It’s still early.
We keep hearing those two words, and it’s true. Although most teams have already played somewhere around 20 games, they still have 3 times that figure left. As such, while some phenomena are already clear to us (the Clippers suck, the Celtics be beasting, etc.), one of our favorite activities – bludgeoning each other to death over award races – is sill premature.
You can’t determine things like MVP, ROY, or 6th Man of the Year after just one quarter of all play. You just can’t. Sure, the field has already been separated to contenders and also-rans – nobody is giving Johan Petro an MVP vote or arguing the Blake Griffin has a sizable lead in the race for ROY – but contenders just aren’t that interesting.
Except for the Most Improved Player award.
With the MIP, the whole point is the contenders. The funnest thing about November, to me, is watching as a guy just blows up to proportions that seemed impossible even as late as training camp. And unlike the bigger awards, the MIP has such a loose definition, that several players can fit under the criteria.
So here is one person’s way-too-long-list of players who have made the leap so far, separated into appropriate categories. This is in no way a ranking – though if there are more/less deserving candidates, I will point them out – as much as it is a showing of appreciation for those who have played at another level so far.
(All stats are from the ever so helpful Hoopdata.com. Also, allow me to answer your question before you ask it: Eric Gordon isn’t here because he has regressed as a long range shooter and has only marginally improved anything other than his usage rate. Thank you)
The Superstar Leap:
Al Horford, Atlanta: Last season was the year we all realized Josh Smith and Al Horfordwere the Hawks’ best players. Josh Smith is playing even better so far – andyet, he is now a clear number 2 again. The stats are impressive enough – a ridiculous 63.7 TS%, career highs in assist rate, defensive rebound rate, turnover rate, free throw percentage and points per minute, 3rd in the entire league in PER – but what really puts Al over the edge is his defense. Fast enough to shade guards yet big enough to match with paint dwellers, Al has been one of the league’s best defenders so far. This despite being inexplicably restricted to only 32 minutes a night.
Horford was already an all-star last season, so his inclusion as a MIP candidate may raise some eyebrows, but the improvement has been monumental. That extension is looking like a bargain.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City: And who stands above Horford for 2nd in the league in PER? I’ll give you a hint: he plays for the Thunder and he isn’t Kevin Durant. Westbrook has taken his scoring to the next level by using his speed and athleticism to constantly get to the rim, where he either converts his shots at a career high 55.2%, or draw fouls. Russ is getting to the line 9.6 times a night (good for 4th in the league) and making his freebies at a career high 87% clip, combining with last year’s prominent leap-maker Kevin Durant to create the league’s most deadly foul drawing team. If he doesn’t make the all-star team this year, something is wrong with the universe.
From Stud To All-Star:
Kevin Love, Minnesota: Make no mistake, he is still one of the worst defenders in the league – otherwise, he would have been placed in the above category. However, he is also on pace for the most rebounds per game since Ben Wallace’s 15.4 in 02-03, and has eclipsed his previous career high in points per 40 minutes by 3.3. He’s shooting a career low 43.4%, but his TS% is right around his career mark thanks to improved marks from 3 (38.6%), and from the free throw line (88.5% on 6.1 attempts). He has been freed, and it has been marvelous.
Paul Millsap, Utah: We all saw this coming, yet it should be acknowledged. Finally out of Carlos Boozer’s shadow, and now paired up with Al Jefferson , a big man who can slide over to center without giving up 4 inches, Millsap has been a huge contributor for a Jazz team playing arguably their best ball of the past 4 years. Posting a career high 22.28 PER, shooting a career high 60.9 TS%, averaging a very Boozer-like 20.7 and 9.5 per 40, even improving as a passer to fill in for the now-Bulls forward. You probably won’t see this guy back in a 6th man role ever again.
Luis Scola, Houston: Watching Luis dominate at the world tourney this summer, everyone wanted to know if the Argentine Russell Brand clone could keep it up in the NBA. The answer has been a resounding yes. Posting a beastly 24.4 and10.5 per 40 minutes to go with a startlingly low 6.7 turnover rate, Scola has given the struggling Rockets hope and Spurs fans nightmares. His PER is also up to a nice 20.70. Yet another happy contract extender in Daryl Morey.
Rudy Gay, Memphis: Speaking of extenstions… no, this one still looks bad. But not nearly as bad as it was in October. After stagnating the past 3 years, Gay is posting career high across the board, clocking in at a very nice 21.7 points, 6.4 boards, and 2.7 assists a night. The big part, though, is his percentages: previously the definition of a volume scorer, Gay is shooting 49%-41%-84%, for a robust 57.3 TS%. And he could still improve more: Gay is shooting an absurd 72.6% at the rim, by far a career high, yet is taking only 3.5 shots from that area after taking 5.3 last year.
