The NBA announced the winner of its annual Most Improved Player Award on Wednesday, with Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic taking home the honors after posting career-best scoring and shooting-percentage numbers en route to leading a Suns team that nearly everybody expected to lose big while rebuilding to a stunning 48-win season that came this close to a playoff berth in the brutal Western Conference. Dragic won in a landslide, receiving more than half of the first-place votes cast by the 126 sportswriters and broadcasters who voted and netting twice as many total points as second-place finisher Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. While the nature of MIP includes nearly endless quibbles over an individual's definition of "improvement," leading to a wide variety of potential choices for the award, Dragic's win was both richly deserved and, given the comfortable margin of his victory, largely without controversy.
Still, given the Professional Basketball Writers Association's decision to release all voting members' ballots for each award this season in the interest of increased transparency — a cause that seems to be making the rounds in the NBA these days — curiosity naturally led some folks to check out the full list of MIP votes, just to see if any odd selections popped up.
Sure enough, as you scrolled down, you saw something curious: the ballot cast by Michael Smith of Prime Ticket/FOX Sports West, who serves alongside the legendary Ralph Lawler as the color commentator on Los Angeles Clippers broadcasts. Smith's choices:
Winner: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Second runner-up: Blake Griffin, Clippers
This, naturally, set some eyebrows to archin'.
It's not a wholly ludicrous concept to give Durant a nod as the league's most improved player. Heck, it's not even an especially new concept — Mike Prada made the case for Durant as 2011-12's MIP, and our own Kelly Dwyer considered it (before ultimately disagreeing) at that time — and in a season where Durant's taken a clear step up from the league's second-best player to the likely winner of this year's Most Valuable Player trophy, KD's case might actually be even stronger.
A similar argument can be made for a third-place vote for Griffin, whose game has grown by leaps and bounds this season as he's become one of the most complete and devastating interior scorers and frontcourt facilitators in the NBA. But a second-place vote for a reigning MVP who — in terms of statistical output, defensive attentiveness and his own lofty standards — took an evident step backward? That seems ... fishy.
So what's the deal? Was this a case of voter malfeasance? A clear sign that the awards-voting system is broken and in dire need of an overhaul? Well, no. As it turns out, this was just one of your classic all-time blunders:
First off: Pretty solid MVP ballot, Mr. Smith. Second, though: Whoops.
We'll have to wait a bit longer to find out if Smith flipped his ballots — if we see a first-place MVP vote for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and a second-place nod for Dragic, we'll know why — or if he just mistakenly filled in the MVP votes twice. Either way, it's somewhat remarkable that the voting system affords the opportunity for such mistakes, but it's also not entirely stunning that one would happen — we've all heard tales of the drop-down menu monster grabbing voters before, such as Jordan Crawford getting a Sixth Man of the Year vote last season that was probably intended for Clippers reserve Jamal Crawford. And it's not like the missteps can befall only the luddites of the world — noted smart fella Zach Lowe shared his fear that he'd messed up a vote during a recent episode of "The B.S. Report," suggesting that this is the sort of thing that could've happened to any of us.
No harm, no foul, this is why pencils have erasers, etc., etc., and good on Smith for publicly acknowledging the error. I will say this, though — if the MIP and MVP votes got flipped, and Davis or Dragic have some type of escalator bonuses in their contracts for getting MVP nods, then Smith might soon learn the downside of voting transparency in the form of some angry phone calls from the likes of Dell Demps and Ryan McDonough. Might want to start screening your calls, Mr. Smith. Just make sure you know which button you're hitting when the phone rings.
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