Back on January First, I tucked away a list of Most Improved Player candidates from some source or other – I guess it was this Fanhouse article, judging by the order I took the names down in? – intending to write a fanpost that ranked them. That never happened, but noticing the old draft just now, I wondered if revisiting that list would teach us anything. Are there any dark horses – players whose recent performance has boosted them into MIP consideration?
Names from my original list, with brief notes:
Gordon's taken a big step. His usage is high, he's improved his shooting in general and gotten to the line a lot more, he's gotten more assists (with Blake, one assumes), and so on. With the Clippers hot, one might think he'd see some MIP consideration. The presence of Blake on the roster, though, might undercut Gordon's chances.
Eric Gordon's performance this January has been great in 10 games. He had an almost equally excellent November, but in the new year his percentages are even better.
Certainly there's been no recent falloff.
We know the outlines of Love's previous career and season in general, and I don't want to try writing the definitive thumbnail version here. (Is it passable to suggest, though, that Love's MIP chances might be compromised at least a little by the idea that he's playing more now after being put on the bench last season for questionable reasons? There's at least a suggestion of that in the media generally, I think.)
In January Love has played almost 40 minutes a game in the Wolves' 10 contests. His performance is basically in line with what's happened the rest of the year, only his overall shooting percentage is up above .500 lately and his 3P% has fallen from his shocking December .509 pace. (Over 50% from three, from the league's leading rebounder.)
The Wolves are steadily losing, but Love's numbers at least haven't fallen off.
Rose's assist percentages have gone up, basically by half, this season. In the terms most fans would think about, going from 6 assists a night to 8 is a significant development, and that holds up (and then some) in the percentage numbers. He's another case of a player growing into a huge Usage rate; at 31.7%, he's just below that Kobe, Dwyane Wade level.
January's been a bit more about scoring and a bit less about assists for Rose. His shooting percentage isn't all that dazzling, but hasn't been before either. He seems to be ball hawking defensively lately, with more blocks in 2011.
I guess my impression is that he's a second-tier MIP candidate, at least partly because he's perceived to have already arrived as a star before. The main argument for him so far would be the increased rate of assists. His candidacy might ultimately be more of a question of the Bulls' record.
Westbrook looks even better than Rose, and may suffer from the same "He had already mostly arrived" ding among voters. His own numbers are up, especially as a scorer... It might take an All Star appearance or something to get him over the hump in the MIP race.
In January, Westbrook has so far been par for his excellent year.
Ray Felton doesn't suffer from the "Was he already there?" effect faced by Rose or Westbrook. The perception's that he's turned a corner after suffering under Larry Brown, and his numbers are somewhat better. There's a healthy dose of usage and pace to that perception, though. His basic shooting stats aren't much different from last year's; he's taking 2.5 more shots a game, though, which makes the per-whatever numbers bigger.
January saw a bit of a falloff in Felton's scoring – from a bit above 18 in November and December together down to 16.1 a night. His shooting percentage was well below .400. His assists are still coming in the offense, but probably his MIP chances have dimmed a bit.
Is the fact that Millsap is finally starting consistently enough to nudge him into contention, here? He's been just fine this year, but if you hold his numbers up to those from two years back, I'm not sure there's enough "improved" to fill in the middle initial for our award. His shot is almost identical to two years ago, for example, by the numbers. The improvements, too, are in areas like avoiding turnovers, which won't catch the eye as much as the fact that he's not rebounding quite as well. I suspect he'd either have to step up one more level, or be seen as integral to a huge Utah emergence in the second half, in order to win.
Millsap's scoring rate has decreased with each month this year; in January it was at 15.8. Probably he's slipping on this list.
Basically the improvement we're looking at in Holiday, here, is one from "Rookie who's promising but playing like a somewhat less-than-average starter" to "decent starting guard." None of the numbers are dramatically better than last year's, come to that; outside of shooting they've generally improved, but they're not arresting. To win an MIP he'd probably need to have some striking performances, and to see Philly's record improve enough for people to wonder why.
January looks just about like the rest of the year for Holiday.
Hibbert was my early horse in this race. His physical transformation over last summer was dramatic, and he kicked off the early season well to go with his new, leaner self.
Since then he's fallen off pretty hard. January wasn't kind; Hibbert scored less than 10 a night, only starting 7 of the 8 games he played in.
You have to give the guy credit for effort. Leaving no stone unturned, the guy's visiting a sports psychologist. Somebody inform Darko.
Dorell Wright, GSW
Dorell's a first-time true starter in his 7th year. Basically he's a scorer who's being asked to do a bit more of that job; while he was on my (lost) source's list, though, I don't see him as a serious MIP candidate. His calling card is the three, and he's doing well from downtown, but in order to be an MIP in that role you'd have to put up a Peja-like emergence.
January was fine for Wright; he's been out there a lot, and has produced steadily.
"Also noted" names in the article I was cribbing from included Wesley Matthews of Portland; D.J. Augustin in Charlotte; JaVale McGee from the Wiz; Shannon Brown, Lakers; and Daniel Gibson, G, Cleveland.
At this point it would shock me for any of those players to grab the MIP reins. Is it likely that any fan would describe the NBA this year as "The year JaVale McGee stepped up"? Not so far, anyway. And if he did, I suspect people would give John Wall an awful lot of credit for it, deservedly or no.
Other names that occur to me include a couple of Blazers:
Lamarcus Aldridge: Usage is way up with Roy out, and he's basically been able to shoulder that additional load without having his efficiency fall apart. Honestly, though, if you look at LMA's stats two years ago, they're not at all far off his 2010-11 pace, and yes that seems to include the data on where he's taking his shots. On the other hand, January has been a real joy ride for Aldridge, and he has to be getting some buzz now, doesn't he? Plus, the Blazers' record is above .500 without Roy, and that can get people asking why.
Nicolas Batum: His name's on some people's lists, out there in internetland. Honestly it sure looks to me like he hasn't produced as well as he did last year, though he's played more. I do love the player, but he's not an MIP for me yet, and he's probably not getting enough offensive burn to be on voters' radar. January was at least a solid enough month for Nic, however.
Who else should be on our list? It's not hard to find suggestions out there, and every team's fan base wants to suggest a local product. (Richard Jefferson, Most Improved Player? More like a "comeback" player, and there's no award for that one.)
In general, too, I guess I'm not seeing a huge amount of movement on our list. January's a third of the season so far, but players who've fallen off in this race don't seem to have been replaced by fresh faces. Is that true? Or am I slumming, tuning out because of the Wolves being in the doldrums?
Adds from the Comments
Kris Humphries, NJN. "Given burn, a longtime bench guy busts his hump." There's a narrative line for this vote, and he's definitely a surprise that can catch attention.
Stephen Curry, GSW. Here's a case where minutes have fallen off a bit, which means his improvements against time and in terms of efficiency are disguised some I think. Might be that doing a lot of stuff a bit better isn't going to be enough to hang a vote on, though, don't you think?