Ranking the NBA's Most Improved Player Candidates
Talent is one thing. Work ethic is another.
It's a creed that is as true in the NBA as anywhere else, and the Most Improved Player award is often the place to find a young player who has applied both key elements in a most admirable way while becoming a far more relevant member of the league.
Unless you're Bobby Simmons.
Leave it to a Clipper to mess with a good trend. The 2004-05 MIP award winner has fallen completely off the NBA map since he more than doubled his scoring average from one year to the next (7.8 points per game in 2003-04 to 16.4). Yet aside from that aberration, it's a quality cast of characters that has earned this trophy.
There's no shortage of worthy candidates in this year's race, too, including one who has a chance to right the Simmons wrong. Clippers guard Eric Gordon has seen a Simmons-like spike in his already-impressive production, going from 16.9 points per game and 44.9 percent shooting in his second season to 23.8 points per game on 46 percent shooting while proving a worthy running mate to Rookie of the Year leader Blake Griffin.
Gordon was asked to do more when Baron Davis missed 14 games early on, and those demands haven't lightened even with veteran point guard returning on Dec. 1 and the Clippers' play improving of late. He is the latest young player to reap the benefits on international competition as well, having shined with Team USA during its gold medal run in the FIBA World Championship Tournament last summer.
And from the sound of it, Gordon would vote for himself if given the chance.
"I've improved a lot," he told me recently. "I think I've improved in almost every area, from assists (three per game in 2009-10 to 4.6 this season) to rebounding (2.6 to 3.3) to scoring. I know I've gotten a lot better this year and will hopefully get better for many years on.
"That (production level) is where I think I'm going to be from here on out. It's just easy for me to score now. I can contribute (in other areas) and still get those types of points."
The increase in numbers, it should be noted, has come while his playing time has been similar to last season (an increase from 36 minutes per game to 37.7). And while his 3-point percentage has dropped significantly (37.1 to 32.7), the impact is marginal because the three-ball is no longer such huge part of his game. While 3-point attempts accounted for 38.4 percent of Gordon's shots last season, they are making up just 29.7 percent of his attempts this time around.
Griffin, who steals the spotlight from Gordon and so many others around the league on a nightly basis, agrees that Gordon shouldn't be overlooked.
"I think his confidence is the biggest difference (this season)," Griffin said. "I saw him do all the things he's doing now last year, just not as much. We had a few more scorers last year, were a different team and all that. And he was a younger guy.
"But now he's kind of like a vet on this team and his confidence is unbelievable. His game is air-tight, in my opinion. He can go to the hole, shoot the three, shoot the mid-range (shot). He does everything."
He's not alone in this competition, though. Let's look at the others. (Stats comparing last season to this season updated through Friday's games; click the player's name to see his full stat-line)
1. Kevin Love, F, Minnesota
Key stats: Minutes per game (28:36 last season to 36 this season), Points (14 to 20.8), FG % (45.1 to 45.1), Rebounds (11 to 15.5)
Breakdown: Griffin might be in a class all his own when it comes to above-the-rim highlights, but Love is all by himself when it comes to everything under the iron. His third season has been a rare delight to watch unfold for one major reason: he's producing at the same rate as before despite seeing much more playing time. That's usually not the case, as most players' per-48 minute statistics fall off as they spend more time off the bench.
Thus, we have this eye-popping stat: Love already has five 20-20 games (points and rebounds), which includes his 31-point, 31-rebound game in a win over New York on Nov. 12. He has come within one rebound of that mark two other times. The 8-25 T-Wolves still have a long ways to go, but Love is making them worth watching every time out.
There's a trend developing here, too: Love, like Gordon, used his Team USA experience to help develop his game last summer.
2. Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago
Key stats: Points per game (20.8 to 23.9), Assists (6 to 8.5), 3-point FG % (26.7 to 39.1)
Breakdown: There are no rules saying an MVP candidate can't be up for MIP as well, and so we present one of the league's most thrilling young talents (who, by the way, was also a Team USA member).
He had already turned heads around the league in his first two seasons, showcasing his incredible speed, attack-mode style and leaping ability. But now he's taking it to a new level, having carried an offensive load like none other while waiting for Carlos Boozer to return from a hand injury and now leading a team that has won 12 of its last 14 games.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that he did it while showing off a long-range game that is not only far more effective (see above comparison) but far more prevalent (0.8 3-point attempts per game last season compared to 4.3 this season).
3. Eric Gordon, G, Los Angeles Clippers
See above for the case for Gordon.
4. Michael Beasley, F, Minnesota
Key stats: Minutes per game (29:53 to 34:42), Points (14.8 to 22.2), FG % (45 to 47.6), 3-point percentage (27.5 to 43.9)
Breakdown: Yes, we know by now that Miami was willing to give up the second pick of the 2008 draft for just two future second-round draft picks because the Heat needed salary cap room to bring on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but there's the other side of that reality too: They didn't think they were giving up much at all.
Beasley had underperformed badly in his first two seasons and been a public relations nightmare. Now, he's giving the T-Wolves someone else to watch beyond Love while, as general manger David Kahn told me in mid-November, being a true professional as well.
5. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City
Key stats: Points per game (16.1 to 22.3), FG % (41.8 to 43.7), Free-throw percentage (78.8 to 87.1)
Breakdown: He is a point guard, after all, so we must first acknowledge the other area of importance beyond points, field-goal percentage and free throws. The score-first Westbrook is dishing it out just as frequently as before (eight assists per game last season compared to 8.1 this season), and the only noticeable area of decline -- by way of an increase -- is his turnovers (3.3 to 3.9).
