The Race For Most Improved
An e-mail landed in my inbox yesterday from the Houston Rockets.
In it, the Rockets officially made their case for Aaron Brooks as this season’s Most Improved Player. And Brooks, the jitterbug third-year point guard out of Oregon, seemingly is the front-runner for the hardware. Somewhere close behind him is Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. At least on my ballot.
But that could change in the final month of the season.
Westbrook hasn’t garnered much attention nationally for being one of the most improved players, primarily because he hasn’t accumulated a drastic increase in his statistics. Brooks, on the other hand elevated his production from 11.2 points per game to a 20.1-point average. That type of shift in scoring is generally the sexy statistical measure that voters use to select winners.
Indiana’s Danny Granger won last year’s award after going from 19.6 points per game to 25.8. Hedo Turkoglu won in 2008 after increasing his scoring from 13.3 points to 19.5 points per game. 2007 winner Monta Ellis went from 6.8 points as rookie to 16.5 as a sophomore. And Boris Diaw, in 2006, went from 4.8 points to 13.3.
Westbrook simply doesn’t have those same credentials. In his second season, Westbrook is averaging 16.8 points, just 1.5 more than he did last year. But anyone who saw Westbrook last year and has paid attention this year could certainly join me in making a case for him. He’s improved his all-around game, becoming a better ball-handler, mid-range shooter and, most importantly, a lead guard and leader.
I went on record last year by writing that Kevin Durant deserved the award over Devin Harris (although Granger eventually pulled the upset) because Harris’ increased production largely was a product of greater opportunity. Many felt that Durant, the Rookie of the Year in 2008, had no right to be considered an MIP candidate in his second season. He was “supposed” to make a natural jump, many said. He was the second overall pick, others reasoned. And yet some consider Durant the MIP this season. And while Durant’s development in Year Three has certainly been phenomenal, Westbrook improvement is as much, if not more, of the backbone to the Thunder’s turnaround.
Westbrook, playing with even more weapons with the addition of James Harden, has increased his scoring (+1.5), assists (+2.7), rebounds (+0.2) and field-goal percentage (from 39.8 percent to 42.3 percent). He’s also increased his steals and blocked shots while lowering his turnovers. Brooks, who leads all players in one-year scoring differential at plus-8.7, is benefiting mostly from the absence of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
It’s possible Westbrook could pull the upset over Brooks like Granger did over Harris last season. If he does it’ll prove that the “experts” really are paying attention and not just casting their votes for players whose stats look best in a PDF file.
Here’s a look at the leading candidates for Most Improved Player.
Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets
PPG: 11.2 PPG: 20.1
RPG: 2.0 RPG: 2.6
APG: 3.0 APG: 5.2
FG%: 40.4 FG%: 44.0
MPG: 25.0 MPG: 36.0
What he’s done: Brooks is clearly a better player than he was last season, and has been a key cog in Houston’s ability to hang on despite losing its two stars, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But it’s their absences that have created an opportunity for Brooks to have the ball in his hands throughout the game and become the main offensive weapon on a team void of any other major scoring threat (prior to the arrival of Kevin Martin). It is commendable that Brooks has been so effective despite now being the center of the defense’s game plan. But among the 18 players averaging at least 20 points, Brooks has the second worst efficiency behind Stephen Jackson, taking 16.4 shots to attain his 20.1 points.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
PPG: 15.3 PPG: 16.8
RPG: 4.9 RPG: 5.1
APG: 5.3 APG: 8.0
FG%: 39.8 FG%: 42.3
MPG: 32.5 MPG: 35.1
What he’s done: Emerged as one of the elite lead guards in the game, not just an athletic combo guard with questions about his ability to captain the ship. Westbrook has become more efficient and less erratic in his second season, increasing his scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks while lowering his turnovers. And he’s done it while sharing the spotlight with Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and James Harden.
Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets
PPG: 13.0 PPG: 18.7
RPG: 8.1 RPG: 8.8
APG: 1.0 APG: 2.2
FG%: 53.1 FG%: 50.3
MPG: 30.5 MPG: 36.9
What he’s done: Averaged 5.7 more points in his second season in addition to increasing his rebounds, assists and steals while maintaining his 1.8 blocks from his rookie year. But he’s less efficient (nitpicking) as a scorer than he was a year ago (down to 50.3 from 53.1) and is turning the ball over more (up to 2.53 from 1.79). The biggest knock on Lopez, though, is the same as every other member of the Nets — they’ve only got seven wins.
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