Familiar Names Highlight Most Improved Player Rankings

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Reggie_JacksonImagine for a second that this column is a talk show.

It’s easy if you try.

Now, imagine I told you that Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson were going to be on it. Imagine all the people who would watch that show.

Yoo-hoo, oooh.

You’d be pumped, right?

Isiah Lord Thomas. Zeke. One of the greatest basketball players in history. And Reggie Jackson. Mr. October. The man who hit three home runs in a World Series game?!

What a show we’ve got for you tonight! 

You’d be glued to the TV. Or, at least, you’d DVR it.

And then your face would sink slowly as you realized that I didn’t mean “Bad Boy Pistons” Isiah Thomas. I meant “Pizza Guy” Isaiah Thomas. I didn’t mean “Straw that Stirs the Drink” Reggie Jackson, just “Russell Westbrook backup” Reggie Jackson.

What is this, the Pete Holmes Show??

That’s what this edition of the Most Improved Player Rankings feels like – The Pete Holmes Show. Or at least, Tavis Smiley.

Normally, this is the spot where NBA players make names for themselves, arriving on the Sheridan Hoops stage before they are recognized by the national hoops media at large. Paul George did that last season.

But this season, some guys are making the same name somebody else already made. Thomas isn’t Zeke, but he is playing like a guy Zeke would trade six consecutive draft picks for.

Jackson may not be the Straw that Stirs the Drink, but he could be the Splenda that makes the 27-7 drink taste a little better. (I don’t know. I haven’t had my coffee yet).

Both namesake point guards have energized their teams and accounted for nearly as many TV double-takes as an Andre Drummond throwdown. Thomas has taken over as Sacramento’s full-time starter, averaging 19.3 points and six assists. He’s been the Kings’ most important player this season, and is one of the reasons for hope in the future.

Jackson filled in when Westbrook was hurt at the beginning of the season and again now that Westbrook is out until at least the All-Star break. He has continued to play with confidence, putting up 27 points in Sunday’s home win over Boston. He has added some much-needed backcourt depth to a team that can be too one-dimensional at times. There’s no way OKC has the best record in the West without him.

You may say I’m a dreamer.

But they’re not the only ones.

Anyway, it’s time for our musical guest. You guessed it…John Le…gend. Sorry, I hit the ellipses button there.

That’s our column for you. Goodnight everybody!

On to the rankings.

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Is Paul George the NBA’s Most Improved Player … Again?

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PaulGeorgeSH1When you write a column about the NBA’s Most Improved Players, things can get emotional.

As you can probably imagine, you start to adopt the guys you write about each week. It’s a common theme for those of us who chronicle the Most Improved Players in the league each season, and everyone I’ve ever met who does it feels the same way.

OK, so we’re the only ones who do it. But still.

You root for your guys, feel a sense of pride when they accomplish something and share in their disappointment when they fail.

You start to think of them like your own children, or even a Chia Pet. You want to see them prosper, and it’s cool when they impress your friends at a house party. Look at how much he/she/it has grown! 

Still, there comes a moment in every parent’s life when they have to say good-bye. The season ends, and your little NBA Chia Pet player kid moves out of the house or grows enough to knock your mother’s $700 vase off the kitchen table.

But with this award, you tend to say good-bye to them once the season is over.

Once a guy is considered for Most Improved Player one seasaon, he’s almost ineligible for the award the next. Think about it. The player would have to take his game to a completely different level. It’s almost impossible. No one has ever won the award twice.

That is, until this season. Perhaps. At the very least, it’s an argument that merits debate.

It’s like Paul George doesn’t want to leave the nest.

George has drastically improved his field goal percentage (47 percent, up from 42 percent), 3-point percentage (42 percent from 36 percent), free-throw percentage (85 percent from 80 percent), and naturally, points per game (24.1, up from 17.4 last season). He’s a legitimate MVP candidate (currently ranked No. 1 by Sheridan), and has carried the Pacers to a torrid 20-4 start.

Sure, his assist and rebounding numbers are down, but that’s because he has taken over as one of the NBA’s clear-cut alpha dogs, with more of a scoring responsibility on his shoulders.

He is playing at a LeBron level of efficiency, and had The King himself proclaiming, “He’s going to be great.”

