NBA AM: The Case For NBA Most Improved
The Case For Most Improved: With the halfway point of the NBA season approaching for most teams, there are a few players that have really upped their games this season. Some of that is due to new roles such as becoming starters or having more minutes, some have simply broken out in a big way.
Predicting the field for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award is never easy, so rather than personally pontificating on the merits of each guy, we put this out to the HOOPSWORLD writers and let them nominate a candidate and make their case.
James Harden – Houston Rockets
When the Houston Rockets did their due diligence on James Harden they saw a player who had incredibly high stats in all the right places and being a team that focuses heavily on stats, they decided he was someone they would love to add to their roster. When contract talks between Harden’s camp and the Oklahoma City Thunder hit a snag, the Rockets got their chance.
Harden staked his claim on the franchise player role for Houston right out of the gate, scoring 37 points and dishing 12 assists in a win over Detroit, after which he dropped 45 points on the Atlanta Hawks. Normally a player who gets hot early will eventually struggle as teams begin to plan for him, but Harden has continued to impress, even earning Player of the Week honors last week when he averaged 29.3 points (second in the conference), 3.25 steals (second in the conference) and 5.5 assists in leading the Rockets to a 4-0 week.
James Harden is the real deal. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.
– Bill Ingram
Greivis Vasquez – New Orleans Hornets
The New Orleans Hornets drafted combo guard Austin Rivers with the tenth overall pick of the draft last June with visions of him being the team’s point guard of the future. But as we approach the All-Star break, Rivers has routinely struggled to find his groove at the pro level and Greivis Vasquez has emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.
Simply put, Vasquez is putting in work every single night this season and is averaging 14.1 points, 9.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds on 44 percent shooting from the floor. And those numbers don’t reflect a bloated start because Vasquez has gotten better as the season has progressed with averages of 17.6 points and 11 assists on 52 percent shooting during the month of January (now playing alongside a healthy Eric Gordon in the lineup).
If you’re looking for your MIP this season then head down to Bourbon Street. There may be a few more “well known” names on this list, but this young man has been sizzling. Time for some mainstream respect.
– Lang Greene
J.J. Hickson – Portland Trail Blazers
Last season J.J. Hickson was waived by the lowly Sacramento Kings. Now, he’s battling for a significant contract this offseason, largely because he’s become far more efficient on offense. Whereas he hit just 37 percent of his field goals with the Kings, he’s made over 54 percent of his attempts since joining the Portland Trail Blazers with 19 games remaining in the 2011-12 season.
This season he’s averaging a career-high 11 rebounds per game, and even though he’s logging around 30 minutes per night, he’s kept his fouls in check, averaging just a pair per contest. He’s been forced to play center in Portland and that may not be his long-term position, but Hickson hasn’t complained, and has instead posted the highest Player Efficiency Rating (20.59) of his career and a respectable scoring average of 12.5 points per game.
– Alex Raskin
Serge Ibaka – Oklahoma City
The 2012-13 NBA season hasn’t quite reached the halfway mark, yet Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder has already proven his name belongs atop the league’s Most Improved Player list.
His record shot-blocking and defensive skills have been highly regarded for some time and remain steady, but the way he’s expanded on the offensive side of the ball – as the fourth offensive option on his team, no less – has added depth to his game. He’s averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game (including a recent single-game-career-high 26 points) compared to 9.1 points last season. Ibaka has improved in field goal shooting (6.2 at 57.2 percent versus 4.0 at 53.5 percent last season), he’s more reliable at the charity stripe (2.1 at 81.1 percent versus 1.2 at 66.1 percent last season) and he’s even shooting three-pointers (a total of seven made at 31.8 percent versus only two over the past three seasons). Notably, Ibaka has become a legitimate midrange threat, connecting on 55.6 percent from 10-15 feet compared to 25.6 percent last year, demonstrating he can produce away from the basket. He’s also rebounding better at 8.6 per game over 7.5 last season with seven double-doubles recorded so far.
Impressively, all of these increasing numbers are coming with just five minutes more playing time per game. Keep in mind, the above averages reflect the season to date; Ibaka’s numbers in the past five games are even better: 18.0 points, 8.8 rebounds (3.6 offensive boards), and 7.6 field goals at 59.6 percent, with totals of five assists and four steals thrown in for good measure. That’s marked improvement by leaps and bounds.
– Susan Bible
Omer Asik – Houston Rockets
Sometimes it just takes opportunity and center Omer Asik was aggressively recruited this offseason by the Houston Rockets. Stepping out from a reserve role with the Bulls (behind Joakim Noah), Asik leads the Rockets with 11.4 rebounds a game, more than twice the 5.3 he did nightly for Chicago. Asik has also averaged double figures in scoring 10.6 while shooting 52.5 percent from the field, an improvement from last year’s 3.1 a game.
