problems is by thinking about counterfactuals. We deal in counterfactuals every time we ask: What would have happened if...? Here’s a simple example: What would have happened if Steph Curry retired after the Western Conference Finals? Imagine he took the inaugural Western Finals MVP and ran to Cancun, leaving the Warriors short their best player. Obviously that didn’t happen, but we can still ask: What would have happened?


Well, both teams would have changed their gameplans pretty dramatically. Minutes and shots would have been redistributed. But here’s the central question: How would the Warriors have done without Steph, in terms of winning? Once we compare what would have happened in this counterfactual with what did happen in the real world, maybe we can start to identify how much Steph contributes to winning.


It’s tricky to set up genuinely helpful counterfactuals. We sometimes accidentally introduce extra harms or benefits. (Would the Warriors be distracted worrying about Steph’s well-being? Or pissed off that he abandoned them?) But it’s also surprisingly hard to tell which counterfactuals are most informative. Even if we stipulate that Steph hasn’t disappeared off the map and we invent exact personal reasons for his absence, why should we compare his actual presence to his imagined total absence? Why not imagine that he’s on the sideline but injured?


The honest answer is that the counterfactual we choose affects the sort of value we’re measuring. By stipulating that Steph couldn’t cheer or coach or show up to team meetings, we’re trying to imagine that he couldn’t contribute to winning at all, on or off the floor. If we picked a counterfactual where Steph was still with the team, he might really throw himself into coaching from the sideline and be able to contribute to winning that way. Maybe Steph would be a great coach if he tried. But that shouldn’t lead us to downplay our assessments of how much he contributes to winning as a player! It really matters which counterfactual we pick.


Even once we agree on a counterfactual case, it can still be challenging to tell what we’re supposed to imagine. If Steph disappeared during the regular season, the Warriors would eventually try to find a replacement point guard. But would they make a trade, or call a guy up from the G-League? How would that work out? One advantage of asking about the Finals MVP (instead of the regular season trophy) is that we don’t have to worry about replacement players. You don’t get replacement players in the Finals—you work with what you’ve got. And it’s a bit easier to imagine how the Warriors would play with an otherwise stable roster.


But that leads us to the biggest problem with counterfactuals—deciding what we think would happen. Imagine that Jordan Poole’s incredible buzzer-beating three to end the third quarter of Game 5 had rimmed out. What would have happened? Would the Warriors still have won the game? In real life, the Warriors won by 10. Should we conclude that in our counterfactual, the Warriors would have won by 7? They might have, but it’s far from obvious. That was a huge momentum-shifting shot to give the Warriors a lead going into the fourth quarter. After it went in, a Warriors victory felt inevitable.


Similarly, how do we figure out how the Finals would have gone without Steph? Largely by applying our prior theories of who contributes to winning! Steph Curry’s legendary gravity yanks defenders all over the court, and frequently gifts the Warriors advantageous 4-on-3 situations. Without him, all that would go away, and the Warriors would probably struggle. This is borne out (to some extent) by seeing how the Warriors do play with and without Steph Curry, and noting his eye-popping on-off numbers.


But that still doesn’t tell us how to evaluate this counterfactual. How would the Warriors have done in these NBA Finals without Steph Curry? Would they have lost in four games, or five? How are we supposed to tell—by imagining the entire series play-by-play? Of course not, because we wouldn’t know how. One huge problem is the uncomfortable truth that sports are giant random number generators, that even Steph “only” shoots 40% from three for his playoff career. And he doesn’t get to choose which ones go in; it’s not as though he’s missing 60% of his threes on purpose. Steph can work to improve his skills, and coordinate with his team to get better shots in games, but randomness is baked deeply into sports, as it is in life more broadly. That randomness plays a huge part in why we watch—not knowing what’s going to happen gives live sports its unique visceral thrill.


So it’s not like there’s a single counterfactual where Curry doesn’t play, and our task is to guess what in the world happens over there. There’s a whole bunch of counterfactuals we have to assess together. And we need to figure out how to think about the entire range of possible outcomes.


Suppose we solve that problem, and you and I come to agree that without Steph Curry, there would be an 80% chance the Warriors would have been swept, a 10% chance they’d have won one game, and so on. But in real life, the Warriors won four games out of six. How impressive is that? Well, winning one game is better than getting swept. And winning three games is a whole lot better. But how much better? It’s far from clear. Not all wins or losses are created equal, and the magic of a Game 7 is that the difference between winning three games and winning four is immense.


In other words, even after we’ve granted every premise to this sort of counterfactual analysis—that we have the right counterfactual, that we know what we’re supposed to imagine, and that we agree on how things would go—it’s still unclear how we should value the results it gives us. Thinking about counterfactuals was supposed to help us appreciate Steph’s contributions to his team winning in the real world. Remember, we’re pretending to be Winning Theorists. We’re pretending that we only care about winning, and nothing else. And we still can’t tell how much Steph contributed to winning! Even with counterfactual results in hand, it’s still unclear how to compare the Warriors’ actual performance with Steph against the range of their counterfactual performances without him.


So are we just screwed? Not quite.


We can’t get away from counterfactuals—they’re integral to how we think about sports. And they take a particularly stark form given the binary nature of so many sports outcomes. Teams win or lose, shots go in or they don’t, and there’s a beautiful moment while the ball’s hanging in the air where we can’t tell what’s about to happen. Counterfactuals confront us with every shot.

But we need to think more carefully about how to set counterfactuals up, and what sort of value we’re hoping to capture with them. That way, we’re at least asking the right questions of the form: What would have happened if...?


So here’s one final question: What would have happened if the Warriors didn’t draft Steph Curry in 2009? Remember, this is the franchise that Bill Simmons called “the most tortured franchise in professional basketball” as late as Curry’s injury-ridden 2012 season. Would the Warriors have gone 73-9, made the finals six times in eight years, and won four championships (so far)?


Probably not.


So give that man the Bill Russell trophy.


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