I can’t put him back in the rankings yet. There are too many other deserving candidates.

But just know that I’m thinking of you, Paulie. We’ll always have this.

It’s so tough to watch them leave.

On to the rankings.

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Most Improved Player Rankings: Bledsoe grabs top spot

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Markieff  & Marcus Morris Suns People have short attention spans.

Milk eggs cheese buttuh … Was there anything else on that list?

Sometimes we get really excited about things after small sample sizes, and start declaring them the Greatest Thing since that last Great Thing we can’t remember anymore. It happens too often.

Take “Call Me Maybe.” Or Jeremy Lin. Or that “What does the Fox say” video that I wish I could un-watch like I took the blue pill in The Matrix.

So when Markieff Morris (twin brother of Marcus) came out of nowhere and put up 17, 23, 28 and 23 points in four games, well … Let’s just say I was exuberant. It looked as though Morris was going to have a breakout season, and I thought he’d be a fixture here in the Most Improved Player Rankings.

I’m here to say that I overreacted.

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Five Things To Watch: Phoenix Suns

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Ryan McDonough GM SunsThe upcoming season is an evaluation campaign for the Phoenix Suns in every respect. They will introduce a new offense designed by former Sun Jeff Hornacek, a new defense spearheaded by Mike Longabardi and at least six new rotation players acquired via the draft and trades by new general manager Ryan McDonough.

With the recent trade of Caron Butler – who never played a game for the team – the Suns have only one player in his 30s: Channing Frye, who is all of 30 and trying to return from a heart ailment.

The only bit of continuity is the vaunted training staff, whose job continues to focus on injury prevention, and the relatively low talent level.

Coming off the second-worst season in franchise history, the rebuilding Suns are projected to be the worst team in the Western Conference. Again.

Fot a team that admittedly will be tough to watch, here are five things to watch for.

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Suns begin rebuilding at top, hire Ryan McDonough as GM

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oldsunslogoThe Phoenix Suns have a huge rebuilding project on their hands. However, they have the tools to do it. And now they believe they have the right man to use those tools.

Two weeks after firing Lance Blanks, Suns president Lon Babby on Tuesday hired Ryan McDonough as the team’s new general manager.

The hiring puts interim coach Lindsey Hunter’s status in immediate jeopardy. Hunter was working in player development when he was installed by Blanks after Alvin Gentry was fired. Assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, believing they were bypassed, resigned their positions.

Hunter has not been retained or relieved. However, McDonough is almost certain to handpick his own coach as part of the rebuilding process. The Suns were 25-57 this season, the worst record in the Western Conference and second-worst in franchise history.

McDonough, 33, is another young, new-age NBA executive cut from the same cloth as Daryl Morey, Sam Presti and Rob Hennigan. He has spent virtually his entire career in various roles of player evaluation and relies strongly on advanced metrics and stat analysis.

McDonough had been with the Boston Celtics since 2003, starting as a special assistant to basketball operations and ascending to director of amateur scouting, director of international scouting, director or player personnel and assistant general manager, a position he held the last three seasons.

As assistant GM, McDonough’s primary responsibility was the evaluation of draft-eligible players from college and overseas. That experience should serve well for both McDonough and the Suns, who have 10 draft picks over the next three years, including six first-round picks.

If form holds in the lottery, the Suns would have the fourth pick and 30th pick in this year’s draft. In addition to their own picks, they also have the first-round picks of Minnesota in 2014 and the LA Lakers in 2015.

Phoenix’s notable free agents this summer are swingman Wesley Johnson and veteran forward Jermaine O’Neal. The Suns don’t figure to have significant room under the salary Michael Beasleycap until the summer of 2015.

While their highest-paid player is Goran Dragic at the relative bargain price of $7.5 million, Dragic and Jared Dudley are signed through 2016 (with player options), Channing Frye, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley are signed through 2015 and Kendall Marshall and Marcus and Markieff Morris are on their rookie contracts.

While Majerle would be a possible coaching candidate given his popularity in the Valley, more experienced options such as Stan Van Gundy and Nate McMillan are available.

McDonough comes from a family that has been around sports for generations. His late father, Will, was a longtime writer for the Boston Globe. Brother Sean is a broadcaster for ESPN and brother Terry is an NFL executive.