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Kevin Durant probably won't win the Most Improved Player award this season, and that might represent an accurate vote. He shouldn't win Most Valuable Player, because he hasn't had nearly as good a season as LeBron James, and he might miss a spot on the All-NBA First Team behind James and Kevin Love. Oh well. He might just have to be content with NBA Finals MVP.
Maybe he should win the Most Improved Player award, though. At the very least, perhaps he should stir a discussion about what that award really stands for. This is all spurred on by a fantastic piece from SB Nation's Mike Prada, who goes into great detail discussing the myriad ways the reigning two-time league leading scorer has improved his all-around game more than any other NBA player this season. The whole thing is a must-read, here's one snippet:
Fundamentally, Durant is still the same scoring assassin he was last year, but those subtle differences matter so much. Not only is Durant scoring at a more efficient clip than ever before, but he's also dramatically improved his playmaking, defense and ability to get open. Before, Durant was a great scorer with some weaknesses in his game. Now, Durant is a great scorer with no weaknesses in his game. That kind of improvement is amazing.
It would have been very easy for Durant to accept his destiny as an elite scorer. Durant's shooting percentages were a bit down in 2010-11 as teams adjusted their defenses to stop him, but they were still outstanding. So long as Durant is 6'10 with arms as long as a giraffe's neck, he'll be able to score.
Prada goes on to detail how Durant's shooting percentage has shot way up (mostly due to posting up more often) in a league that has seen field-goal percentages fall way off. He points out that only a small series of semi-point forwards (and, weird to some, Carmelo Anthony) have an assist rate (the percentage of possessions you use up that end in an assist) greater than Durant's, alongside some much-improved defense.
The idea that a superstar, someone celebrated as one of the NBA's best for years, could be named the Most Improved Player? Is that honor reserved for more middling types?
Usually. Though Kevin Love won the award last year and is generally regarded as being at the toppermost of his particular poppermost this season, the award is usually given to a veteran who makes waves with improved stats; because improved defense is often too hard to quantify. Typically these improved stats merely come as an expected result of a player being handed more minutes due to an injury, rotation maneuver, or team change.
Such is the function of an award that was essentially created over 25 years ago so that the NBA could be spared the indignity of having its Comeback Player of the Year award serve as a Welcome Back From That Drug-Fueled League Suspension award. Even though the literal meanings are pretty strident -- "most improved," hard to argue over that -- the methods behind listing candidates are so maddening that even some of the best and brightest of NBA minds (The Basketball Jones' J.E. Skeets, for one) want to do away with the award altogether.
I'm no Skip Bayless acolyte, but I like the discussion. And I wonder why the floor can't be open to all candidates, including players like Durant or Derrick Rose (whom I pegged as my Most Improved Player last season), or second-year types that improved at a rate that their first year didn't suggest, outpacing the improving competition along the way.
This would seem to move second-year New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin to the top of the list. In terms of pure, statistical improvement, Lin tops most lists. The only thing seemingly getting in Lin's way (even now that Spencer Hawes has returned from time spent nursing injuries) is the voters' decades-long abhorrence of voting second-year players ("I mean, they have to improve. Right?") into winning that hardware. Only in 2006-07, when Monta Ellis won the award (and Deron Williams came in second) have those attitudes altered.
As I stated, based on stats alone, Lin's ascension deserves the merit at this point, with second-year Detroit center Greg Monroe right behind him. And because his storyline is so good, voters might feel as if they have to hand some sort of official recognition for his fabulous 2011-12 turnaround. Because beyond Lin, the list of those in-between vets that usually take this award is pretty slim. Danilo Gallinari or Al Harrington, maybe? Joakim Noah, now healthy? Marcin Gortat, finally given minutes and Steve Nash's passes in his hands 20 times a game?
Lin and Durant are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum, here. Lin is an ostensible rookie playing in his second season after barely getting off the bench in Golden State last year, working in the NBA's largest media market. Durant is a small-market player who has still been on national TV more times in his fifth NBA season than even the New York-based Lin will probably be by his fifth, an absolute star of stars. And while I'd give the edge to Lin, here, they're still getting to the top of this list in two completely different ways. That fascinates me.
And what's even better? Both Lin and Durant are so good, and this award is so strange, that we could be having this same discussion about these same two players winning this same award as they vie to be the most improved all over again (perhaps as a karmic balance for what we'll have to endure with Dwight Howard) in 2012-13. It's possible, cats and kittens.
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