The Rockets invested more than just money into Asik. They’ve trusted him to be a major inside presence, especially defensively. Asik has taken advantage of his 30 minutes a game (climbing from 14.7 a year ago) to help Houston climb into the top eight in the Western Conference.
– Eric Pincus
Jrue Holiday – Philadelphia 76ers
With budding superstar Andrew Bynum spending the first part of the 2012-13 NBA season in street clothes, the Philadelphia 76ers have remained in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt behind the improved play of Jrue Holiday.
Entering his fourth NBA season, Holiday has carried the load offensively for the Sixers with prized offseason acquisition Bynum on the shelf nursing an injured right knee. On a team that struggles to put points on the board in Philadelphia, Holiday has been the team’s best and most consistent scorer in the midst of his most productive season as a pro. Averaging career-highs across the board in virtually every statistical category, it’s clear that Holiday – who’s already been labeled as an All Star by the likes of Steve Nash – has taken the next step in his NBA evolution.
After a solid but unspectacular first few NBA seasons, Holiday has come into his own and should be recognized as one of the most improved players in the NBA this season.
– Derek Page
J.R. Smith – New York Knicks
Smith has shown intermittent flashes of brilliance throughout his eight-year NBA sojourn, but a combination of inconsistency and immaturity had always prevented him from fulfilling his potential. However, over the first two-plus months of the 2012-13 season, J.R. is playing the best basketball of his career.
He has embraced his role as sixth-man and is setting career-bests across the board (Smith’s 16.9 points per game is FIRST in the NBA among players coming off the bench). He has also set numerous records: Smith scored 20 points and grabbed five rebounds in five straight games (first time that has been done since 1989), and J.R. is the first Knick ever to score 25 or more points in four straight games coming off the bench. He is also averaging career-high in assists (2.9) and rebounds (5.2).
– Tommy Beer
J.J. Redick – Orlando Magic
For one reason or another, J.J. Redick has been doubted as a basketball player since his days at Duke. There he turned into one of the best scorers in the country, but he had a lot of question marks about his pro potential. Now, here we are seven seasons into his career, and he’s playing his best basketball yet.
Redick is the kind of guy who will be able to drill jump shots well into his 60’s, so the fact that he’s making two threes a game and averaging 14 points isn’t overly surprising to me based on the opportunity he’s getting with the Magic. What makes him the Most Improved Player, in my opinion, is the career-high 4.6 assists he’s putting up a game. Even at Duke, where he was the primary option who had the basketball in his hands a ton, he never averaged more than two a game. As a multi-year veteran who had already established himself as a solid player, Redick has made a jump that is exactly why this award was created.
– Yannis Koutroupis
Anderson Varejao – Cleveland Cavaliers
Anderson Varejao has improved more than any other player this season. In the past, Varejao was simply a role player, but this year he has been arguably the best center in the NBA when healthy.
He’s averaging career-highs across the board with 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals. Throughout his previous eight seasons in the NBA, his Player Efficiency Rating has always hovered right around 15, which is the league average. This year, he’s up to 22.03, which is the 15th-best rating in the league. He has been the Cleveland Cavaliers’ most consistent player. While he has been sidelined with an injury recently, that shouldn’t disqualify him considering the enormous improvement he has shown this year.
This award shouldn’t go to a young player who was expected to make progress once he started to enter his prime. This award should go to a player whose improvement wasn’t expected. Nobody thought that Varejao, at age 30, would have the most dominant season of his career this year. However, that’s exactly what he has done. He’ll likely be an All-Star reserve if healthy, an honor which would’ve seemed crazy just several months ago. That shows just how far he has come and why he deserves the Most Improved Player award.
– Alex Kennedy
Nikola Vucevic – Orlando Magic
Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic deserves a ton of credit for transforming into the one of the league’s top rebounders seemingly out of nowhere. Vucevic is averaging 11.3 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game this season, including a recent four-game stretch in which he’s averaged 16.8 points and 18 rebounds. Only three players in the entire NBA have more rebounds than Vucevic this year (Dwight Howard, Omer Asik, and Zach Randolph), and that is really what puts him in this conversation for Most Improved Player.
A lot of the other players mentioned for this accolade were on a path toward stardom anyway, but Vucevic is at least more surprising, and arguably more improved than the lot of them. The Andrew Bynum trade just keeps looking worse and worse for the Sixers, doesn’t it?
– Joel Brigham
Who is your 2013 NBA Most Improved Player? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below.
Checking In On Anthony Davis: Hornets rookie Anthony Davis is back on the floor and finding his groove after a very nasty foot and ankle injury cost him 13 games on the season.
Davis is starting to again show flashes of how good he can be in the NBA, especially with his Hornets having turned the corner a bit with the return of Eric Gordon to the lineup.
Davis talked with HOOPSWORLD after winning their third straight home game.
