If the Coach of the Year award is so tough to vote for because there are so many deserving candidates, the Most Improved Player award is equally as vexing because the criteria for the award is debatable at best and vague at worst. The hardware usually goes to a performer who jumps from pretty good to great in the span of a season, but not before writers and fans debate endlessly about who should be included in the consideration for the process.
Are second-year players expected to improve, allowed to be in the mix? What about a player who makes the jump from lousy to serviceable – certainly no marquee name, but still making a bigger jump than someone who rounds into an All-Star. What about MVP-level players like Kevin Durant; should they be penalized for starting off at too high a stratum?
That’s why I always fall back on just voting for a literal “most improved player,” whether that be someone like Durant, someone like little-noticed second-year big man Miles Plumlee of Phoenix, or the 2013-14 NBA Most Improved Player, Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic.
Dragic was left off a loaded Western All-Star squad last winter, and his 48-win Suns just missed making a just-as-loaded Western playoff bracket, so in many ways this feels like a tidy reward of sorts for the Slovenian hybrid guard. Dragic, who turns 28 in May, upped his scoring average by 5.6 points per game to 20.8, despite playing just two more minutes in comparison to 2012-13. His assists dropped, as new addition Eric Bledsoe handled some point guard duties, and his rebounding, steal and block rates stayed about the same.
The guard’s turnover percentage somehow dropped significantly in 2013-14, though. And most importantly, Dragic’s shooting numbers spiked considerably – from just under 45 percent in 2012-13 to more than 50 percent this year, and from well below average at 31.8 percent from behind the arc last season to a stellar 40 percent in his award-winning season.
All this from a player who during Wednesday’s award ceremony claimed he “didn’t have the time” to work on his shooting during the 2013 offseason.
This is indeed a comment on the changing Suns culture. The team went through two coaches last season and dumped general manager Lance Blanks after a 25-win campaign. New GM Ryan McDonough waived Michael Beasley, traded role players for a stud in Bledsoe, and earned two starters (Gerald Green, the aforementioned Miles Plumlee) and a first round pick in a deal for Luis Scola. He also hired rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, who somehow turned what was supposed to be a rebuilding Suns team into a playoff contender, finishing tied for the 11th-best record in the league.
Hornacek described Dragic’s style as “fearless” on Wednesday, and that’s probably the best way to describe one of the NBA’s most entertaining players. Goran’s lefty drives and finishes in the paint (often off the wrong foot) made him a League Pass must-watch, and there’s no doubt the improving Suns will be rewarded with several nationally televised games in 2014-15.
Whether they’ll be rewarded with a playoff berth is anyone’s guess, as that Western Conference depth isn’t going anywhere. Still, behind Hornacek’s second-place finish in the Coach of the Year voting and Dragic’s new hardware, this is a nice holdover after a season that didn’t end how Phoenix had hoped.
Indiana guard Lance Stephenson finished second overall in the voting, Pelicans big man Anthony Davis and Suns teammate Gerald Green nabbed the second-most amount of first-place votes and finished third and fourth respectively, and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan rounded out the top five.
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