Roy Hibbert, Indiana: Let’s focus on this preseason prediction of mine, and not the one that had Milwaukee winning 51 games (whoops). Finally adjusted to the physical NBA game, both stamina-wise and no longer gathering fouls by the bunch, Hibbs has been able to stay on the court for the improved Pacers, and has been producing. 21 points, 11.8 boards, and 4 assists per 40 minutes. His 29 minutes per game prevent those per-game stats from looking as gaudy, and he’s cooled off after a hot start, but while the abundance of quality centers out East should keep him out of the all-star game for now, he’s in the discussion for the future. One quarter in, this is your MIP leader.
Raymon Felton, New York: If you had to choose all-star teams right now, who would be your guards out East? Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo should be locks. But then?
I’m going Felton, and not looking back. Early on, Felton’s career-best basketball was overshadowed with his struggles in the pick and roll. However, instead of sticking to his system, coach Mike D’Antonti has switched to a game more suited to Felton’s skills. And he has them: 18.1 points and 8.4 assists per game, while functioning for 38 minutes a night in the Knicks’ short rotation. His turnovers are still at a career high rate, but his scoring (58.3 TS%, with last season’s 52.5 being his best mark by a mile until now) and playmaking (30.4 assist rate) has more than offset that.
The Josh Smith Memorial “Realizing My Potential”
Michael Beasley, Minnesota: Beas’ rise hasn’t been as impressive as advertised – every non-scoring stat is pretty much the same. However, his future in this league is as a scorer, and he’s showing that he can definitely produce as one, with 26.2 points per 40 minutes. The efficiency still isn’t where you’d want it to be – only 52.9 TS%, and an over reliance on long 2s – but after playing so badly in Miami last season, it has been a welcome improvement.
Tyrus Thomas, Charlotte: Don’t be fooled by the subpar per-game numbers, which are only the result of Larry Brown inexplicably keeping his best big man on the bench for more than half a game. Once you expand those 21.2 minutes a night to per 40 numbers, you get blown away: 21.8 points, 10.9 boards, 1.8 steals and 3 blocks. Add that to finally getting rid of his inefficient ways, scoring wise – his TS% is at 58.3% after 4 seasons ranging between 48.6% and 52.5%, thanks to boasting career marks at the rim (68.4%), on long 2s (52%), and from the free throw line (82.7%) – and you get an all-star level PER of 22.47. Free Tyrus Thomas.
Matt Moore Motivates Me
Mike Conley, Memphis: I give the floor to Matt.
JaVale McGee, Washington: He still can’t spend a minute on the court without giving the impression that he doesn’t really know how to play basketball, but he’s shown considerable progress. His rebound rate is up from 14.5 to 17.9, and his TS% is up from 53.9 to 59.9. All in all, though the criticism is justified, you gotta like a 20.16 PER (after 17.04 in both of his first two seasons) and averages of 14.4 and 12.2 per 40 minutes. He’s also making slight progress as far as his weaknesses go, fouling once every 10.5 minutes instead of once every 8, and going from an absolutely awful 3.3 assist rate to a just totally awful 5.6. Baby steps.
Weren’t You On Your Way Out Of The League?
Daniel Gibson, Cleveland: Three years ago, Boobie was carving up the Pistons in the playoffs andlooked like the greatest second round steal ever. Once the dust settled, though, Boobie was revealed as a decent spot up shooter and not much else.
This year, Boobie’s shooting is actually down quite a bit – his TS% has dropped from 61.3% to 55.1%, and his 3 point shooting is at a career low 38.1%. The difference has been that he has finally begun doing other things as well. His rebound rate is still bad at 6.9, but is far improved over last year’s horrid 4.1. His turnover rate is at a fine 6.8. And he’s attacking the hole, getting 2.1 shots at the rim a game (might not sound like much, but his previous career high was 0.9). Even though he only makes 0.8 of those shots, it has helped him get to the foul line a career high 3 times a night.
The most impressive thing about Gibson, however, has been his usage rate. End-of-the-bench players tend to take a hit in their efficiency when they are given the ball more. However, Gibson’s usage is at 20.6 after 13.3 last season, and while the scoring isn’t as efficient, his PER has jumped from 11.31 to a respectable 16.16. He won’t garner much consideration for the actual award, but he’s been as much of an MIP as anyone so far.
Darrell Arthur, Memphis: For his first two seasons, Arthur was a scoring 4 who is incapable of scoring. Which was kind of a problem.
Now he’s a scoring 4 that can, indeed, score. The main difference being that he can actually get a shot up. Arthur had 8.5% of his shots blocked his rookie year, and that figure crept up to a disturbing 12.3% during his injury plagued sophomore campaign. This year, it’s down to just 4.9%. As a result, Arthur’s percentage at the rim has jumped from a horrendous 49.1% to a Dwight-esque 80.6%. Pair that with an actual midrange shot (43% from 16 to 23 feet, after 38% and 33% in previous years), and the Grizzlies can actually offer something off their bench.
