Charley Rosen's Close Look: Westbrook or Felton for Most Improved?
Compared to the more celebrated postseason awards -- such as the MVP, the league's outstanding defender and the most prolific sixth man -- the Most Improved Player seems to be a marginal, if not dubious, honor.
However, as past recipients have demonstrated, being named the MIP can bring a player the benefits of a lucrative, long-term contract. For example, the likes of Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis, Zach Randolph and Danny Granger.
Thus far this season, Raymond Felton and Russell Westbrook have been widely promoted as being two of the leading candidates. But in the Knicks' 112-98 blowout of the visiting Thunder, the face-to-face matchup between these two point guards was utterly decisive.
His foot-speed and sudden acceleration enabled him to get to the hoop on numerous occasions, but he had trouble making layups in heavy traffic, converting only 5 of 10 of these. Nor were Westbrook's jumpers falling at an acceptable rate, although 4 of 10 just about matches his career shooting percentage.
But he did monster an offensive rebound in a crowd and score on the resulting put-back -- reminding us all that strength, quickness and explosive ups are Westbrook's most effective tools.
It's clear, though, that Westbrook is only a situational passer who's usually hellbent on attacking the rim. Overall, he was 10 of 24 from the field, too many shots for the point guard of a winning team. Indeed, Kevin Durant only managed 18 shots while playing 37 minutes to Westbrook's 31.
Westbrook also accumulated five assists to go along with his five turnovers. Even so, his total of 23 points is equal to his season's average and is nearly seven points per game higher than last season's mark.
In sum, Westbrook is still learning how to run a team, still has an afflicted jumper, has no range and is scoring more only because he is shooting more. Compare his 14.6 shots per game in his first two seasons with 17.2 this season. Yes, his shooting percentage is up -- 44.4 percent from 40.8 percent -- but most of his buckets come on fast-breaking or early offense situations.
There's no way that Westbrook deserves MIP honors.
Contrary to Westbrook, Felton is a pass-first player who's a situational scorer. Out from under Larry Brown's heavy hand, Felton is thriving in Mike D'Antoni's more free-wheeling, permissive offense. His assists are up to 9.0 from his lifetime average of 6.4, and he's now scoring 18.4 points per game as opposed to last season's average of only 12.1.
Like Westbrook, Felton is far from being a dead-eye shooter -- he was only 5 of 14 in the game at hand. But Felton's true value can be measured by his 10 assists as opposed to his committing only a single turnover. In other words, Felton is already an accomplished point guard who knows what to do, as well as how and when to do it.
Although he did force a trio of flip shots -- one of which was blocked -- Felton was most often looking for an open teammate.
Neither of these guys is an adequate defender -- Westbrook tallied 19 of his points in direct confrontations with Felton, and James Harden and Eric Maynor dropped a bucket each on Felton's watch. Meanwhile, Westbrook only yielded 11 points -- all scored by Felton. The difference being that the latter had to defend proven scorers, while the former was rarely challenged by Felton.
It should also be noted that New York's offense was much more suited to a playmaking point guard than was OKC's. Indeed, the Knicks' constant motion created optimal spacing -- the ball kept popping from player to player (except when Amar'e Stoudemire had possession), and the extra pass was always made. No surprise that the Knicks had 30 assists to go with their 42 fields goals, as opposed to the Thunder's 15 and 38. These factors led to New York's enjoying a plentitude of uncontested shots which eventuated in the team shooting 48.8 percent, including 10 of 21 from downtown.
In addition, the Knicks hustled on every play, routinely closing out shooters on defense and executing precise baseline rotations to mostly nullify the Thunder's ball penetrations.
Meanwhile, OKC did too much standing around on offense. The ball was rarely reversed, shots were forced, and virtually every "play" resulted in an isolation. That's why they shot only 39.2 percent, including an abominable 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.
Granted, this was only one of 82 games; nevertheless, the Thunder certainly looked more like pretenders than contenders.
And if Felton is currently much more deserving of MIP consideration than is Westbrook, his biggest competitor might actually be one of his teammates -- namely Wilson Chandler.