The Most Improved Player Award did not irritate me until the seventh year it was awarded. That was in the 1991-92 season when Pervis Ellison won it. Three years earlier, Ellison was the No. 1 pick in the draft. To reward him as the most improved because he played well after underachieving for two years seemed to violate the spirit of the award. He was supposed to be good!
In his defense, Ellison was bothered by injuries, but while he was playing, the Sacramento Kings – who had selected him with the first pick – must have not liked what they saw. Ellison missed 48 games with injuries as a rookie. After only one year in Sacramento, the Kings traded him to Washington, where he was used primarily as a backup in his first season, averaging 10.4 points and 7.7 rebounds.
Ellison then had his breakout season, averaging 20 points and 11.2 rebounds and that’s what got him the award.
But, frankly, at the time I thought it was lazy thinking and a lazy vote. Players who are selected with top picks in the draft should not be considered for the award when they play like they are supposed to play, even if it takes them a few years to do it.
My position softened a few years ago, however. I was having a discussion with a friend who said, “So you are telling me that if Hasheem Thabeet averages 20 and 10, people shouldn’t vote for him?”
Well … good point. Thabeet was taken by Memphis with the second pick in the 2009 draft – one pick ahead of James Harden and five ahead of Stephen Curry.
Thabeet played for four teams in five seasons, the last with Oklahoma City in 2014. He was on the roster of two other teams but was waived without playing a game. He spent quality time with those awesome Dakota Wizards and Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the D-League. In his 224-game NBA career, he managed to score 483 points and grab 595 rebounds.
So the answer is yes. If Thabeet finds a job in the NBA and becomes a great player, I will campaign for him as the Most Improved Player. It wasn’t his fault that he was taken No. 2. That goofy decision was made by Memphis Grizzlies executives.
And that, like everything else in the basketball world right now, brings us to Curry, whose encore to his MVP season has been sensational – so much so that some have suggested he deserves the MIP award.
On the surface, that seems silly. There is no doubt that even the MVP can get better. But shouldn’t the award be for a player who makes a surprising improvement rather than one who has simply refined the considerable skills he’s already shown?
My idea of the perfect MIP is Darrell Armstrong, who was undrafted but managed to earn a roster spot with the Orlando Magic. His development was gradual, but in his fifth season in 1998-99, he was not only the MIP but also won the Sixth Man Award.
Armstrong is the only undrafted player to win the award, which also has been won by seven players selected in the second round of their respective drafts. The other 22 winners were first-round selections, and nine of those players were selected in the top 10 of the draft. Three were even selected in the top five.
The issue is likely moot this year because of the play of Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum. When Wes Matthews signed with the Dallas Mavericks in the offseason, McCollum became a starter, and his improvement has been pronounced. His scoring average increased from 6.8 last season to 20.7 this season.
Part of that was playing time; he averaged 15.7 minutes last season and 34.8 this season. But the playing time is a reflection of how he has produced. Had he not played well, he would not have been on the floor.
Nitpickers will point out that McCollum was taken with the 10th pick in the first round of the 2013 draft, so perhaps he underachieved his first two years. Then again, I could point out that 2013 was the Anthony Bennett draft. Four of the top five players picked in that draft have career averages in single digits. In a stronger draft, McCollum might have been taken later than 10th.
Then again, maybe I am being too rigid in defining the award. Last season, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler deservedly won the award. He improved in almost all categories, but to focus solely on scoring, his average increased from 13.1 the previous season to 20.
Goran Dragic, the 2013-14 winner, had a similar increase – 14.7 to 20.3. And Paul George, the 2012-13 winner, improved from 12.1 to 17.4. Like Butler, they improved in other categories. But scoring is obviously important, and each player elevated his production.
Which brings us back to Curry. Yes, he was MVP last year, but he has increased his scoring average from 23.8 to 30.1. That’s almost seven points.
His field goal percentage is better – .506 this season; .487 last.
His 3-point percentage is better – .443 to .459.
His assists have decreased slightly, but he still ranks 10th in the league with 6.5 per game.
His free-throw percentage has decreased slightly to .903, but he is still second in the league.
Curry is set to become only the seventh player in history to make 50 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his 3-pointers and 90 percent of his foul shots while shooting enough to qualify for the lead in each category. The others are Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Steve Nash and Mark Price. (And Durant is on pace to do it again).
He also has shattered his own record for 3-pointers. He should pass 400 before the season ends. The record he set last year was 286.
So if you are objective and look at the big picture, Curry’s numbers have increased as impressively as many other MIP award winners. And there is little doubt of the impact of those numbers. Just check Golden State’s record.
It also occurs to me that the draft is only two rounds and not that many undrafted players make rosters. When they do, they are usually role players.
So somebody has got to win the award, and if a first-round pick struggles – no matter where he was chosen – isn’t he still deserving? If a great player like Curry produces statistics that are competitive with lesser players, shouldn’t he be considered for the award?
I no longer vote, but if I did, I would vote for McCollum this season. In a major change, however, if Curry gets votes or even wins it, I have no problem with it. So I guess my viewpoint on the MIP award has changed.
But one thing has not – I was still right about Pervis Ellison.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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