BDL's midseason award picks: Most Improved Player, Sixth Man
Seven of the NBA’s 30 teams have already played half their games, and by the end of the weekend, the league will officially be at its midway point. With 41 games under our belts, it’s more than fair to judge just who has put in the most award-worthy work thus far.
Judged by, as you’d expect, three men with a stable full of awards tucked away in their attics: Dan Devine, Kelly Dwyer, and Eric Freeman.
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(If you missed our first two installments, here are our picks for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and for Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year.)
Most Improved Player
Dan Devine: Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons.
Every year, we talk about how "most improved" can mean damn near anything, from "going from very good to the very best," like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry in their MVP seasons, to "going from out of the league to into a rotation," like Hassan Whiteside did last year. Reasonable people can differ, your mileage may vary, etc., etc.
Part of me wants to pick Draymond Green, who has made the extraordinarily difficult leap from starter/role player to surefire All-Star/All-NBA consideration. I also thought about Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic and Utah Jazz big man Derrick Favors, who have turned in All-Star-caliber play for two teams looking to return to the postseason.
Instead, though, I'll go with Jackson, my preseason pick, who has put up big numbers in his first full season alongside behemoth Andre Drummond in Stan Van Gundy's four-out, spread pick-and-roll system — 19.4 points, 6.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds in 30.9 minutes per game — to help lead Detroit back over .500 and into the thick of the Eastern playoff picture.
Jackson ranks third among Eastern Conference point guards in PER and Real Plus-Minus. He's fourth in the league in drives to the basket per game, providing the pick-and-roll penetration that makes Detroit's offense work, and slots in ahead of Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook in percentage of possible points scored per drive.
He's 12th in the NBA in points created by assist per game, and the Pistons offense has gone from excellent (104.7 points per 100 possessions, just below top-five-level) to execrable (95 points-per-100, just above the league-worst 76ers) when Jackson hits the bench. The latter's due party to the lack of playmaking talent behind him while Brandon Jennings was rehabilitating his Achilles tendon tear, but the former's got a lot to do with all the damage Jackson can do rumbling downhill off a high screen and bringing the ruckus to the heart of a defense.
And while Jackson proved in Oklahoma City that he could make a bit of magic off a pick, he's shown signs this year of smoothing out the rough edges in his game, too. He's improved his long-range shooting, knocking down 35.7 percent of his 3-point tries on four attempts per game. He's also getting to the foul line at a career-high rate and turning the ball over less frequently than he did the last two seasons, all while taking on the largest offensive role of his career.
Before the season, questions abounded as to whether a relatively unproven career backup was really worth $80 million, and whether such an undecorated performer earning the same paycheck as John Wall indicated anything other than the absurdity of the NBA's economic structure. Jackson deserves credit for working hard to become more consistent and accomplished at the things he always could do, for adding new weapons to his arsenal, and for learning on the fly how to lead a team with postseason aspirations.
Eric Freeman: Zaza Pachulia, Dallas Mavericks.
This is a tough enough award to peg after the season, let alone now, so I'll focus on two guys who have managed to improve at points in their careers when most players seem to stagnate.
Denver Nuggets wing Will Barton only turned 25 on Jan. 9, but he seemed set as a very athletic and very limited ninth or 10th man in three seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. His numbers aren't fantastically different now than they were in the 28 games he played in Denver after the Arron Afflalo trade last February, but he's shooting a career-high 38.6 percent from 3-point range (past his previous high of 30.3 percent) and has boosted his scoring up to 19.4 points per 36 minutes. It's also more of an accomplishment that he achieved those numbers from opening night under a first-year coach rather than not at the end of a lost season for the franchise. He'll probably split people's votes between this award and Sixth Man of the Year, though, so I'm not sure he has a decent chance.
The other is Pachulia, whom I already mentioned when discussing Rick Carlisle as a Coach of the Year candidate. I'm frankly baffled that a nearly 32-year-old big man with short arms is having the best season of his career on a team without the athleticism to compensate for his lack of it. He's well above his career highs in all major rebounding categories (advanced and standard), setting a career high in True Shooting percentage, and is more than 2.0 Hollingerinos above his previous best PER. And most of those previous bests were set at least four years ago. Plus, his name's fun to say.
In his own way, Zaza's improvement has been just as shocking as that of Whiteside last season. He's my pick for now.
Kelly Dwyer: C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers.
Here's the point where we have to dismiss the very nice contributions of some very nice people and players, just in order to make a silly basketball point — this is why I and many others have a hard time with this (often) not very nice and (sometimes) silly award. I'm not going to go full J.E. Skeets on everyone and demand that the award be abolished, but it is a strange one and, lest we forget, originally created because the old Comeback Player of the Year award had turned into the Best Job of Getting Off of the Blow award some 30 years ago.
Jackson's rise is legitimate, but to me his sterling play doesn't look that far off from what he contributed last year in Detroit, following the trade from Oklahoma City. I, too, thought I was going with Barton, but then I noticed that his jump wasn't as profound statistically as I'd presumed — silly me for not paying enough attention to the Melvin Hunt-led Denver Nuggets late last season. Zaza has been a revelation, at any age, but Tim Cato at Mavs Moneyball recently penned a very good look as to why his style of play might be crimping Chandler Parsons' overall style (which, I’m assuming, involves gross lotioned-up feet, no socks, squeezed inside of $300 shoes).
