Like pretty much everything this season, we think the award should go to Steph Curry.
Yes, it’s unconventional to give the Most Improved Player award to the reigning MVP, but it’s also unconventional for that reigning MVP to up his scoring average by six points per game, his field goal makes by nearly 20 percentage points, smash his own NBA record for three-pointers in a season (he’s still on pace for 400), and lead his team on a season-long pursuit of MJ’s 72-win Bulls. It’s unconventional for that guy to be better in real life than he is in a video game, to make 40-footers look like Pop-A-Shots, and to be a legitimate threat from three-quarters’ court.
Curry has improved his scoring average more than any player in the year after an MVP season (second on that list is Larry Bird), and he’s elevated his Warriors to the greatest show in sports. With the possible exception of Allen Iverson, no one–not Kobe, not LeBron, not Shaq, and certainly not Tim Duncan–has captivated basketball fans and non-basketball fans alike the way that Curry has since MJ was flying through the air, tounge-wagging and making all those legendary commercials. Steph is the most entertaining basketball player since Jordan, and like His Airness, he’s changing the game.
Sure, other guys have had worthy seasons–and you can argue that Portland’s C.J. McCollum or Denver’s Will Barton came from further back to make their mark.
But nobody these days is doing it like Curry.
Not only is he better, not only are the Warriors better, but the league itself is better because of what he’s been able to accomplish every night.
Damn it. I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to hold it in.
OK, one last time, on to the rankings:
1. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors: We’re going with Curry, who has taken his game to a level no one saw coming this year. He’s made marked improvements in scoring average (23.8 to 29.9), field goal percentage (.487 to .503), and three-point percentage by 13 (.443 to .456). He’s making nearly two more threes per game this season, and broke his own record for most threes in a season with 24 games to go. He’s led his team to 70 wins, while doing almost everything possible on the basketball court, and some things we didn’t even think were possible. Chris Sheridan guarantees that he’ll win the MVP award with a unanimous vote, for the first time in NBA history. We think all of that qualifies him as the NBA’s Most Improved Player, too.
2. C.J. McCollum, G, Portland Trail Blazers: McCollum has had a tremendous season, and he’s maybe the main reason why Portland, which was picked to finish at the bottom of the West, is back in the playoffs. He stepped up when he got the chance, and in twice as much playing time as last season, more than doubled his scoring average, from 6.8 ppg to 20.9. He’s also dishing out 4.2 assists per game (up from 1 per last season) and has improved his shot (44.8%) and free throw percentage (82.5%) from last year. He’s probably the favorite to take home the Gheorge Muresan Trophy.
3. Kawhi Leonard, G, San Antonio Spurs: We know this award almost never goes to stars, but we still felt Curry and Leonard deserved their place in the top 3. Kawhi has emerged as one of the legitimate five best players in the league, making the leap mostly by improving his shot. His 3-point percentage has vastly improved (.452 from .349), as has his free throw percentage (.881 from .802). He’s shooting 51% from the field, up from 47%. He’s averaging a career-high 21 points per game, and has led the Spurs to a franchise-record 65 wins (at press time). It’s almost like the Spurs won that many games just to spite the Warriors. Either way, Kawhi belongs in this conversation, though like his personality, his candidacy has been pretty quiet.
4. Will Barton, G/F, Denver Nuggets: ‘Will the Thrill’ a.k.a. ‘Who calls him that?’ has had a special year, emerging as one of the best young players on the only team in the league to beat both the Spurs and the Warriors this season. The Nuggets are almost ready. Just gotta keep them in the oven for a little bit longer. Barton is averaging 14.5 points, 5.8 boards and 2.8 assists in 28.7 minutes per game this season, he’s shooting 35% from deep and 80 percent from the free throw line. He’s like the next Jamal Crawford, only lankier and with an even more cliche nickname.
5. Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte Hornets: Kemba, or as he’s known in Connecticut, Kembaaaaaa, has had a breakout season for the breakout Hornets, who have attacked the second half of the season like it unknowingly brushed past their hive while doing some innocent weed whacking. (I can still hear the buzzing in my nightmares). He’s putting up a career-high 21.2 points per game and shooting a career-high 43% from the field. He’s also improved his three-point, free throw, and rebounding numbers, and has the Hornets still in the mix for the 3-seed in the East.