Bounce Back Veterans
Richard Jefferson, San Antonio: After a terrible season last year in which he seemed like he’s done as a player, RJ is back in business. His scoring numbers aren’t near his career averages because his usage has gone down as a 4thoption, and his rebounding has been gone for years, but his TS% is at a career high 62.6%, he rarely turns the ball over, and he’s getting it done defensively. Most important, the Bruce Bowen trademarked corner 3 has been falling all year long. While Manu and Tony have been incredible so far, Jefferson finally doing what he was brought in for has helped the Spurs regain contention as much as anything.
Tyson Chandler, Dallas: Apparently, he was just injured. After slugging through terrible seasons in his last New Orleans campaign and his sole season in Charlotte, Chandler has gone back to being the defensive beast he once was, ranking third in the league in defensive rating (behind Dwight and KG) and leading a defensive overhaul from a Mavericks team that suddenly doesn’t have the tools to outscore people anymore.
Except Tyson has been getting it done offensively as well. While him leading the league in TS% may not raise any eyebrows due to the perception that the only thing he does is dunk, Tyson has been earning that mind boggling 74.3% by improving his perpetual weakness: his free throw shooting. A career 61.8% shooter from the stripe, Tyson is currently at a fine mark of 80.2%. Combine that with a 72.5 shooting percentage at the rim – back in the territory of his finest NOLA days – and you have the league leader in offensive rating. Yes. Tyson Chandler. I know.
Elton Brand, Philadelphia: Brand will never regain his Clipper dominance, and the Sixers will forever regret that contract, but given how bad he’s looked since moving to Philly, you have to like what you’re seeing from him so far this year. His field goal percentage is back above 50% after three sub-48 years, and his true shooting is at a 4 year high as well at 56.9%. His free throw shooting is actually the highest of his career, at 80.8%. The rebounding has gone with the hops, and he isn’t dominating teams any more, but after looking like bench fodder for three years he looks like he could probably be a decent 3rd option for a functioning offense. If only Philly had one.
I Only Improved One Thing, But I Improved It So Darn Much
Shannon Brown, L.A.Lakers: Brown is sure to get a lot of MIP hype if his production sustains, due to the humongous spotlight that is constantly on his team, and the way his past few seasons have modeled our perception of him as a dunker and not a basketball player. I take offense to this, because in most areas, Shannon Brown is the same guy. His rebound rate is marginally improved, his assist rate is down 1.5%, his turnover rate identical. He gets 0.4 more steals a night, I guess, but that’s not worth much more than a pat on the back.
Where Shannon has excelled, though, has been as a shooter. His percentages are up from last year from wherever you want on the court – at the rim (62.5 vs. 58.1), inside 10 feet (73.7 vs. 44.4, though he attempts only one a game), on long twos (42 vs. 41), and most importantly, from three point range (43.1 vs 32.8). The only area in which he has stagnated is the 10-15 foot range, where he has only taken 5 shots all season, missing them all. His TS% has taken the hint as well, jumping from 51.7% to 61.5%, dragging his PER up with it (20.47, up from 12.41).
I don’t think Shannon should win MIP, or anywhere near it. Virtually no part of his game has improved other than his shooting. He’s not better as a creator – his assist ratio, as mentioned, is down, and he’s been assisted on more of his shots than in the past (61.7%, vs. 57.3). Even his free throw shooting, now a ridiculous 93.1%, has come on the exact same number of attempts per game. And since shooting percentages tend to be fluky, I don’t think he’ll be in the same 50-40-90 territory once the season comes to an end.
However, in the Lakers’ system, Shannon’s improvement fits the bill like a glove. It has magnified his imprint like the Suns magnify opposing frontcourts. The Lakers needed Shannon to become a top-notch shooter, and he has, and for that he should be applauded.
Nobody Else Will Have Him On Their Lists But I Swear He’s Not A Gimmick
Glen Davis, Boston: Big Baby’s stats show minor improvements in assist ratio (from 8.2 to 10.4), major improvement in defensive rebounding rate (13.3 to 17.3), turnover rate (12.4 to 8.8) and true shooting (50 to 54.6), and a baffling regression in offensive rebounding rate (from a dominant 13.7 to a subpar 5.3). He’s been much better around the rim offensively, getting blocked only on 5.5% of his shots vs. 17.9% of the time last year, which might explain some of the lost offensive rebounds and is a good sign in general. Good stuff, but not MIP material.
Subjectively, though, Davis has been incredible. Coming off the Celts’ bench, he has supplied them with energy and hustle on every turn, and a newfound defensive intensity. Always taking a charge or rotating correctly, unabusable in the post. I admit this is hard to quantify – which is why you’re welcome to disagree with me here – but it has seemed to me like the drop off between Garnett and Davis on defense has been minimal. Which is huge for the Celtics and terrible for everybody.