Welcome. The darts are on this table, the names are on that wall.
Choose Most Improved Player.
Several candidates will get votes, as is the case most years in this most-subjective of all postseason awards that requires weighing past impact as much as present value. Best reserve or top defender are about 2012-13, but this is the category that attempts to quantify a full body of work. Some among the writers and broadcasters who regularly cover the league from each NBA city will even consider expectations – the young player picked in the lottery was supposed to be this good and merely needed time to get there, unlike the guy that built a career from back in the pack.
One well-regarded coach – not Mark Jackson – said Golden State’s Klay Thompson would be his choice because of Thompson’s key role in the Warriors surging into the playoffs… and Thompson is a shooter whose shooting percentage dropped from last season. Most Improved can become a bottomless grab bag.
The choice here, after conversations with several people inside the game, is Larry Sanders of the Bucks in a very close call over Omer Asik (Rockets), Paul George (Pacers), Jrue Holiday (76ers) and Greivis Vasquez (Hornets), such a close call that the runners up are listed alphabetically to avoid making a split on top of the split. Kemba Walker (Bobcats), Tristan Thompson (Cavaliers) and Nikola Vucevic (Magic) also probably get support.
Each candidate from the lead pack has a sound argument, especially George and Holiday as All-Stars in an undeniable credibility boost. If coaches in their own conference say George and Holiday reached such a special level, that is impossible to dismiss.
But so is this: George’s shooting percentage overall and on threes is down from last season. Holiday’s overall accuracy will be about the same as 2012-13. Plus, they were already established, big-minute guys.
Sanders will go from 12.4 minutes a game last season, all as a reserve, to possibly finishing in the top 10 in the league in two categories, blocks (for sure) and rebounding (maybe). In a nod to his 27.3 minutes, not the typical starter’s work load, he could also end up in the top five in both departments per 48 minutes, and he has logged more time the second half of the season, a nudge that started soon after Scott Skiles was fired as coach.
This is the Sanders the Bucks envisioned when they picked him at No. 15 in 2010, five spots after the Pacers took George and 13 before Vasquez went to the Grizzlies. This is also the Sanders that Milwaukee imagined as part of the front line after trading center Andrew Bogut last season, albeit, the team hopes, while learning to control his emotions. That needs to become his next improvement.
The other top contenders:
Asik – For all the deserved attention on what the arrival of James Harden has meant for the Rockets, signing Asik as a free agent to be the once-and-for-all successor to Yao Ming at center became a direct hit of an acquisition. He became a big factor on defense at age 26 and they became a playoff team.
George – He turned the potential devastation of losing Danny Granger to injury into the positive of George blossoming in his third season as one of the best young wings in the game. Already well-established after starting 19 games as a rookie and all 66 in 2011-12, George became an All-Star who will score and rebound.
Holiday – The serious fade of 39.4-percent shooting in March and 26.6 percent the first five games of April hurts his case. But there is no denying the gains of 2012-13, all the way to the All-Star game. P.S.: He’s 22 years old.
Vasquez – The kind of out-of-nowhere candidate that can draw a lot of attention in this category. Holiday and George were full-time starters last season, and Asik had the headline of the free-agent move from Chicago, but Vasquez went from a lot of Jarrett Jack backup duty in 2011-12 to being on track to finish third in assists in 2012-13. Not third on the team. Third in the league.