Paul George accepts his award on Tuesday (Getty Images)
It’s not surprising that Paul George won the Most Improved Player award, because the Indiana Pacers swingman saw his per game averages shoot up by over five points per game, with a 3.7 per game uptick in combined assists/rebounds in 2012-13. All of this work, and all of the MIP voting, came before Sunday’s fantastic triple-double effort in Indiana’s win over the Atlanta Hawks in the first game of the Pacers’ postseason. On top of that, George has remained a stalwart and at times dominant defender in Indiana’s league-leading defensive attack – Paul led the NBA with 6.3 Defensive Win Shares this season, a statistic that weighs heavily on minutes per game (explaining teammate Roy Hibbert’s fifth-place ranking).
What is surprising is the near unanimity in which George was chosen. The man received a shocking (to me, at least) 52 first place votes, exactly as many as the second through fifth-place MIP contenders (in order: Greivis Vasquez, Larry Sanders, Nikola Vucevic, Jrue Holiday) received.
We’re not bashing George’s numbers in the wake of increased minutes and increased responsibility – it’s just fine that his shooting percentages went down this year in the wake from Danny Granger’s absence, and his defensive acumen made him a deserved All-Star – we’re just questioning the Most Improved Player vote. And, worse, the one-sidedness of what should have been a very close contest with George possibly rounding out the top five.
Between Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders, and New Orleans Greivis Vasquez, I see three top candidates that I would have no problem handing an award to. My choice was Vucevic, not so much because his per-game averages went up as a response to his minutes per game increase, but because he completely re-shaped his game and turned into a rebound-minded big that at least attempted to move his feet defensively (to so-so results). Vuecevic shed the “Mehmet Okur Jr.”-label that he earned in both college and his first season in Philadelphia and turned into a force that kept the cellar-dwelling Orlando Magic in games through significant stretches of the season.
This shouldn’t enter into the argument on his behalf, but 16 months ago Greivis Vasquez was traded for Quincy Pondexter, signing off on the rumors that the Memphis Grizzlies coaching staff (and eventually the team’s former front office) did not think much of the point guard’s potential. Working for New Orleans in 2012-13, Vasquez came in second in the NBA in assist percentage (the percentage of possessions a player uses up that end in assists) while turning himself into a dependable point man that can be trusted to lead a team for major minutes. In this perimeter-based modern NBA, that’s a major ascension.
[Adrian Wojnarowski: LeBron going back to Cleveland is only a fantasy]
Milwaukee’s Sanders did the same on the defensive end, significantly lowering his fouling rate after a wild 2011-12 while eschewing the pick and pop jumpers that marred his offensive effectiveness during his first two seasons. Sanders led the league in block percentage – the percentage of defensive possession he was around for that ended in a rejection by his hand – and improved enough defensively overall that Milwaukee could trust him to play nearly 15 more minutes per game in 2012-13. He probably should have played more than his 27.3 minutes a contest, frankly.
I understand that consternation, but I also take the award literally. Whether it means going from the end of the bench to a Sixth Man candidate, breaking out in a second year, or coming through with a career year well past your prime. I tend to rank the most improved players in my rankings for the Most Improved Player. Paul George is an All-Star and deservedly turning into a household name, and on top of that his ability to contribute in every facet of an NBA game (at just 22, no less) for nearly 38 minutes a contest makes him one of the NBA’s most improved players in 2012-13.
I just think he was the most famous of the most improved players, which led to a near-landslide of a Most Improved Player award vote.
(And, on top of all that, a good number of other votes were absolute jokes. Ryan Anderson is a fantastic player, but his numbers dropped or stayed even across the board following his Most Improved win from last year, and yet he still received a first place vote. Andray Blatche took in a first place vote for merely approximating the sort of play he came through with while in shape a few years ago, and Carmelo Anthony received a first place vote for basically playing as he always has while in New York and on a very good team that is on TV during Eastern time quite a bit. Indiana’s actual most improved player, Lance Stephenson, was one of seven players to receive just one third place vote.)
This isn’t to take away from George’s accomplishments; he’s one of my favorite players and far and away the best player amongst all the candidates.
That latter fact definitely helped his cause amongst a voting lot that is mostly (as it includes beat writers and broadcasters who understandably don’t want to waste a night off obsessing over League Pass) made up of voters that are charged with only covering one team. That isn’t a shot – it’s hard to cover this league when you’re forced to travel with a squad between October and April, and some voters obviously went with the most prominent example here. A choice that this living room-dweller was able to slough off in front of his laptop, over tea, while the voting travelers lined up for yet another pre-dawn flight.
As such, I’m happy to hand my own award over to Mr. George. Congratulations, 2012-13 Really, Really Great Player on a Fantastic Team That More People Should Be Watching. When my credit history improves and I can rent a car again, I’ll give you a ride in my rented Kia if you need one.
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