It’s that time of year again.
After all of the laughs, other-worldly performances, and misguided declarations that someone was dead, we’ve arrived at the end of the season. It’s time to pick a winner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
As always, I told myself I wasn’t going to cry.
As always, I lied to myself. (Sniffle)
We saw a lot of improvement in the NBA this season. The Atlanta Hawks went from Eastern Conference Playoff Team With a Losing Record™ to The Spurs of the East ®, racking up 60 wins and absolutely befuddling basketball fans everywhere.
Seriously, how in the hell did they do that?! Do ball movement, unselfishness and a team mentality really make that big of a difference? Could any mediocre squad turn into that if they played the way the Hawks do? I’m still confused.
The Golden State Warriors were almost as surprising, going from 6-seed in the West to nearly-70-win juggernaut with a rookie coach who is awesome at just about everything he does. (We need to find out what Steve Kerr is bad at, just so we can confirm that he’s human).
Perhaps most memorably, the Sacramento Kings dedicated their season to improving on the NBA’s Indian population, which now sits at 1 after 7-5, 360-pound behemoth Sim Bhullar made his debut April 8. You know Gandhi would be proud. No, not the Mahatma. Krishan Gandhi, the 5-10, Class of 2015 point guard from Canada’s St. Brother Andre High School in Stouffville, Ontario. He’s working on his editing skills.
But the reason we’re all here is the players. A hallowed few have spent the season inhabiting this space, where we spent the year celebrating their improvement like a first-grade teacher or your psychiatrist.
The envelopes are in.
One last time, let’s go on to the rankings.
1. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls. The Jimmy edges out Hassan Whiteside/Klay Thompson because he went from being a role player to perhaps the Bulls’ best player in one season. Butler is averaging 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, up from 13, 4.9 and 2.6 in the same minutes. He’s still one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and was a first-time All-Star this season. At this point, he may be more important to the team’s title hopes than Derrick Rose. Even though Butler missed most of March, it doesn’t matter. He’s done enough to lay claim to the award.
2. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat. Probably for the first time in NBA history, a guy went from the D-League to being compared to Bill Russell by Bob Cousy. (Not sure if the Cooz was out a little too late with Tommy Heinsohn when he said that.) Mr. Whiteside did come out of nowhere to average a double-double this season, and had some ridiculous games like the 18-point, 24-rebound performance he posted against Atlanta on February 28. He is the definition of a Most Improved Player, and in most years, he’d probably win the award. But The Butler was better for longer, and his team is not entering the final night of the season needing losses by three other teams to make it to the postseason.
3. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors. The most improved player on the most improved team in the league, Thompson went from the little Splash Brother to a bona fide star this season. He upped his points per game (21.6 from 18.4), field goal percentage (.462 from .444) and 3-point percentage (.435 from .417), scored 37 points in one quarter and 26 in another and became an All-Star for the first time. I guess the Warriors knew what they were doing when they refused to trade him for Kevin Love. And once again we ask, what exactly does Steve Kerr do wrong?
4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors. Draymond went from role player to important glue guy for the Warriors this season, and there’s no way this team would be above 65 wins without him. He’s a “dog,” as Matt Barnes would say, and his grit, toughness and defense bring the Dubs to another level. Green went from 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 21 minutes per game in 2013-14 to 11.8, 8.2 and 3.7 in 31 minutes per. He’s a Steve Kerr and fan favorite, and he’ll be in for a big payday when his contract comes up.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz. “The Stifle Tower” himself earns the final spot in the final rankings because of what he’s done over the past 2 1/2 months. Rudy was struggling to earn meaningful minutes in a crowded Utah frontcourt early in the season, but when the Jazz shipped Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City, it opened things up for Gobert. He’s taken advantage. Rudy averaged 11 points and 15 rebounds in March and has continued his double-double pace in April. The Jazz are 14-8 since March began, and hopes are high that this team could be in the thick of the playoff race come next season.
Kels Dayton is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in SLAM Magazine. You can check out more of his work at SportzEdge.com and on RoundballDaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @KelsDayton.