The NBA's Most Improved Player award: a piece of hardware that really shouldn't cause this much confusion. For one, it's often mistaken with the long-defunct Comeback Player of the Year award. Then there's the annual conflict between players who are lucky enough to play a lot more compared to seasons past and players who have actually improved.
Unlike the Most Valuable Player, the name of this award alone should provide strident enough guidelines for voters. And yet, the trophy sometimes ends up in the hands of players who were performing at roughly the same level as the year before, but (for whatever reason) were awarded a significant minutes per game increase. The minutes bump, and exponential statistical rise in per-game averages, confuse the voters enough to think that the player in question has actually "improved" when, in fact, he's usually just playing similarly to the year before but for longer stretches.
Another pratfall voters fall victim to is short-term memory loss, which is why you won't see Eddy Curry (21.8 points, eight rebounds per 40 minutes this season) and Tyson Chandler (10.3 points, 14.3 rebounds per 40 minutes) in the Rankings below. We're right chuffed at the prospect of these oft-maligned bigs having borderline All-Star seasons, but how have Curry (22.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes in 2004-05) and Chandler (11.7 points, 14.2 rebounds per 40 that same year) "improved" if they're playing at the same level as two seasons ago? Again, more confusion.
Thankfully, we're not as confused (about this award, at least). This is why, for the bulk of this column, you'll see me refer to per-minute stats (40 minutes a game, about what your typical superstar will play in a close contest) in order to attempt to balance things out and give us a better idea of who is doing more (or less) with their time on the court.
(All stats through March 15.)
|NBA's Most Improved Players|
||Martin isn't as clear-cut a winner as he seemed in December, but this is hardly his fault. Though Martin played some solid basketball down the stretch of 2005-06, he only hinted at an ascension to stardom that seemed a few years away. Instead, the jump came this year: He's raised his per-40 scoring average to 23.8 after giving the Kings 16.3 last season (and 11.5 in his rookie year). Martin's ability to create his own shot and his lane-penetrating acumen (with either hand) have improved considerably. It would be a shame if he lost out on the 2007 Most Improved Player award.
||Williams has long boasted a gift few point guards own but most covet: the ability to make the quick decision between a pass or a shot without letting the end result look forced, as if the point guard in question is making a point (pun unintended, as they all should be) to showcase an unselfish streak or, on the flip side, to pump up that scoring average. Williams is an open tap full of correct decisions, and the slimmed-down frame he acquired between his rookie and second season is allowing him to establish his place among the NBA's top lead guards. Williams is averaging 9.9 assists per 40 minutes, up from 6.2 last season, and his shooting percentage is up as well. Williams has also won his coach's confidence: Utah boss Jerry Sloan is letting the 22-year-old play 37.2 minutes per game, no small feat.
||We had our misgivings about Iguodala. Where others saw him as a potential breakout star whose impact was mitigated by Allen Iverson's 30 shots per game, we saw him as a nice talent who probably wouldn't take too big a step up in Iverson's absence due to ball-handling issues. Well, we were wrong. Very, very wrong. Iguodala can get to the basket just fine with a live dribble, and his passing touch continues to amaze -- he gets an assist in 22 percent of the possessions he takes part in, better than Iverson's percentage this year. Iguodala is averaging 18.2 points and 5.5 assists per 40 minutes, up from 13 and 3.3 last season.
||Nobody's pushed the idea of Jefferson as a future All-Star 'round these parts more than yours truly, but the thing that keeps him out of Kevin Martin's league is the fact that he's just been improving exponentially and not really surprising anyone who has paid attention. Throw out last season's injury-plagued run when Jefferson played hurt in many of the 59 games in which he appeared. As a rookie, he averaged 18.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. And this year? He's at 18.6 points and 13.4 boards per 40. Why is he so high on this list, then? His ability to stay on the court. Jefferson averaged 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes over his first two seasons, and that's down to 4.2 per 40 this year. That's the type of growth that is twice as important as any per-game stat increase, which is why he's averaging more than twice as many minutes (33.1 to 16.3 career) per contest.
||Most saw Bynum's current production rates (14 points, 11 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes) in his near future, but few had him pegged to break this far out (man) in his second season. One has to hesitate before finding fault with an NBA rookie's stats in his first year out of high school, but with Bynum improving as much as he has, the very idea that he is a season removed from shooting 40 percent from the field (55 percent this season) and 29.6 percent from the line (69 percent now) is a testament to the 19-year-old's sense of dedication. And the idea that Phil Jackson would hand 23.5 minutes a night to a player born a few months after Gary Hart's viability as a presidential candidate was shot to hell? That says a lot.