Each week here in our Most Improved Player Rankings column, we take a look at the guys around the league who have been balling unexpectedly well. It’s what we do.
But when you take a step back from the box scores and look at the league from a macro view (another thing we do here at Sheridan Hoops–we’re deep), you realize there’s something more improved than Hassan Whiteside, Jimmy Butler, or even LeBron’s hairline in that Sprite commercial.
The NBA itself.
The league is having somewhat of a renaissance year. It started this summer with LeBron going back to Cleveland, which transformed him from villain back to lovable superstar and shifted the NBA’s balance of power in one master stroke. It’s continued with an awesomely unexpected regular season, with Atlanta getting off to an unheard-of 43-10 start, Golden State bettering them at 41-9, and teams like Toronto, Washington, and Memphis putting themselves in the thick of the title conversation.
The last time any of those teams reached the Finals? That’d be 1979, when Wes Unseld was outlet-passing the Bullets to the top of the East. They lost that year to a team called the Sonics. (We’ll explain later, kids).
It’s safe to say that there’s more parity this season than there’s been in any year we can remember since MJ retired the first time. More teams might have a realistic shot at capturing the Larry O’Brien trophy than any time since Larry O’Brien was commissioner.
Think about it. When was the last time you could honestly say in February that you had no idea what the NBA Finals were going to look like? When was the last time the two teams running away with the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences weren’t necessarily the favorites to get there?
As TNT is constantly reminding us, the NBA season is a drama. And drama only works when you have no idea what’s going to happen next.
On to the rankings.
1. Jimmy Butler, G, Chicago Bulls: “The Jimmy” slung the struggling Bulls on his back in a win over Orlando on Sunday, scoring 27, dishing out 5 assists and coming up with 6 steals in a 98-97 win over the Magic. He’s doing everything he can to keep Chicago afloat right now. Keep paddling, Jimmy!
2. Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat: It was an up-and-down week for Hassan, who put up 24 and 20 on 12-of-13 shooting against the T-Wolves before injuring his ankle. He missed a game in San Antonio, but came back to grab 9 rebounds in 19 minutes against
Fordham the Knicks. How far has Whiteside come this season? Well, ESPN.com still has him in a Grizzlies jersey on his player page. He never played in a game with the Grizzlies.
3. Klay Thompson, G, Golden State Warriors: He’s come back down to Earth–a little bit–since his Monstars-like month of January, in which he averaged 25 points per game (and 37 per third quarter against Sacramento), and shot a Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis-like (UConn women’s basketball reference!) 49.1 percent from three. Thompson was ice cold against
Manhattan College the Knicks on Saturday, shooting just 5-of-22, and then went 4-of-14 against the Sixers on Monday night.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks: You thought we forgot about Giannis? Think again! The Greek Freak has been downright freak-nasty in February, averaging 18 points and 10 boards for the month. Just look at these stat lines: 25 and 6 against the Lakers, 27 and 15 at Houston, 14 and 11 against Boston, and a near-triple-double (12 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) against the Nets. And oh yeah, Milwaukee has won seven of eight.
5. Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors: Draymond posted 20 points and 13 ‘bounds in a win over
Iona the Knicks on Saturday, then talked to our own Michael Scotto about his skyrocketing value this offseason. Although he doesn’t get much press (other than on this wonderful site), Green has been the glue guy for Golden State, and there’s no way this team is 41-9 without him. Contenders will be stumbling all over themselves to give him a contract offer this summer.
NEXT FIVE: Derrick Favors, F-C, Utah; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, G, Detroit; Dennis Schroder, G, Atlanta; Marreese Speights, F-C, Golden State; Mason Plumlee, F-C, Brooklyn.