But overall, Westbrook has taken significant steps forward that so many knowledgeable observers weren't sure were possible. Specifically, his mid-range game has come along and he is proving to be quite a leader. His improved accuracy from the charity stripe has come in handy, too, as he is getting to the line nearly three more times per game this season as compared to last (5.2 to 7.8).
On those rare nights when Kevin Durant is off, the Thunder are more confident than ever that they can rely on Westbrook to carry the offensive load. And, in case you weren't aware, Westbrook was a member of Team USA last summer as well.
6. Raymond Felton, PG, New York
Key stats: Points per game (12.1 to career-high 18), Assists (5.6 to career-high 8.9), FT % (76.3 to career-high 87.7)
Breakdown: Felton has certainly improved his production and deserves consideration at this point, but he is clearly benefiting from the system of coach Mike D'Antoni after years under the oppressive Larry Brown.
In fact, you have to wonder if Felton's outstanding play played a small role in Brown being pushed out in Charlotte on Dec. 22. Sources close to the Bobcats said owner Michael Jordan was frustrated at seeing Brown give up on players like Felton, who went on to greater prominence elsewhere (see Tyson Chandler).
Still, Felton has actually regressed in some key areas. His shooting percentage is down (a career-high 45.9 to 44.6), and his turnovers are up significantly (2.1 to 3.5 per game, ranking him sixth-worst in the league and fifth-worst among point guards).
7. Paul Millsap, PF, Utah
Key stats: Minutes per game (27:48 to 34:36), Points (11.6 to 17.5), Rebounds (6.8 to 7.9)
Breakdown: Not to bore folks with a math class here, but a key factor that separates some of these players from others when it comes to development is the ability to either maintain a previous productivity rate when given more playing time or perhaps even increase it.
In Millsap's case, the departure of free agent Carlos Boozer to Chicago has meant a 24.4 percent increase in playing time. His scoring, however, has increased 50.8 percent. And while his rebounding rate has actually declined, Millsap is clearly enjoying the chance to showcase the offensive game we all knew he had during his first four seasons with the Jazz.
8. Jrue Holiday, PG, Philadelphia
Key stats: Minutes per game (24:11 to 34:36) Points (eight to 14.3), Assists (3.8 to 6.5)
Breakdown: And the nomination for MIP candidate to watch closely goes to ...
As noted by first-year Sixers coach Doug Collins recently to FanHouse's Brett Pollakoff, "He's growing. He's 20 years old."
They were two relatively straightforward statements of fact, but also the main reasons to wonder how good Holiday can be after the UCLA product was taken 17th overall in 2009.
The intriguing part about his game is that he has the potential to become one of the league's best two-way point guards. His length is extremely bothersome on defense, and he has the necessary defensive mentality to flourish on that end.
Add in the development of his point guard skills offensively, and there is much promise here.
"He started out training camp ... trying to get guys so involved offensively that he struggled early," Collins said. "And then when I talked to him about looking more for his offense and being more aggressive with the pick and roll, it seemed to lift all of the other phases of his game. He has a chance to be a really good defender. He's long. He's rangy. When he gets his feet set, he can shoot the three. He's very good at going to the basket. He's got good body control."
And, of course, he's 20 and growing.
9. Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana
Key stats: Points per game (11.7 to 13.6), Rebounds (5.7 to 8.2), Blocks (1.6 to 1.9)
Breakdown: The numbers might not wow you, but the before and after pictures will. Hibbert transformed his body over the summer, losing 23 pounds through hard work and a little medical luck. Doctors discovered that the third-year player out of Georgetown had "athlete-induced asthma," a condition that would cause major fits with fatigue for Hibbert in recent years.
The 17th pick of the 2008 draft is a new man in many ways now, using his newly-chiseled body to bang more effectively with some of the best big men in the game and make us wonder if he could join that elite class one day soon. His offense took a serious dip last month, though, as his scoring fell from 15.6 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting in November to 10.9 on 41.6 percent shooting in December.
10. Dorell Wright, G/F, Golden State
Key stats: Minutes per game (20:48 to 38:53), Points (7.1 to 15.7), Rebounds (3.3 to 6.2), Assists (1.3 to 3.1)
Breakdown: As Beasley well knows, there's something to be said for taking your talents away from South Beach. The seven-year veteran whose first six seasons came in Miami, signed a three-year, $11.4 million deal with the Warriors and has earned his keep quite well so far.
His three-point game has been a big part of Golden State's offense, as Wright is shooting an impressive 40.9 percent from beyond the arc while averaging nearly three times as many attempts (2.2 last season to six this season). He has buried six or more 3-pointers three times this season, including a career-high nine (on 12 attempts) in a win over Minnesota on Nov. 27. In fact, entering Saturday's action, he was tied with San Antonio's Manu Ginobili for the NBA's lead in 3-point makes.
Yet there is one serious hole in his MIP campaign, as Wright's overall efficiency from the field has taken a hit with his newfound playing time. His field-goal percentage has dropped from 46.3 to 41.6.
Wesley Matthews, G/F, Portland; D.J. Augustin, PG, Charlotte; JaVale McGee, C, Washington; Shannon Brown, G, Lakers; Daniel Gibson, G, Cleveland.
E-mail Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.