I've never been averse to handing this to either a scrub or star, taking "most improved" quite literally even if it means handing it to a guy who shot up to 10 points per game. The same goes on the star end of things, where I wouldn't mind seeing Draymond getting some consideration (though his ubiquity will turn voters off). In the end, mindful of the minutes increase, I'd have to point this pen toward McCollum.
Not only is he averaging 20.8 points per game now, up from 6.8 last year, but he's also been able to keep his turnover rate steady despite a massive uptick in usage. Sure, he's on a bad team and someone has to shoot, but he's kept his percentages steady and he's really developed his two-man passing touch in Terry Stotts' system. In the end, consistency and usage go a long way with me.
Sixth Man of the Year
KD: Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers.
I’m well aware that I’m wrong, so wrong, ‘ere. I just want to look good in May.
Barton has probably been the best sixth man thus far this year. He’s at just under 16 points per game with six boards, with good percentages, and on a Nuggets team that doesn’t run as much as it has in the past. He’ll never get the hardware because that defense is still shocking, but Enes Kanter has been absolutely killer on the other end of the floor for the Oklahoma City Thunder — his 11.4 points and 7.6 boards might not seem like much, but in just 20 minutes a game? Making nearly 57 percent of his shots?
Victor Oladipo’s two way game off the Orlando bench was exactly what the team needed, and don’t look now, but Manu Ginobili is having a sneaky-good season off the pine with the San Antonio Spurs. They should name that award after him when all is said and through. “Said and through,” however, apparently will never happen in San Antonio.
Thompson changes games, though. He’s started more than a quarter of his team’s contests and he might start a few more down the stretch, should the Cavs decide to rest players as they run away with the East, but I’m not going to quibble over the raw numbers in that realm. His scoring average (just 7.6 in 28 minutes a contest) has dipped, but that is partially because his offensive rebounds have dropped as teams begin to face-guard him or send two guys his way when shots go up.
To have another element that tips the scales in a great team’s favor this late in the game is a killer, comparable to what Andre Iguodala (another great candidate, despite stats that don’t overwhelm) is doing in Golden State.
(But also, yeah, I’m way off here.)
EF: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors. I'm not sure Thompson is that wrong in principle, even if he is in terms of how awards voting works. He's the rare player who's simultaneously overpaid in a vacuum and something close to properly paid relative to what he means to the Cavs. I don't think they have a chance without him against either the Warriors and Spurs — he's essential in occupying Green in Blatt's preferred lineup for that matchup, and gave the San Antonio frontcourt fits on Thursday night as the active big man they've struggled with in the past. He's not going to win this award, but I'm not sure there are five more important reserves in the league. Maybe we should make up an award for Most Valuable Role Player.
On a similar note, I'm going to throw my insignificant weight behind Iguodala for Sixth Man. His shooting percentages are improved, although only noticeably from the line, but that's pretty clearly not where his value lies. His defense is a key to the Warriors' versatility in all his minutes and especially when they go small, and his play during Harrison Barnes's extended absence was a reminder that he's arguably the fourth most important player on the team behind the three obvious guys. Maybe most importantly, he isn't just a reserve who occupies the defense while the best players rest — he genuinely gives Golden State the ability to change its looks and adjust its lineups to find the ideal for every matchup. I prefer reserves who do more than reinforce what's already there.
DD: Iguodala. I'm with Eric. I think Thompson ranks among the league's most integral reserves and has discrete elite skills (offensive rebounding, holding up defensively on guards off switches in the pick-and-roll) that make him more valuable to the Cavs than his stat-sheet numbers would indicate, but "non-scoring glass-eater" doesn't tend to be the type of player who wins this award. "Shot-happy, high-scoring guard" most certainly is, but the fact that Denver's nine games under .500 might make some leery of looking Barton's way. (Ditto for Ryan Anderson, who leads all NBA reserves in scoring but whose New Orleans Pelicans continue to disappoint as one of the worst teams in the league.) That said, the Nuggets are just two games out of the eighth seed and they've been a whopping 8.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, so you could argue that he merits even stronger consideration for being the kind of reserve who can revitalize an abysmal team and make them downright competitive when he enters the game.
Not only has Ginobili had a bounce-back season after often looking finished last season, but his presence continues to take the Spurs' offense from very good to world-class — San Antonio has averaged 106.5 points per 100 possessions without Manu, and a scorching 111.3-per-100 with him this season. Then again, he's had plenty of help on a Spurs second unit that has been absolutely mopping the floor with the competition, and he's playing a career-low 20.2 minutes per game. Iguodala's on/off numbers are similarly bonkers — the Dubs also average nearly five more points-per-100 with him in the game, and they allow 1.2 fewer points-per-100, too — and he's playing about 7.5 more minutes per game than Manu while providing yet another multifaceted and versatile defender and playmaker that unlocks the Warriors' terrifying capacity to beat just about any style of opponent.
Iguodala might not have loved the idea of coming off the bench when Steve Kerr brought it to him last year, but his willingness to accept the transition has made him one of the league's premier game-changers and made the Warriors even more difficult to handle. Seems worth (another) trophy to me.
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