The Kings, Seattle and The Process: Yesterday reports surfaced that the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings, had agreed to sell the team to a group of investors in Seattle led by investor Chris Hansen and Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer for a whopping $500 million.
Since that story leaked, all sides of the situation have denied that a deal was agreed to and that all of the talks are very preliminary and conceptual.
There is no doubting the interest in purchasing a team by Hansen, who has secured the rights and funding to build a new world-class venue hoping to lure the NBA back to Seattle.
Kings sources reached yesterday were absolutely shocked at the news because there had been no discussions or disclosures made to them about a sale even being discussed.
Minority owners in the Kings were floored by the news themselves saying their ownership agreement required them to be notified of a sale and they had not been notified as of yesterday. The highest level executives in the Kings organization also claimed no knowledge of a deal, beyond the reports in the media.
The NBA for its part warned its teams and owners not to comment on the reported sale, which indicates there is more to this than just speculation.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said yesterday he was hoping to get a local investment group involved if it was possible, because this was the first time the Maloof’s had opened the door to selling the team. Johnson cited several situations during the failed attempts at building a new Sacramento arena when investors asked about buying the Kings to keep them in Sacramento.
The proposed sale would have the closing price of the Kings clocking in at roughly $500 million, with the Maloof family keeping a very small minority share. The plan that’s been leaked would have the Kings relocating from Sacramento next season and would play in Seattle’s KeyArena for the two years it will take to construct the new Hansen-built arena.
The Maloof family may have cleared a number of the NBA imposed hurdles with their dance with Anaheim two seasons ago. At the time the NBA and its Board of Governors urged the Maloofs to give Sacramento a chance to deliver a new world class arena, suggesting at the time that if a deal were not to materialize the Maloofs would have the Board’s blessing to explore other options at a later date.
The Maloofs did give Sacramento the year the NBA asked for and was unable to reach a deal that worked for the Maloof family, possibly opening the door for an easier approval of the sale and ultimate relocation.
When Seattle lost the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, part of the settlement with the city was that Seattle would retain the rights to the name SuperSonics, the team logos and color scheme for use with a future team and that is expected to be the Kings if a deal gets finalized.
Sources all around this transaction say things are just beginning and that nothing has been formalized, but it does look like a viable buyer is at the table with the Maloofs and the situation to get a deal done looks very close.
It’s About Find Your Niche: Sometimes in the NBA, you just have to find your niche. For Hornets big man Jason Smith, he has found a role in New Orleans that fits his skill set and he’s having tremendous success.
Smith is averaging 17 minutes a game for the Hornets and knocking in 8.1 points and grabbing just over 3.6 rebounds per contest from the bench and, as of late, has become the spark plug for the Hornets’ recent surge.
“All I try to do is go out there and work hard,” Smith said to HOOPSWORLD. “Do what the coaches ask of you and really that’s what you’re going to do and that’s your job. To go out there and work hard, play hard, really go out there and just do your job.”
Smith has joined Ryan Anderson in coming off the bench for the Hornets and with their ability to knock down big shots and stretch the floor, both players are seeing lots of open looks.
“I think it’s great that we got a good chemistry and continue to play off of each other,” explained Smith. “He can get a shot and the defense will really key up on him and then he sets a screen and then I get a shot, that’s great chemistry right there. If they want to take us both out, we move the ball and somebody else will get a shot. It’s great to just have that flow on offense like that with Ryan and it creates such a tough match-up for teams.”
Smith has one more non-guaranteed year on his deal making him an interesting free agent candidate or trade chip, but he says he really doesn’t try to think about the contract part of the business.
“I’m just happy to have a job,” said a smiling Smith. “Happy to be out here playing with these guys, we have a great group of guys, great coaching staff. I don’t think about that stuff at all, if it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m just happy to have a job in New Orleans. New Orleans is a great city and I love it here.”
The Hornets have won three straight since getting Eric Gordon back in the lineup, which has completely changed the complexion of the Hornets as a team. Smith has scored in double figures in three of the Hornets last four games, and kicked in 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots last night against the Houston Rockets after going 4-for-4 from the field against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday and 6-of-10 from the field against both the Mavericks and Houston earlier in the month.
“We can be very good,” Smith said of this Hornets team. “But we can’t think about how good we can be. We got to prepare, prepare ourselves to win. We got a lot of talent; there are a lot of people who say we have a lot of potential. It’s not that we have to live up to that potential, we have to continue to work hard every day and if things happen, things happen. Whatever you get out of it, it’s the work that you put into it, that’s really the main aspect.”
Smith is in his fifth year in the NBA and may have found a niche for his game in New Orleans. The Hornets will have the chance to keep him next season if they hang on to his $2.5 million non-guaranteed contract. If Hornets opt to go another direction, Smith could be an interesting trade chip or more importantly a dark horse free agent.
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